Four out of five New Zealand native birds in trouble

The Antipodean Albatross is one of the seabird species vulnerable to longline fishing.

Mary Ralston, Forest and Bird

We hear a lot about the trouble many of New Zealand’s birds face. Most people know that the kiwi – our national bird – is rare. Most kiwi chicks face almost certain death from stoats if they aren’t in an area that has significant pest control.

The cheeky kea, New Zealand’s alpine parrot, is rarer than the kiwi. It nests in hollows in the ground so is very susceptible to attack by predators. On the ocean, away from introduced rats, stoats and cats, the story is different but not any better – many penguin species are in decline and more than 15,000 seabirds every year are killed in commercial fishing nets and longlines.

Of our 168 native birds, four out of five are in trouble. One-third sit on the brink of extinction. The main problems are predators, habitat loss and fishing techniques. Our native bird decline has reached a crisis, and many government departments aren’t helping.

There’s no doubt our native birds, especially the 93 endemic species (ones that only live in New Zealand) have features that make them especially vulnerable. Being flightless, laying eggs on the ground, having a single egg (unlike sparrows that can have multiple eggs and clutches) and no built-in fear of predators puts them on the back foot when faced with a hungry cat.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, wrote a report recently on the dire predicament facing our birds. She commended the government on its Predator Free 2050 initiative, but stressed that we need a plan – and funding – to realise this vision.

“We need sustained control of predators over more large areas, so that bigger populations of birds can thrive. Small isolated bird populations can become inbred,” Wright said.

Black-billed gulls are one of our special local birds that nest on the Ashburton River.

A major underlying environmental issue is that many government departments aren’t funded or directed to protect the environment. The Predator Free 2050 goal doesn’t seem to be a priority for the government: the Department of Conservation is woefully underfunded for wide-scale and sustained pest control and other departments that should be managing significant areas of habitat for native birds – such as LINZ (Land Information New Zealand) – are not doing it.

LINZ is meant to manage the riverbeds that are home to many of our rare birds – black-billed gulls, stilts, wrybills, dotterels, terns – but they are very much missing when it comes to controlling the weeds that choke the riverbeds and provide cover for predators.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is in the conflicting situation of both promoting and policing the commercial fishing fleet. It could do a lot more to stop the by-catch of birds. The Ministry of Business and Innovation (MBIE) is promoting mining in areas of extremely high conservation value, such as the Buller Plateau on the West Coast.

The government needs to prioritise conservation, not set it up to fail. We need a whole-of-government approach to this crisis, not a token or piecemeal effort.

To get to a Predator Free New Zealand by 2050, and save our precious native wildlife, we have to give it our best shot.