Natural History

The Mysterious Adzebill

New Zealand was once home to many flightless birds. Some, like the moa, are well-known, but others, like our flightless ducks, geese, and owlet-nightjar, are familiar mostly to palaeontologists. One bird that deserves to be better known is the mysterious adzebill.

1. Adzebill Martinson

A North Island adzebill (Aptornis otidiformis) eyes up a tuatara in a 2005 painting by Paul Martinson.
Photo: Te Papa / CC-BY-NC-ND

There were two species of adzebills, Aptornis otidiformis in the North Island and Aptornis defossor in the South. Both were huge. When their bones were first discovered, they were mistaken for a small moa. Fully-grown birds would have weighed perhaps 20 kg, larger than a swan or pelican.

Adzebills had massive heads with heavy down-curved beaks. The beaks tapered to a point, and Dr Richard Holdaway, who coined the name “adzebill”, once confessed to me that “pick-bill” would have been more accurate. The robust vertebrae in their neck would have anchored strong muscles and allowed them to deliver a powerful blow.

These birds also had massive feet, with strong tendons, that would have made them good at digging. For some time biologists debated what they ate. Did they dig up roots, pluck leaves or break apart rotten logs? Their beak wasn’t hooked like a bird of prey.

A technique called stable isotope analysis which lets us analyse animals from the composition of bone – you are what you eat – revealed that adzebills were carnivores. We can imagine them tearing open trees for huhu grubs, plucking lizards or baby birds off the forest floor, digging up giant earthworms, and excavating tuatara, or even nesting seabirds, out of their burrows.

A second mystery was what adzebills were, exactly. They didn’t resemble rails like the weka or takahē, and for some time were put in their very own family. Some ornithologists thought their closest relative was the flightless kagu of New Caledonia. Others thought it belonged with chicken-like South American birds called trumpeters. The debate continued fruitlessly for decades.

Alex Boast is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, working on ancient DNA. Improved techniques now allow us to recover and examine fragments of DNA from bones and eggshell of extinct birds, not enough for Jurassic Park cloning, but enough to construct a family tree and determine their nearest relatives. Alex analysed adzebill DNA and compared them to numerous other birds, and the results suggest that adzebills are not kagus, or trumpeters. They are flufftails.

2. Flufftail Keugelmans

The white-spotted flufftail (Sarothrura pulchra), painted by John Keulemans in 1894. This delicate little bird seems to be the adzebill’s closest living relative.
Ref: Wikimedia Commons

Flufftails (nine species in the genus Sarothrura) are secretive ground-dwelling birds about the size of a starling, rusty brown and spotted. They do indeed have fluffy tails. What’s unusual is that flufftails are all found in Africa, and on the island of Madagascar, nowhere near New Zealand.

Africa and New Zealand were once connected as part of the supercontinent Gondwana of course, and fossils tell us that adzebills have been here for millions of years, plenty of time for their ancestors to get here and evolve into a giant flightless predator. Intriguingly, the kiwi seems to have done the same thing. Its closest relative is another African species, the elephant bird of Madagascar. The difference is, while one flightless bird survived the arrival of human beings and became the symbol of New Zealand, the other was wiped out. The not-so-mysterious adzebill is now mostly forgotten.

 

Dr Mike Dickison is curator of natural history at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Moths and the night

Spring is here, and the moths are emerging. Overwintering as a pupa, they emerge when the temperatures rise, to mate and lay eggs so their caterpillars can spend summer and autumn feeding and growing. A month ago, a light trap at Gordon Park would attract just one or two moths, but now, after an hour, the white sheet is covered with moths large and small, wasps that parasitise moths, flies, beetles and other nocturnal life. New Zealand has over 1,700 species of native moths, many barely known or still undescribed, and Robert Hoare at Landcare Research is the only full-time researcher working on them – his plate is pretty full.

2. light trap

Light Trap: Using LEDs in the blue and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum shining on a white sheet attracts nocturnal insects, which confuse it with the moon—the only bright light they’ve evolved to deal with. Photo: WRM.

