Native birds in dire straits – Expert Reaction

A new report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment highlights the desperate situation for many native birds, despite concerted conservation efforts.

Takahē. Flickr/russellstreet

While Dr Jan Wright applauds the Predator Free 2050 goal, she says a plan of action is urgently required. Among her other recommendations, she suggests a Nature Border Levy to fund conservation and continued research into effective predator control, including further optimising the use of 1080.

The report is available on the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s website.

The SMC gathered expert reaction on the report, please feel free to use these comments in your reporting.

Dr James Russell, conservation biologist, University of Auckland, comments:

“New Zealand is fortunate to have only lost one-quarter of its native birds, most other islands across the world have lost many more. However, as the PCE report details, we will continue to lose what remains if we carry on with business-as-usual.

“The last bird species to go extinct in New Zealand did so just over 50 years ago. The human population of New Zealand has nearly doubled since then, and the birds are being further squeezed out to our tiny predator-free offshore islands and mainland sanctuaries, currently less than 0.25% of the country.

“The PCE report takes a high-resolution snapshot of what needs to be done today if we want future generations to know or care about the difference between a tīeke and a blackbird.

“As the report outlines, the PFNZ2050 goal is a visionary start, but it must sit alongside other goals such as setting aside large, very large, tracts of suitable habitat for our birds. We must confront the challenging topic of genetics and determine which species and populations are the appropriate units of conservation.

“Some of these are scientific problems which ultimately science can solve, but the PCE report clearly teases out the additional role of society and government in conservation as well. We need innovative new funding mechanisms and social buy-in for the work that needs to be done, much more commitment than was announced in the 2017 budget.

“The report paints a somewhat disheartening but ultimately honest picture of the status of New Zealand’s birds, but provides the roadmap which puts the challenge back on us as a nation to show we really do care about all kiwis.”

Note: Dr Russell is on the strategy group advising the crown-entity PFNZ2050 and was consulted in the preparation of the PCE report.

Dr Andrea Byrom, director, New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, comments:

“In the style of all reports written by New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Wright’s Taonga of an Island Nation report drills down to the important elements needed to save our birds. And not just to create ‘bird museums’ on our offshore islands, but to do the hard work necessary for the ‘restoration of abundant, diverse and resilient birdlife on the New Zealand mainland’.

“Reversing the current decline will be no trivial task. The report pulls no punches as to what will be required. I was pleased to see a pragmatic approach to the development of predator control tools, with both a call for the continued development of existing tools, as well as investment in game-changing technologies – neither one approach at the expense of the other.

“A strategic approach to predator management – rolled out across large areas of mainland NZ – is also called for, bringing the spotlight firmly back onto Predator-Free NZ 2050 and calling for a plan that will deliver this goal, underpinned by expert knowledge.

“There is also a strong emphasis on the necessary public discourse around potentially game-changing technologies for predator control, such as genetic manipulation. I could not agree more that now is the time for scientists to have this conversation with the public, when development of any such technologies is still in its infancy, and any rollout well in the future.

“All scientists should heed the call for openness and transparency in their work here – no amount of communication will be enough, and I welcome this recommendation wholeheartedly.

“One of the more debated aspects of this report will no doubt be the recommendation to develop principles and policies for the effective management of genetic diversity in New Zealand birds. The report rightly asks the question: ‘in a predator-free future where kiwi are abundant, birds from different regions will meet and sometimes mate. So, why not now?’

“I agree. Now is the time to question why we would continue to manage small, isolated populations in perpetuity when we have the tools to mitigate against genetic drift by building resilient, interconnected populations across mainland New Zealand.

“While the report does call for the scale and extent of predator control across NZ to be increased, I would have liked to have seen even greater discussion of the potential of some of our largest islands, both inhabited and uninhabited by people, to be exemplars of conservation success in the near future.

“Islands such as Resolution Island in Fiordland have huge potential to safeguard the genetic diversity of our taonga species; I hope that the recommendation of a second look at a Nature Border Levy, as well as charging visitors for the provision of infrastructure and services on the conservation estate, will provide the impetus – and eventually the extra funding needed – for the Department of Conservation to re-think its priorities and consider allocating the appropriate resources required to achieve predator-free status on such islands.”

Note: Dr Byrom was interviewed as part of the preparation of this report and peer-reviewed the report during its final stages.

