The New Zealand falcon is one of our rarest native birds, but it’s still socially-acceptable, at least in some circles, to shoot them. How can this be?
Native falcons, or kārearea, are found throughout the country, but in low numbers; there are just a few thousand left, about the same population size as kea, rarer than brown kiwi. Falcons were much more common before extensive forest clearance, but they are adaptable birds and can survive in farmland and pine plantations. What they can’t survive is human persecution. Despite being a protected native species under the Wildlife Act, molestation of which will get you a hefty fine, they are routinely and illegally shot by farmers and pigeon-fanciers for killing domestic birds. One estimate is that 200 falcons are shot each year. Imagine if people were shooting 200 kiwi a year – there’d be a huge uproar.
The NZ falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae) should be familiar to every New Zealander; it’s on the $20 note. But few people have ever seen one in the wild. The bird of prey everyone knows is the harrier hawk (Circus approximans) which arrived just a few hundred years ago from Australia. Before then New Zealand had a giant eagle, a giant hawk and a falcon, of which only the falcon has survived, just.
Harrier hawks are very familiar because they eat roadkill and like open farmland so we spot them everywhere as we drive. They’re often seen soaring high, scanning the ground for prey. Falcons, on the other hand, are incredibly fast fliers and hunt on the wing, snatching birds out of the air. Their wings are narrow and pointed, which makes them poor gliders but as manoeuvrable as a fighter jet. Most sightings of a falcon are of a bird flashing past, giving its distinctive “kek-kek-kek” cry.
Because falcons are bird-hunters they sometimes come into conflict with humans. One recent case in New Plymouth is typical. A flock of 20 white fantail pigeons was picked off, one by one, over three years. One pigeon can keep a falcon fed for a week so when they find a ready supply they’ll settle down for a while. A friend of mine, from out past Fordell, has had the same problem. First his pigeons disappeared, then half his flock of chickens. He surprised the culprit in the act, a juvenile falcon that was probably wandering in search of a territory of its own. In both these cases nobody reached for a rifle, but falcons are not always so lucky. Perhaps in the case of real troublemakers, we could do what’s done with kea, and trap and translocate the bird to a remote area where it wouldn’t cause a problem.
Falcons living amongst humans can, however, have a positive effect. Sara Kross, a researcher at the University of Canterbury, studied the effect of falcons nesting in Marlborough vineyards. Bird damage to grapes is a multi-million-dollar problem for growers, and they employ bird-scarers full-time to drive round and round on quad bikes, trying to frighten off flocks of starlings and silvereyes. Sara found that a falcon in the vineyard terrified pest birds, in some cases reducing damage by 90% and saving growers hundreds of dollars per hectare.
Wingspan Bird of Prey Centre near Rotorua is a rehabilitation facility and education centre for native birds of prey, and they were recently involved in a project with the Rotorua Museum, where young falcons were introduced to the downtown Government Gardens via a shelter or “hack box” on the Museum’s roof. There was a ready pool of volunteer falcon watchers to keep an eye on them and help them adjust to adulthood and learning to hunt for themselves. The project seems to have been a success, and has paved the way for more introductions of this rare species to urban centres.
Could a similar exercise work in Whanganui? Are we ready for urban falcons? Queens Park would be an ideal environment for them, and they would certainly take care of the feral pigeons that hang out on the roof of the Sarjeant Gallery and the starlings and mynas that roost in the trees by the Library. Perhaps this trend will catch on, and every town in New Zealand will have its own native falcons, a natural form of avian pest control. But the crew of the Waimarie might need to watch out for their carrier pigeons.
Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.