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A tūī. Photo/Getty Images

During Bird of the Year, we must heed the cry of alarm

Climate change and housing are putting more pressure than ever on our native bird habitats, but creative solutions are possible – if we act now.

How oddly apposite it is that we’re holding the Bird of the Year contest at the same time as commemorating the landing of Captain James Cook, who brought the first cats to New Zealand.

The whimsical, stagey annual celebration of our native fauna does much to familiarise people with the wonderful variety of birds unique to these islands, and to remind us that 80% of them are endangered, some critically so.

But the contest cannot compete with our other worthy preoccupations, climate change and housing, both of which are putting more pressure than ever on habitats.

The Bird of the Year 2019 will have fewer places to call home as we continue to turn land over to pine forest for carbon farming, and the housing shortage leaves developers freer than ever to fell trees.

As for Predator Free 2050, unless we come up with better weaponry than 1080 and brodifacoum poison, that will remain a slogan. It will take a genetic or contraceptive bait breakthrough to eradicate rodents and mustelids.

Read more: The shocking decline in birds worldwide is a disaster of humanity’s making | How Bird of the Year became NZ's most hotly contested competition

There are some welcome new developments. Farmers are now likely to get carbon credits for tree planting, which until recently was not envisaged as counting towards official climate-change mitigation efforts. As farmers often choose to plant natives that provide permanent new habitat as well as long-term carbon sequestration, this will be a double win for the environment.

The Government has also acknowledged that carbon farming must somehow be regulated to preserve optimal land use overall. Besides displacing productive farmland, as some new forests already have, pine plantations effectively lock up land in perpetuity, as it’s difficult to convert pine land to any other use. Monoculture does not make optimal habitats for birds, insects or much else.

The Government is still pondering how to corral future forestry so it doesn’t displace food production – a priority up there with climate-change mitigation, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But habitat displacement barely gets mentioned. Billions of overseas investment dollars are expected to flow into carbon farming here, and it would hardly deter this lucrative industry were plantations tasked with the responsibility of ensuring generous wildlife corridors through or adjacent to their forests.

The state could also clip the forestry ticket to fund more wildlife sanctuaries such as Wellington’s Zealandia. Looking at the capital’s abundance of kererū and kākā, it’s difficult to believe either species could still belong on the endangered list. Sanctuaries do boost local populations.

Our shore birds are often harder to protect. But surely it’s possible to declare and enforce a national policy of banning cars and unleashed dogs from all beaches where ground birds are known to nest?

As for cats, after 250 years here, there’s little evidence our fondness for them has dwindled from the (per capita) world-leading 1.4 million estimated by the Morgan Foundation in 2013. Thanks to its founder and would-be politician, Gareth Morgan, no cat owner can now be ignorant of the toll their pet takes on native wildlife. Studies have found the average mog makes 65 kills a year, and though predator ecology is complex and varies among habitats, it’s safe to say not all of Fluffy’s catches are rodents.

Some owners now keep cats inside at night, double-bell their collars and put bird-alerting “clown” ruffs on them. The ragdoll, a super-docile breed that tends to have little or no prey drive, is becoming more popular for these qualities. Indoors-only cats and entirely pet-free new subdivisions are no longer controversial or unusual.

However, cats have been our in-home companions since at least 3100BC, making this a strong bond. When Morgan asked people to choose between their beloved pets and native birds, he did not get the answer he wanted.

A more empowering message to voters might have been to get growing. Trees, gardens and no-mow wilderness areas are essential to foster native wildlife and can be undertaken on a personal, community, regional or national basis.

But until we get a more protective regulatory framework around land use and beach access, have that awkward conversation about whether gene science can help, and get past “peak cat”, our enjoyment of the Bird of the Year hoopla will be just a brave little tweet in the dark.

This editorial was first published in the November 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.