Birds brought into the country by pioneers, especially the magpie, are threatened with extermination on the flimsiest of evidence that they threaten native fauna, writes NARENA OLLIVER.

With the campaign by regional councils against the Australian magpie now being extended to rooks and even peafowl, it is time someone came to the defence of our introduced birds.

It has long been said that the early settlers introduced birds into New Zealand for purely sentimental reasons. Sentimentality was indeed a factor with such birds as the skylark but the main reason for their introduction was far more practical.

With the wholesale destruction of the bush to make farmland, the ecology became so disrupted that the countryside was overwhelmed by plagues of insects. To use the words in an old agricultural bulletin, they "crawled over the land in vast hordes.


"They came not in regiments and battalions but in mighty armies, devouring crops as they passed along and leaving fields as bare as if seed had not been sown."

One of the few weapons to farmers was to drive flocks of sheep over the armies of caterpillars.

The report goes on to say: "In places large ditches were dug to stop the creatures' progress. Some of the native birds performed good service by eating the insects. Prominent among these were gulls, terns, kingfishers, oystercatchers, native larks, white-eyes, fantails, bellbirds and grey warblers.

"The native birds, however, would not dwell with men, and when the bush was destroyed in the vicinity of settlement they retreated further back, and only visited the insect-laden fields occasionally."

For this reason that the settlers turned their attention to importing insect-eating birds.

The issue was considered carefully. The introduced birds would have to possess three qualifications: they would have to be able to eat insects and seeds, otherwise they would not survive the winters; they would have to be non-migratory, otherwise the time and money spent on their acclimatisation would be wasted; and they would have to be prolific breeders so that they would multiply and soon overcome insect pests.

Even after the advent of chemicals to control insect pests, the value of introduced birds was still recognised by farmers, especially with the banning of dangerous chemicals such as DDT. For some time many farmers placed nesting boxes out for birds to encourage them.

But once more the tide has turned against the birds and farmers and horticulturalists are lobbying to get rid of them. They are looking to regional councils to help them.


Yet beyond the value of the introduced birds for pest control is the degree to which they have become part of our lives, our consciousness.

Few New Zealanders have seen or even heard a kiwi. They are simply not familiar with endemic bush birds that are thin on the ground and, with a few exceptions, stick to the bush. The tui is really the only endemic bird that is well known and recognised, simply because it is one of the few to frequent our gardens.

For New Zealanders brought up in the countryside, it is not only the morepork that is part of one's consciousness but also the Australian magpie. Certainly to me, brought up in the Wairarapa, it was the cheerful magpies and the dark brooding macrocarpa trees in which they nested that defined the landscape.

"One for sorrow, two for joy" was the ditty we sang as we counted the birds, and it was the test for every country child to capture a magpie and keep it as a pet. These birds were so much part of the farming scene they became immortalised in Denis Glover's famous poem The Magpies.

And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle,

hp+1The magpies said.

The magpie, brought to New Zealand to control pasture pests, was protected until 1951. Now it stands accused, on the flimsiest of evidence, of persecuting our native birds, of destroying their nests and killing the young.

Along with other birds that are typical of open farmland - the white-faced heron, the Australasian harrier hawk, the skylark, the kingfisher, the spur-winged plover, the thrush and the blackbird, the starling and the mynah - the magpie occupies an ecological niche that the destruction of forest and the spread of farmland has made available to it.

There is no point in killing magpies unless one is prepared to change the habitat and ensure there is a food supply sufficient to sustain native or indigenous birds throughout the year. Only with a restoration project may one justify killing these birds.

The magpie is condemned for its aggressiveness but even the welcome swallow will dive at anything that approaches its nest.

However, it is the harrier hawk, not the magpie, which makes a habit of robbing nests and does not distinguish between endemic and introduced birds, as the people working on the kokako recovery project know well.

Regional councils have started a research project to prove, after declaring them pests, that magpies are a threat to endemic birds. But I gather the experiment does not encompass magpies in the bush, where most endemic birds reside. The chaffinch is the only introduced bird that has really penetrated the bush and that bird is certainly no threat to our endemic birds.

In 1971 rooks were declared an agricultural pest in Hawkes Bay and something like 35,000 were shot, probably about half the population.

Once again the cry has gone out to kill them when they do no real harm to anyone and certainly do no harm to our native birds. But it is the persecution of peafowl in the eastern Bay of Plenty that borders on the ridiculous.

These birds, along with feral turkeys, had been attracting hunters from overseas. But in spite of this the local regional council was persuaded to try to exterminate them. It seems their raucous cries throughout the night annoyed some rural folk, so they were accused of pecking open silage covers. The joke is that the birds are so admired that many escaped the slaughter and found homes elsewhere.

Regional councils' large resources would be better spent on the real threats to our native fauna - on rats, particularly the arboreal rat, mustelids, dogs and cats.

Magpies are just an easy target with their well-known propensity to come to the aid of an injured mate.

* Narena Olliver was a member of the East Coast Conservation Board for six years.