While waiting at a light trap, being savaged by mosquitoes, you’ll occasionally hear a loud rustling and flapping as a huge pūriri moth (Aenetus virescens) or pepetuna, blunders into the sheet. Adult pūriri moths have beautiful mottled green wings, but they have no mouthparts and don’t feed, living on stored fat for the few days it takes them to find a mate and reproduce. In contrast to their brief adulthood their caterpillars, called mokoroa, live for years in holes bored into tree trunks; wētā will often move into the vacated tunnels. Once very common in North Island, pūriri moths are now only seen around native bush. In times past, swarms would emerge and fly into houses, extinguishing lamps and candles.

1. puriri

Pūriri moths emerge on damp nights in September and October to mate, lay thousands of eggs and die. Photo: WRM.

The decline in moth numbers is something that’s been noticeable, even in my lifetime. When I was a child, long drives at night left the windshield plastered with insects, but hardly ever so today. True, cars are more aerodynamic now, but the decline is certainly real, at least in Europe where it’s been carefully measured. Scientists, managing annual light trapping in Germany since 1989, have measured real declines in the numbers of nocturnal insects, down on an average of 45%, or 80% in some areas. There’s been no funding for this sort of long-term monitoring in New Zealand, so we have to rely on anecdotes about windscreens.

3. forest looper

Also known as the conifer flash (Pseudocoremia leucelaea), this moth is common in native bush in spring. Its caterpillars feed on tōtara and miro leaves.  Photo: WRM.

This insect decline has multiple causes: deforestation of course, the switch to intensive agriculture reducing the diversity of habitats in our farmland and the widespread use of pesticides. Systemic pesticides like neonicotinoids are restricted in Europe but widely used in New Zealand, and most discussion of their impact is around their effects on honeybees, not our thousands of native species.

4. cranefly

There are over 600 species of craneflies in New Zealand. Sometimes mistaken for a gigantic mosquito, they are harmless.  Photo: WRM.

Even artificial lighting might be a problem. Everywhere, including Whanganui, old high-pressure sodium street lighting is being replaced with modern LEDs, which are brighter and far more energy efficient, saving councils millions of dollars annually in electricity costs. The problem is that sodium lights were orange, whereas LEDs shine in the blue end of the spectrum, like those in my fancy new German light trap. Blue lights are far more visible and confusing to insects. In the name of energy efficiency, we’re busily lining our streets with thousands of high-powered insect traps, without much thought about the effects on nocturnal pollinators like moths.

Human beings have transformed the night, replacing the moon and stars with so much artificial light that we’ve forgotten what darkness is. When I lead night walks at Bushy Park we stop and do a simple exercise of turning off all our torches. Some of the children in the group are then in complete darkness for the first time in their lives. For many of the creatures of the bush, the night is their habitat, the place they can’t be seen by predators. They evolved in a world that had darkness, and in just a few hundred years we’ve driven that away.

 

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Giraffe Weevils

In January this year the Museum helped run a night-spotting Whanganui Summer Programme field trip to Bushy Park. The participants were lucky enough to see, up-close, two long skinny insects that had been found by DOC’s Scotty Moore under a rotten log. They were giraffe weevils, New Zealand’s longest beetle.

1

A male giraffe weevil (Lasiorhynchus barbicornis) found by Scotty Moore at Bushy Park
Photo: Whanganui Regional Museum

The giraffe weevil’s Latin name, Lasiorhynchus barbicornis, means “hairy-nose with a bearded horn”. Its Māori name is pepeke nguturoa, or long-beaked beetle. (By the way, nguturoa is another Māori name for kiwi). They’re also called tūwhaipapa, after the god of newly-made waka, because their nose resembles a canoe prow. All these names refer to the male, who has a snout as long as the rest of his body with a fringe of hairs underneath.

