Moa for #BirdOfTheYear2018

Hello again! Thanks for your patience over this last hiatus – I was finishing a project with a tight deadline, plus I just started a new job at the Otago Museum here in Dunedin. But now I can focus on the Wild Focus Project again!

  These delightful cheeky buggers were voted Bird of the Year 2017. Image by Beppie K., via    Cartalk   .

These delightful cheeky buggers were voted Bird of the Year 2017. Image by Beppie K., via Cartalk.

After I came out of panic mode for my other project (which I’ll talk about in a later post), I found myself embroiled in the social media wars of one of New Zealand’s toughest and most important annual events: the Bird of the Year competition. Every year since 2005, Forest & Bird (NZ’s largest independent conservation group) runs an online competition in which people vote for their favorite NZ bird. Competition is fierce, and people campaign with memes of ever-increasing silliness. The Bird of the Year contest helps raise awareness of native birds and the problems they face, in a fun and competitive atmosphere. Some of you may recall that I wrote about last year’s Bird of the Year contest, in a post about the kea, an endangered alpine parrot native to NZ. Good news, by the way – the kea won last year!

This year, I found it much more difficult to choose who to vote for. New Zealand is home to so many wonderful birds! And many of them are completely unique species that aren’t found anywhere else in the world (also known as endemic species). Unfortunately, a lot of them are also highly endangered, and some incredible species that were only found here have already gone extinct. All of this got me thinking: How did NZ end up with so many unique birds in the first place? And why are they disappearing now, after thriving here for millions of years?

The story begins with Gondwana, the ancient supercontinent where the lands that currently make up NZ were stuck to a bunch of other landmasses about 250 million years ago. As the landmasses broke apart (about 80 million years ago) and moved towards their current positions, what would eventually become the continent of Zealandia carried a unique and isolated set of wildlife and plant life with it. By about 65 million years ago, what we now know as New Zealand was completely separated from other land masses, and the native flora and fauna began to evolve and adapt independently from the rest of the world. NZ broke away during the age of dinosaurs, which are predecessors of birds. Mammals weren’t… really a thing yet. The only mammals could be considered native to NZ were a couple of small bat species that were blown here by trade winds, and marine mammals like fur seals. In NZ, birds and reptiles evolved to fill all the ecological niches that came to be filled by mammals in other parts of the world.

  A national icon.

A national icon.

Because of the isolation and lack of ground-based predators, many bird species lost the ability to fly. One of the most iconic NZ birds is the kiwi, a type of flightless bird known as a ratite (related to ostriches, emus, and rheas). The term ratite refers to the birds flat sternum (breastbone), rather than one with a central “keel” like flying birds have (the keel is where the wing muscles attach to the bone). Kiwi are a national icon – they’re brown fluffy balls with big stompy feet, whiskers, terrible eyesight, a long skinny beak with nostrils at the end (to sniff in the ground for food and occasionally they stop to sneeze out dirt), and they have the largest body-to-egg-size ratio out of all birds. In all honesty, they’re kind of a disaster of a bird, and I absolutely love them for it.

  Haast eagle attacking moa (which, for scale, could stand anywhere from 4-9 feet tall). Image by    John Megahan   , for    PLoS article    "Ancient DNA tells story of giant eagle evolution".

Haast eagle attacking moa (which, for scale, could stand anywhere from 4-9 feet tall). Image by John Megahan, for PLoS article "Ancient DNA tells story of giant eagle evolution".

Perhaps even more iconic than the kiwi, though, is an extinct ratite called the moa – the tallest bird to have ever existed (up to 9 feet tall). Moa evolved for ground life to the point that they completely lost all traces of their wings – they’re the only bird to have ever done so. Even other flightless birds like the kiwi have tiny vestigial wing bones. There were 9 species of moa that lived all over NZ for millions of years… until people arrived. The first people in NZ – the Māori – arrived between 1250 and 1300 CE, and they brought dogs and rats with them. They found a bounty of fat, flightless, delicious birds, and within about 6 generations of their first arrival, the moa had been wiped out. Shortly after the extinction of the moa, NZ’s other giant bird also disappeared – the Haast eagle, which could reach sizes rivaling giant albatrosses.

  Illustration of the now-extinct huia (male and female), by JG Keulemans, from WL Buller’s  Birds of New Zealand , 1888.

Illustration of the now-extinct huia (male and female), by JG Keulemans, from WL Buller’s Birds of New Zealand, 1888.

As more people arrived in NZ (along with rats, cats, rabbits, sheep, possums, stoats, hedgehogs, and other invasive species), native birds encountered predators for the first time. They weren’t equipped to escape or fight the new threats. Unique endemic species like the huia, the laughing owl, and the South Island kōkako were wiped out by the onslaught. Others, such as the takahē and the kākāpō, came dangerously close to going extinct, but held on because of remote populations in hard-to-access areas in the mountains or offshore islands. The takahē was actually thought to be extinct from 1900-1948 with the last survivor killed by a dog named Rough, until a small population was discovered in the Murchison Mountains of Fiordland, on the southwestern side of the South Island. Some birds, like the kea, were seen as pests and were deliberately hunted.

  Dead stoats next to a DOC trap. Stoats are one of the major predators wiping out NZ birds. Image via    DOC   .

Dead stoats next to a DOC trap. Stoats are one of the major predators wiping out NZ birds. Image via DOC.

Today, NZ is much more conscientious of their wildlife – we’ve come to realize how unique and precious it is. Endemic species are considered taonga, or treasures to Māori people. There are major efforts under way to ensure that NZ’s unique wildlife survives well into the future. The NZ Department of Conservation (or DOC) does a lot of trapping for predators like possums and stoats, and they also do poison drops (the poison only affects mammals, not birds). The NZ government has also enacted the “Predator-Free 2050” policy, with the goal of eradicating stoats, possums, and rats from NZ by the year 2050 – a difficult goal to hit. (Cats and dogs are also an issue, but that’s a little more controversial because of their popularity as pets – that’ll be discussed in a future post). Independent conservation groups also do their part to protect NZ’s native wildlife… which brings us back to Forest & Bird, and the annual Bird of the Year contest.

  The roundest boi. An absolute unit. The takahe has my vote for Bird of the Year.

The roundest boi. An absolute unit. The takahe has my vote for Bird of the Year.

Until 5pm on Sunday October 14, NZ time, you can vote for your favorite NZ bird. The winner will be announced on Monday the 15th on Radio New Zealand, around 8:50 am, and will almost certainly be plastered across NZ’s social media and news. As I mentioned before, I had a really hard time choosing who to vote for this year! But after much deliberation, I ended up giving my support to the takahē, the chonky rainbow borb with a population of fewer than 300. However, if the option had been available, I definitely would’ve voted for the moa.


If you’d like to learn more about NZ wildlife and donate to support their conservation, check out Forest & Bird or the NZ Department of Conservation (DOC).