Associate Professor Yolanda van Heezik, Department of Zoology, University of Otago, comments:

Saving New Zealand’s Birds by Jan Wright provides a timely and comprehensive overview of the issues facing New Zealand birds, and excellent recommendations, including a Nature border levy to generate the funds needed to make a serious commitment to protecting New Zealand’s taonga species.

“The report is commendable in suggesting a more strategic approach to how Predator-Free 2050 can be achieved and highlighting the other significant predators that fall outside of the Predator-Free 2050 vision.

“Although the impact of domestic cats is acknowledged, recommendations are limited to feral cats, with domestic cat management remaining the elephant in the room in any discussion of predator control.

“While the emphasis on restoration of habitats outside DOC estate is laudable, the vision should extend to urban areas. Vital to the success of any long-term national strategy are the values and beliefs of the increasingly culturally diverse human population living in cities that inevitably influence the priorities of the government: these values and beliefs are more likely to be shaped by encounters with birds in urban neighbourhoods than in DOC conservation estate.

“Many New Zealanders do not know or are not interested enough to discriminate between native and exotic birds, but this growing disconnection can be reversed through ecological restoration and biophilic urban planning.”

Professor Phil Seddon, Department of Zoology, University of Otago, comments:

“An eminent scientist once described New Zealand as not so much having an avifauna, as having the wreckage of an avifauna. But this is not quite accurate – wreckage calls to mind stunned survivors gathering themselves after the storm. But in New Zealand that storm is still very much raging and there is the real risk that we are about to lose more of our unique birds to the crashing sea of predators that assault them daily.

“Dr Wright’s comprehensive and detailed report is a clarion call to action, more aggressive action than has been sanctioned to date. Yes – we have the ambitious Predator Free 2050 movement, but its focus on only a few of the many exotic predators that kill native birds daily flies in the face of decades of integrated pest management. What about ferrets, weasels, mice, and cats of all descriptions?

“In other areas too, decisive conservation actions have been hamstrung by excessive caution. Taking no action is an active decision; invoking the precautionary principle is not an excuse to do nothing.

“We have the tools to evaluate alternative management responses, and we need to be willing to embark on those conservation projects that offer a chance of the best outcomes, even in the face of risk and uncertainty. Dr Wright’s report makes it abundantly clear that without such actions we face the risk of more bird extinctions – no uncertainty about that.”

Prof Seddon also wrote about the report on

Dr Heidy Kikillus, urban ecologist, Wellington, comments:

“I applaud PCE Jan Wright for drawing attention to the fact that feral cats can have a devastating impact on wildlife.  Feral cats are completely wild and do not rely on humans for any aspect of their survival – they need to hunt in order to survive and their victims can include native species.

“Noticeably absent, however, are recommendations pertaining to the other categories of cats in New Zealand: companion (pet) and stray, which are also capable of catching and killing native wildlife.  They are mentioned, but the PCE feels that feral cats are a greater threat to our birds at present.

“Cats are an important member of many families and are not going anywhere anytime soon.  However, if we are serious about protecting New Zealand’s native species, we will have to include the topic of domestic cats – not just ferals – in the conversation, and find ways to balance domestic cats and conservation.”

Note: Dr Kikillus was interviewed by Jan Wright’s staff in regards to this report.

Associate Professor Bruce Robertson, conservation geneticist, University of Otago, comments:

“Dr Wright’s Tāonga of an Island Nation report is a timely call for a vision for New Zealand’s birdlife – ‘the restoration of abundant, resilient, and diverse birdlife on the New Zealand mainland’.  I welcome the report’s highlighting of the important role genetics plays in achieving this vision, specifically the resilience of our birds.

“Much pioneering conservation work has been done to protect New Zealand’s birds, most notably, temporarily securing them on predator-free offshore islands.  However, as Dr Wright states, while island populations will keep our threatened birds away from introduced predators, these small isolated populations contribute to the erosion of essential genetic diversity. Overtime small populations of birds show reduced resilience due to inbreeding and genetic drift, which places them further along the path to extinction.

“Genetics has played a role in managing our native birds. For example, genetics undertaken by my research group has been used to manage breeding in the kākāpō with a view to retaining the precious remaining genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding.  Other recovery programs for New Zealand’s threated birds would similarly benefit from a genetic understanding and research groups around the country are working to this end.