Male and female giraffe weevils look very different, and were named as two different species when the specimens collected by Sir Joseph Banks on Captain James Cook’s first voyage were studied back in Europe. Female giraffe weevils are tiny compared to males, and have a shorter snout which they use to drill an egg-laying hole into dead trees. Their eggs hatch into grubs which eat fungus inside rotting wood for two years, finally pupating and digging their way out of the tree as adult weevils in summer. Peak emergence time is February, so right now is your best opportunity to see adult giraffe weevils in the wild, as they only live for a few weeks before mating and dying.

2

 Male giraffe weevil guarding a small female, who is busy digging a hole for her egg
Photo: Christina Painting / CC-BY-SA

An adult male giraffe weevil’s primary concern is finding a female, and they use their enormously long noses to fight other males by biting and wrestling, trying to dislodge their opponents from the tree trunk. When they find a mate they literally stand over her while she lays an egg, driving off all challengers. Some much smaller males employ a different reproductive strategy: while the big macho males are distracted by fighting and posturing, these little males will sneak in and mate with the female under their rival’s enormous nose. Research by biologist Chrissie Painting at Auckland University revealed that both these tactics were roughly equally successful at fathering offspring, which is why we see such a range of body sizes in male giraffe weevils. It’s like a field experiment in evolution: if one strategy were more successful, natural selection would favour it, and eventually male giraffe weevils would have all evolved a similar body size.

Chrissie was able to find several dying karaka trees in Matuku Reserve near Auckland where she could watch males battle and sneak, and observe their life cycle. She used tiny dots of coloured nail polish to mark the different males so she could tell them apart, and filmed them tossing each other off trees. Giraffe weevils are a useful study animal for observing evolution in action, because they’re active in the daytime (unlike many beetles) and easy to observe. After having to work long nights studying native harvestmen, she describes the weevils as “little angels”.

3

Female giraffe weevil, showing her much smaller snout, with antennae halfway along it, allowing her to chew nest holes; male antennae are near the tip of the snout
Photo: Christina Painting / CC-BY-SA

If you want to see real-life giraffe weevils for yourself, you could venture into lowland native bush between October and March, look on the trunks of rotten trees, and, if you’re lucky, see two long-nosed insects jousting.

 

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Seashore Critters

The beach may be a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Windy, hot, dry, barren and occasionally flooded by seawater, it’s a hostile environment for small animals. And yet there are some species that manage to make the beach their home. I spent a day at Mōwhanau recently with children from Brunswick School, turning over driftwood and logs and looking for interesting critters.

1. hopper

A common beach sandhopper (Bellorchestia quoyana), when examined closely, reveals its crustacean nature.

Photo: Crispychipp / Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA

Sandhoppers are the most abundant denizen of the beach. Under every piece of driftwood or seaweed is a multitude, which spring away or scurry down burrows when disturbed. These little creatures, properly known as amphipods, are actually crustaceans, not insects. They are cousins to crabs, crayfish and even the slaters in your garden. Like all crustaceans, they breathe through gills which they have to keep moist. Most of the roughly 10,000 species live in the sea, but amphipods can be found in any damp environment. Some Southern Hemisphere hoppers even live far from the coast in forest leaf litter.

2. log

A log, like this one found on Mōwhanau Beach, is like a tiny oasis, providing shelter and food for a whole community of invertebrates
Photo: Whanganui Regional Museum

 

On the beach amphipods burrow down to damp sand during the day and come out at night to feed on anything the tide has washed up. Close up, they resemble tiny humpbacked shrimps, ranging in colour from dark grey to pinkish-orange, and have powerful hind legs for jumping. Sandhoppers are an important part of the beach ecosystem, not just as food for larger animals, but as scavengers that break down seaweed and carry those nutrients as deep as 30 cm into the sand.

Another creature found under beach logs is the native seashore earwig (Anisolabis littorea). These are flightless, and much larger than the introduced European earwigs in your garden. Their Māori name, matā, is also the word for obsidian – black volcanic glass – because they’re similarly shiny and black.

