Warning: Distressing image
A falcon advocate is defending the species after a social media post warned of the birds wanting to “kill” perceived threats following an attack that left a woman bloodied and with stitches in her scalp.
Rotorua Trails Trust posted on social media on Monday night warning forest walkers and mountain bikers the Box of Birds track had been closed after a Falcon Watch team member, described as “well-versed in falcon safety protocols”, was attacked by a falcon and needed stitches.
The post said the falcons “mean business” and their razor-sharp talons could cause “severe bodily harm with just one strike”.
It continued: “They are not attempting to scare you off; they want to kill the perceived threat”. This line was later changed to: “So please avoid riding the Box of Birds Fluffy ducks line and leave Bellatrix the wonderful Falcon mum alone to do her job raising her young”.
The Trails Trust told the Rotorua Daily Post the volunteer wanted a photo of her injuries publicised to raise awareness. It said the falcon - a “native taonga” was protective of their young and could do some “serious damage”.
“We all need to remember that we are in their natural habitat, and we need to respect that.”
Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust founder Debbie Stewart told the Rotorua Daily Post falcons were very protective parents, but they were not trying to “kill” people. “They just want the space, and offer early warnings to leave the area.”
She was “concerned” the original post’s wording was, in her view, “quite dramatic”.
Wingspan – a birds of prey conservation, education and research organisation – was aware of the attack, and of a pair of breeding falcons in Whakarewarewa Forest.
Stewart said it had offered guidance for ‘‘alert’’ signage on this track last month. She hoped the injured team member recovered.
Stewart said all nesting kārearea defended their territory “fiercely” when they had eggs or chicks.
Defensive behaviour was different between individual birds but usually began with a loud, defensive “kek kek kek” within a few hundred metres of a nest.
As the threat got closer to the nest, falcons would become increasingly aggressive and initiate dive-bombing swoops, and would begin striking the threat within 50m of a nest, she said.
Courtship usually began around August with the peak breeding season from October to January.
She said the falcons used “incredible energy” defending the nests and it distracted the parents who could not leave to hunt or settle to incubate and rear their young.
This could contribute to nests failing. Only one in four of the endemic falcons make it to their first birthday, she said.
The public needed to keep a safe distance during nesting season..
Once the young birds have fledged and left the nest, “they are playful, and curious, and provide wildlife engagement without aggression”.
Rotorua Trails Trust chairman Grant Utteridge said it closed the track to protect the falcon and the public after a Falcon Watch volunteer was attacked and received serious injuries. The adjacent trail, As You Do, and the hard line of Box of Birds track were still open.
He said the volunteer specifically wanted a photo of her injuries publicised to make people aware of the local environment, to avoid the area and to follow instructions around the track.
He said the kārearea were a “significant” native taonga and the responsibility was on every New Zealander to protect them.
He said kārearea and mountain bikers could co-exist most other times of the year.
“Like any mother protecting her young, the kārearea will take appropriate measures, but they are not like a magpie, and they can do some serious damage. We all need to remember that we are in their natural habitat, and we need to respect that.
“We are asking people to stay away from the area during this time. We’ll continue to review the situation and will reopen the track if and when it is appropriate to do so.”
He said tracks were regularly temporarily closed for safety reasons, like forestry operations or weather events.
The trust asked on a social media postfor people to: “prioritise safety and steer clear of these areas until further notice.
“This is for your safety and the birds’.”
The injured woman declined to comment to the Rotorua Daily Post.
The New Zealand falcon, also known as the ‘kārearea’, was also referred to as a bush hawk, sparrow hawk or quail hawk.
According to the Department of Conservation, the New Zealand falcon can fly at speeds of up to 200km/h, and catch prey larger than itself, with a diet of mainly birds.
Endemic to New Zealand, the species is considered threatened, with a population of between 5000 and 8000 found around the country.
The department said falcons typically lay two to four eggs which take about 33 days to hatch.
The female guards close to the nest until the nestlings are close to fledging, which happens 31 to 45 days after hatching.
Forest-dwelling falcons often nested in emergent rimu and other large forest trees, and continued selective logging reduced available nesting habitat, DoC said.
Tussock grassland and grey scrub habitats being converted to pasture also reduced nesting and prey habitat.
Predation by cats, mustelids and hedgehogs was a problem for ground-nesting falcons. Stoats, rats and other mustelids preyed on eggs and nestlings on the ground and in trees.
It stated a recent study suggested adult falcons were less able to defend their nest than previously thought, but more research was needed.
How you can help
Support a falcon conservation organisation
- Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust.
- Kārearea Falcon Trust.
If you are experiencing problems, call your local DOC office.
Help keep their nests safe
Control predators - cats, hedgehogs, stoats, weasels, ferrets and rats - on your property if it has falcon nesting habitats.
Keep away from their nests. Falcons defend their nests actively and may dive-bomb people up to 400m from the nest.
If this happens, move away until the attack stops. Don’t try to strike a falcon as you are likely to injure it and place the falcon chicks in danger.
Source: Department of Conservation