“The PCE’s report states that ‘to say we have brought the kākāpō back from the brink of extinction is not correct; rather it continues to teeter on the brink of extinction’. This is a valid view. Imminent extinction might have been averted for kākāpō, but the species is still under threat from poor hatching success and sperm abnormalities; these insidious threats appear to be associated with inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity.  In some years, almost half of kākāpō eggs do not hatch.

“If ignored, genetic effects will have dire consequences for New Zealand birdlife.  Fortunately, the genomics revolution is promising to advance the role genetics plays in species resilience and restoration.

“Once again New Zealand is leading the world.  The ambitious project to sequence the genome of every living kākāpō (a world first) is one example. It will provide new genetic tools for genetic management to turn around poor hatching success in the species.  Such large-scale genomics projects will also provide new perspectives on how best to retain genetic diversity in threatened birds, thereby helping to keep our Taonga with us for generations to come.”

Note: I am part of the kākāpō 125 genome project; no other conflicts to declare.

Dr Fiona Carswell, Chief Scientist, Landcare Research, comments: 

“Landcare Research welcomes the attention Dr Wright is bringing to the plight of our native birds.  We also support Dr Wright’s plea for science-based planning/policy for bird restoration, such as for continued suppression of multiple predators at landscape scales.  We share the view that it is preferable to sustain birds in natural habitats, large and diverse enough to allow natural population processes to unfold.

“In-situ predator control can bring multiple other biodiversity benefits. We recommend that community groups involved with predator control projects are supported to apply consistent monitoring measures to improve national understanding of outcomes of interventions. Whilst Predator Free 2050 will look to an innovative “breakthrough science solution” we also need close-to-market tools, tools for multiple predators and tools to clean up surviving individuals and new incursions.

“If predator numbers can be substantially reduced, then habitat will likely become the most frequent limiting factor for native birds, especially in fragmented, pastoral landscapes. Better understanding of the roles of quality and quantity of habitat and varied food requirements will become crucial. Landcare Research has ongoing active, committed research programmes supporting bird predator control, genetics, habitat and sanctuaries that will support the recommendations in this report.”

Professor Doug Armstrong, professor of conservation biology, Massey University; Oceania Chair, IUCN Reintroduction Specialist Group comments:

“I think the report is very useful in collecting together information on history and current actions in bird conservation in a way that’s accessible to the general public. It also reinforces the fact that our extremely unique NZ wildlife (not just birds) is extremely degraded in terms of distribution and abundance of species, remains quite vulnerable, and requires ongoing management.

“While issues such as wetland nitrification and climate change have rightly received a lot of recent media coverage, the general public may have become less conscious of the threats to our wildlife. In addition, while great progress has been made at restoring populations, the is huge potential for further restoration funding and public support were available to do so.

“I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed in this PCE report compared to previous ones, as it offered few if any new insights. Although I agree with many of the recommendations, e.g. that cats also need to be targeted if we want to fully protect wildlife, my impression was that most of the recommendations were just reinforcing initiatives that are already in place.

“I also found that the material of translocations, which is my own area of expertise, was extremely poor. The report presented a few snippets of information almost entirely focused on genetics (just one of many issues that need to be considered), and gave the impression that reintroduction practice is ad hoc and lacking theory and guidelines. In reality there is now a recognised discipline of reintroduction biology that NZ research has made a great contribution toward, and well-developed international guidelines that the New Zealand translocation SOP [standard operating procedure] works in conjunction with.

“I’m not sure that I agree with the general recommendation about translocation policy development as they may result in blanket rules with insufficient flexibility, in particular with respect to great diversity of objectives in different translocation projects and the diversity of values held by different stakeholders. I do completely agree that the SOP needs to have stronger emphasis on ensuring sound decision making, and less emphasis on details and red tape. There is considerable expertise available to promote good decision-making in translocations, but a less clear mechanism (and no funding) for making sure it happens.

“I am also worried that the report may place too much emphasis on development of new technologies. While the ongoing work on technology is fantastic, we also need to make good uses in advances in population ecology that can be used to predict population trajectories (with appropriate uncertainty) under proposed management regimes, ensuring effective and cost-efficient management possible. This work just requires good field data and funding, the latter of which is usually lacking.”