It’s complicated

A lesson that I hope to never stop learning here in New Zealand: don’t take things at face value.  It’s natural to make assumptions when encountering something new, hard not to make foreign sensations fit into a more familiar frame of reference. That frame, though, is always skewed to prior experience and knowledge, and relationships are always more more complex than they appear at first glance.

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I recently encountered this scene while walking through my neighborhood: freshly butchered haunches hanging in a hatchback. While puzzling over what kind of animal they used to belong to, the owner approached.”Wild goat from the Wairarapa,” he said, proudly describing the challenging kill in some detail. I asked about the size and effects of the goat population there. Feral goats, he explained, like deer and other introduced grazers, had devastated the native vegetation. “Just like your American bison,” he went on. “America used to be all forest until they brought in the bison.”

I’m not sure who “they” were, nor did I attempt to dissuade this hunter from his impression – apparently based on a Kiwi frame of reference – that large mammals in other countries must be introduced by humans, and therefore problematic.  (Frankly, I was afraid that any further discussion would lead – as it increasingly does when my American accent is detected – to the topic of the current American election cycle, which then requires considerable re-framing of the Kiwi impression that we must all be lunatics.)  So I wished him a pleasant goat meal and walked away.  Later that week, visiting Fiordland in the South Island, I listened to a bus driver enthusiastically describe the history of introduced deer and elk while pointing out the expansive and well-fenced venison farms surrounding us.

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Elk farm, photo by Dan Bailey

Shortly thereafter, the same driver pointed out that the lushness of the forests we were driving through was severely compromised by 30 million rampaging brush-tailed possums. Yet he spoke out strongly against the use of the air-dropped 1080 poison that has been widely used as a control and is credited with a 30% reduction of possums and allowing the return of many threatened bird species.  Again, I sat and listened in silence, mulling over the variables that New Zealanders have to take into account every time they think about biodiversity.

I was delighted to encounter two bird species last week that I don’t see in Wellington: weka, and pukeko.  They ran right up to us, surprising me. When I see native ground-dwelling birds in New Zealand, my first assumption is that they must be rare and threatened somehow. But, as I am slowly learning, it’s not that simple.  Both species have adapted well to human settlement in many places. Perhaps too well, in fact, from the perspective of gardeners and farmers who find their seedlings yanked out of the earth by the voracious foragers.

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Weka, Abel Tasman National Park

The Department of Conservation says that the flightless weka “occupies a problematic conservation niche.” Trying to sustain their populations in the same manner as other threatened species, by placing them on islands, hasn’t worked so well.  It can impact other species such as lizards and rare invertebrates, which the weka may feed on. Weka are legally hunted on NZ islands where they were never native inhabitants, such as the Chatham Islands.

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Pukeko, Papamoa

“Rueful affection” is the way one fish and game site describes Kiwi regard for the pukeko, known as both cheeky and friendly  and regularly hunted for both meat and traditional Maori cloak-weaving. They looked very much at home among the mallards and cormorants in Papamoa and approached us looking for food. Seeing their resemblance and kinship to the highly endangered takahe housed safely at Zealandia, it was hard to imagine that populations of both species had once extended through both North and South Islands.  The pukeko proved to be the more resilient, adapting well to human settlement, completely belying my impression of its fragile status.

Just this morning, I was watching a flock of Eurasian blackbirds work the rain-soaked lawn outside my window. I wondered how this thrush species topping the list for most widely distributed introduced bird in NZ was finding enough protein to have become so wildly successful here.  Once again, my knowledge (“Hey, it looks and acts like an American robin, so it must eat like one!”) was incomplete.

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leucistic Eurasian blackbird

As expected, I found that Eurasian blackbirds do eat numerous invertebrates (and are considered beneficial in this regard), but also consume the flowers on many plants. In fact, they provide an unexpected ecosystem service for another introduced and beloved species: the feijoa plant. Feijoa is a fruit with origins in South America which has become a very popular garden item in New Zealand, where growing conditions are ideal. But no native birds here have an association with this type of plant.  The blackbird, however, eagerly feasts on the feijoa’s flower petals, thereby transferring pollen.

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These are the sorts of lessons that occur spontaneously here, in an environment that is new to me – but they are also the ones that I look forward to continuing back home.  Discovering a multi-faceted story for species that I assume I know well is every bit as fascinating as meeting them for the first time. Complexity is a beautiful thing.

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