Seashore earwigs are omnivores, feeding on seaweed or catching amphipods with their nippers. Unlike most insects, they take good care of their young; after mating, the female drives off the male and guards her clutch of eggs and helpless babies. Once the baby earwigs get large enough to fend for themselves, all bets are off. They can flee the nest, eat each other, or eat their mum (and she’ll happily snack on them if they try). Female matā have long straight nippers while males have curved asymmetrical ones.

3. earwig

The native seashore earwig or matā (Anisolabis littorea) is a beautiful glossy black creature found under beach debris all around Aotearoa
Photo: Lisa Bennett / NatureWatchNZ CC-BY-NC, with permission

Although they look fearsome, curving their pincers over their back like a scorpion, I’ve handled earwigs for years and never been nipped. The kids from Brunswick School were initially cautious, but when I showed them how you can gently let a big coastal earwig crawl from hand to hand, they all wanted to try.

The “ooh yuck!” response when presented with a creepy-crawly is not innate in children, but learned from their parents, peers and authority figures. There are native invertebrate species going extinct right now. Voters don’t care because bugs are “yucky”. Museums like Te Papa and Puke Ariki are putting on insect exhibitions to help fight this perception. If we adults are frightened of harmless little insects, it’s not the insect’s fault. We need to get over our irrational fears, model good behaviour for kids, and, on our next visit the beach, turn over some logs with them and see what we find.

 

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at Whanganui Regional Museum.

How many men does it take to move a sunfish?

No, it’s not a bad joke, but a real question we recently faced.

In preparation for the earthquake strengthening schedule to start early in the new year, we have been working at emptying the exhibition spaces and taking everything down off display, including the giant sunfish that has been hanging on the wall since the museum was built in 1928 (minus a few breaks here and there for conservation or rehanging).

The sunfish, or Mola mola, was caught in 1895 and purchased for the collection.  It took Museum founder Samuel Drew and three assistants three days to skin the 360cm-long fish, after which it was treated and mounted for later exhibition in the gallery space.

And now it has been temporarily removed and placed in storage while the museum building gets strengthened.  A big and rather delicate project.

So, how many men does it take to move a sunfish?  Take a look and see for yourself…

 

Extinct, stuffed and symbolic

Extinct, stuffed and symbolic

Dr Eric Dorfman’s professional credentials would be a separate – and very long – story. The books he’s written and studies he has made, in themselves, would make a fascinating Midweek article (note to self: write fascinating Midweek article about Dr Eric Dorfman’s books and published studies).

In this issue, however, we treat him as the recently appointed director of the Whanganui Regional Museum and hear about his interest in the long extinct Tasmanian Wolf, Thylacinus cynocephalus.

To do that I had to follow the tall, one-time Californian (but I think New Zealand has claimed him now) down into the bowels of the museum, shuffling between shelves until finding dozens of specimens of the taxidermists’ art. There we encountered our Tasmanian Wolf.

The museum has a stuffed specimen, collected by the museum’s founder, Samuel Drew, sometime around 1891, well before the species met its total demise. It looks its age, poor thing, but the astounding fact is that we have one.

Eric lived in Australia for some years and knows a bit about these creatures. So why did he choose it to present to Midweek?  “It’s immensely cool from the fact that we have an extinct Australian species of which there are only a few in the world and exemplifies the importance of the collection internationally, as well as nationally. It’s cool on a personal level because I’m a conservationist by profession and there is still an effort afoot to see if maybe there are some left in Tasmania … and evolutionarily it’s very cool because although it looks like a dog it’s actually more closely related to a kangaroo, koala or wombat.”

The Thylacine is a marsupial and has a pouch like a kangaroo … well, the female does. The museum’s specimen is an adult male. Eric says they are more closely related to the quoll, another Australian animal, which is “more like a marsupial weasel”.  “From an evolutionary standpoint, this is convergent evolution with a dog,” says Eric. “Also biologically that’s very interesting.  One of my research thrusts is about humans’ relationship with nature,” he says. Eric has a book coming out later this year – Intangible Natural Heritage – of which he is author/editor in league with a team of distinguished authors.

