A team led by Plant & Food Research is to undertake a pilot study this summer to determine if native birds can potentially function as nature's pest control agents.
With the blessing of iwi, scientists will catch and release birds including tui, korimako (bellbird), piwakawaka (fantail), riro riro (grey warbler) and tauhou (silvereye) currently present in apple, wine grape, berry and plum orchards in Palmerston North, Levin and Ohau, using next-generation sequencing (NGS), a DNA-based method, to identify insect DNA from their faeces, so they can see which insects they prefer to feed on.
"Birds could prove to be an excellent addition to the orchard ecosystem, particularly if they prefer to eat insect pests over insects that benefit growers," project leader Karen Mason said.
"The NGS technology will help us better understand what insects native birds like to eat, and whether they should be encouraged or discouraged from the orchard environment.
This new technology has advantages over traditional methods, offering a fast, accurate and relatively non-invasive approach."
The study, in collaboration with Dr Isabel Castro, from Massey University, was part of a wider vision to incorporate more native plants and animals into the horticultural production system, regarded as potentially leading to a win-win situation for industry, biodiversity, sustainability and native taonga conservation.
It is hoped the project will provide some insight into another potential tool for growers to reduce chemical pesticides required to grow crops, thereby helping to meet the requirements of export markets, retailers and consumers to minimise the environmental impact of food.
Attracting birds to orchards may also have secondary benefits. For example, some nectivorous birds are highly territorial, so may help keep other fruit-eating birds away.
"Our native species potentially have so much to offer. We should work with them to build a more sustainable future," Ms Mason said.
The team planned to expand the pilot study to look in-depth at native species and the services they could provide, and establish collaborations with growers and Maori communities, she said.