Looking at this sad, stuffed specimen, Eric sees past the obvious and finds a symbol of “our coming of age as a society when we realise that doing this [making animals extinct] is a really bad thing.” He stresses that while this new-found consciousness is too late for some species, it’s not too late for many others.

He praises the work of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) and its work here and overseas. “DOC is supporting other countries, including the United States, in methodology of setting up island sanctuaries … and it’s fantastic to be in New Zealand – even though this is an Australian species – from the point of view of this is a place where we have come of age in terms of the environment, and I hope we stay there. You can see why this launches into a lot of really interesting philosophical issues … and also thinking about where museums have been and where they’re going.”

It’s incredible, almost, to realise that Samuel Drew, Whanganui Regional Museum founder, actually helped, in his way, send species such as the huia extinct. He did that by trading stuffed huia (probably) to get an example of another species that, itself, would be extinct in another 50 years. At the time he traded for the Tasmanian Wolf, it was reasonably common but he needed it for his marsupial collection.

“No museum curator has ever intentionally sent a species extinct,” says Eric, “but back in the 19th century when species looked like they were going extinct, often, museum curators would run out to make sure they had them in their collection before anyone else got them … the huia was a victim of that kind of thing.”

The Thylacine was once a pan-Australian species, says Eric, with cave paintings to prove it was once even in the very north of Australia in Kakadu National Park. “By the time Drew was around it was restricted to Tasmania,” he says, although it was being hunted until its final (probable) extinction in the 1930s.

Eric says there is enough genetic material in existence so that, one day, techniques of cloning may be able to reintroduce the species. And so we looked at Samuel Drew’s legacy, part of his vision of a great museum that was all-encompassing.  “We now ‘get’ why he did it,” says Eric, “and we now have this incredible treasure. This is an amazing thing to have.”

There are lemurs from Madagascar and animals from all around the world, some exhibited upstairs, others hiding from the light below decks in the vaults. The Thylacine stands with them, an example of old ethics and philosophies and yet a symbol of what we are today. And if we do manage to clone them back into existence, will we look after them this time? The last word goes to Dr Eric Dorfman.

“If the Thylacine is never going to be reinvented and really is extinct, and the same with the huia, don’t we owe it to the species and owe it to ourselves to allow it to awaken us to the realities of what we’re doing to the planet?”

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek newspaper in June 2011.  Reproduced with permission from the author.

The Healing Power of Nature

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

By Dr Eric Dorfman, Director

People who live close to nature know first-hand the benefits of integrating a positive relationship with the natural world into their lives. In many cultures, however, people spend far less time in nature than even 25 or 50 years ago. In fact, many aspects of western culture actively discourage people from spending time there and pervasive urbanisation is beginning to change our fundamental relationship with nature.

A wood rose, Dactylanthus taylorii, named after Whanganui missionary Rev. Richard Taylor (2014.11.1)

A wood rose, Dactylanthus taylorii, named after Whanganui missionary Rev. Richard Taylor (2014.11.1)

Parents have become fearful about their children playing outdoors and children who grow up mainly in built environments often fear nature, largely because it is unfamiliar. In movies, newspapers, and in exaggerated personal stories, nature is often portrayed as the villain or evil and these stories contribute to a social outlook that is increasingly “biophobic” (afraid of nature). In a very short period of time, humanity has moved from the industrial revolution to a technical one in which people are able to live their entire lifetimes rarely having to encounter nature at all. Exceptions to this isolation often occur only in the midst of natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, earthquakes and tidal waves. Lack of contact leads to lack of understanding, which leads to fear.

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

Family group from Turakina Valley, enjoying the great outdoors, 1930s (2008.17.11)

And yet, research has shown that spending time in natural spaces strengthens neighbourhood ties, reduces crime, stimulates social interactions among children, strengthens family connections and decreases domestic violence, assists new immigrants cope with transition and is cost effective for health benefits. Despite a global reaction in coalitions such as “Leave No Child Inside” or “Children and Nature Network” that have formed in the US and “Natural England” in the UK, western society is increasingly losing the potential benefits of this lifestyle.

The ferns in display in this album were carefully laid out (1960.141)

The ferns in display in this album were carefully laid out (1960.141)

New Zealanders are, in many ways, exceptions to this trend. We have always celebrated activities such as canoeing, tramping, kayaking and mountaineering – all outside. For many of us here it is important that we encourage others to be outdoors, often teaching our kids outdoor travelling and life skills, all helpful in being more at home outdoors. Probably every one of us believes that being outdoors creates health and wellness benefit. It’s not surprising, then, that in Whanganui much of our most quintessentially local imagery is based outdoors and, of course, much of that associated with our magnificent river.

This 12 inch (30 cm) ruler was made locally from native timbers by Sovereign Woodware (2014.54.22)

This 12 inch (30 cm) ruler was made locally from native timbers by Sovereign Woodware (2014.54.22)

When going through the Museum’s collection of objects and imagery, that connection to nature is palpable. We can see furniture and implements made from local woods, herbarium specimens carefully pressed into exacting symmetry, photos of families enjoying picnics or working on the river to partake of its bounty. Many of our taxidermy specimens come from the bush and wetlands that, while substantially reduced, still exist here.

This large kauri wardrobe was retrieved from the summer residence in Castlecliff, Wanganui, of Alexander Hatrick, Mayor of Wanganui from 1897 to 1904. The wood is believed to have been sourced locally (2005.68.1)

This large kauri wardrobe was retrieved from the summer residence in Castlecliff, Wanganui, of Alexander Hatrick, Mayor of Wanganui from 1897 to 1904. The wood is believed to have been sourced locally (2005.68.1)

This opportunity to engage with our natural environment is also the reason many tourists come here, to watch the excitement of the Jet Sprints or to enjoy the solitude of paddling downriver on a canoe. All around us, the reminders of nature are everywhere in Whanganui, in front of our eyes.

Tragic tale of huia’s extinction

Tragic tale of huia's extinction

Wallis Barnicoat talks about the extinct native bird, the huia as she has a connection with a book and the man who wrote it.  “As small children we used to visit WJ Phillips (whom my father called Bill) and his wife Esther, with our parents. He was once the registrar and ethnologist at the old Dominion Museum and my father probably met him through family friends and due to their mutual love of New Zealand history, especially early settler/Maori history.”

WJ Phillips was the author of The Book of the Huia, a reference work Wallis used when preparing for this story. “Phillips’ work was published in 1963, and when he started researching it in 1953 he was able to interview elderly people who, when younger, had shot huia or seen them in the bush. Their anecdotes, which are peppered throughout the book, are all very fascinating.”

Wallis says the chapter that interests her most is that of the bird’s decline into extinction.  It’s a tragic tale and Phillips equates it to the destruction of the dodo in Madagascar: “Thoughtless and careless destruction brought about by the advance of a new people into a new land.”

Although the bird was finally considered extinct in 1907 (there were some unconfirmed sightings after that), Sir Walter Buller, a famous ornithologist, in 1870 was saying, “Erelong it [the huia] will exist only in our museums and other collections”.

The huia was sacred to Maori and the tail feather was considered particularly valuable. Unfortunately European fashion also considered the feathers essential as accessories and hat adornments, leading to a flourishing export trade until the bird was no more.  A tipping point was in 1902 when the visiting Duke of York was presented with a feather for his hat. Of course Europe and the UK had to copy.  Additional factors such as settlers clearing bush for farming as well as the introduction of predators such as weasels, ferrets and stoats, meant the huia was not long for this land.

Buller was dead right. The Whanganui Regional Museum has a small number of the birds, provenance unknown. Interestingly enough, even the specimens in our museum are lacking a few tail feathers. Perhaps the five quid bounty per tail feather was too appealing to the early collector.

Article originally appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in February 2010.  Reproduced with publishers’ permission.

Native falcons and people

4. head close-up

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?

12003036122805125_28d51e8651_bNative 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.

12003036196756171_1c1ae07293_oThe 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.

3. Soaring harrierHarrier 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.

5. eating on postFalcons 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.

1. WingspanWingspan 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.

Nesting falcons are very territorial, and will swoop down and attack anyone getting too close to their chicks. Researchers have to wear helmets or stout leather hats.

Nesting falcons are very territorial, and will swoop down and attack anyone getting too close to their chicks. Researchers have to wear helmets or stout leather hats.

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Mr Nixon’s tiger trophy

Mr Nixon's tiger trophy

Museum Visitor Experience Creator, Clare McNamara, chooses a tiger skin rug as her item to talk about.  So why would a professed animal lover and caregiver to two black female kittens – Tuff Titty and one whose name keeps changing (Wonder Woman/My Little Pony/Witch) but answers to anything really – choose a once majestic feline which ended its days as a floor covering?  “It’s the Year of the Tiger … and there are more tigers in captivity in the US than there are in the wild in the whole world,” says Clare.

The World Wildlife Fund also says that three sub-species of tiger have become extinct since 1940 and a fourth one, the South China tiger, hasn’t been seen in the wild in 25 years.  “We are moving to a stage where we might be living in a world without them,” says Clare.  And here we were, looking at a tiger skin on the floor of the museum.

Clare says it’s a female Bengal tiger, shot in 1930, and further research suggests it was dispatched by a chap called Arthur Challoner Nixon in India. Nixon, who was a member of the locally famous Sedgebrook Nixons, bagged another big cat during his long sojourn in the sub-continent. He also bagged a wife and married her in India before bringing her home to Wanganui.

Richard Bourne, chairman of the Wanganui Collegiate School Museum Trust, delved a little deeper and says that Arthur attended Wanganui Collegiate School from 1905-1908.  He was also a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers during the Great War and served both at sea and in Mesopotamia.  After the war he became manager of the Delhi Electric Supply and Traction Company, based in India. In 1926 he married Ella, daughter of W Plumley and they had two sons. Arthur Nixon was awarded the OBE in 1946.

That information does not tell us much more about the tiger skin but it does give it a human perspective. Times have certainly changed. Killing a tiger now is an occasion for shame; then, it was a masculine rite of passage for those who could afford the trip and the accoutrements. Big game hunters were heroes, of sorts, pitting themselves – and a high-powered rifle – against regal beasts in foreign lands.  Values were different in the closing stages of the British Empire and while we have been taught to abhor the senseless killing of endangered species we would be wrong to impose today’s standards on yesterday’s inhabitants. Besides, in 1930 when Mr Nixon shot his tiger, they were probably neither endangered nor desirable.

Here endeth the lesson.

The hide is in remarkably good condition, considering its age, and the head once received the best attention from a skilled taxidermist. The face is frozen in a permanent snarl and looks incredibly life-like. There is some minor damage to the edges of the ears but, otherwise, it seems to have weathered the past 80 years quite well. The museum received the skin in 1969, the year Arthur Nixon died.

So there we were, gazing on this splendid trophy skin, feeling a little sad that its life ended the way it did and yet admiring the beauty of the beast and the skill of those who were able to preserve it so well. Even the claws are still intact, fearsome utensils that they are.

Clare, who has obviously done some homework, says the markings on a tiger’s head are the same as the Chinese written character for king. That’s either coincidence or a pictograph which didn’t evolve further. One wonders.  I also learned that the tiger’s stripes create a skin-cooling mechanism as well as providing convenient camouflage.

The museum visitor experience creator did profess some admiration for the tiger skin rug and seemed to suggest her cats would one day look rather good, similarly tanned and presented.

Clare says Mr Nixon’s tiger will be on display, “sometime in the not too distant future.”

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in March 2010.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.