New Zealand forest birds

Posted on Jul 5, 2015 in Animals & Plants & Stuff

“New Zealand’s forests were once filled with birds and their clamour: melodious songs, squawks, whirrs, squeaks, buzzing and chattering. These are the sounds of birds finding food, defending territory, attracting mates or guarding chicks.” – Christina Troup

For the past couple of weeks, a black fantail has been flitting around the sheep. Black fantails are rare in the North Island, and make up less than 5% of individuals across the South Island. I feel privileged to see it every day.

Fantail sculpture by Martin Carryer, kauri wood, 2010

Fantail sculpture by Martin Carryer, kauri wood, 2010

I’m told that the fantail has 20 or 30 different Maori names. As well as tiwaiwaka, it is commonly called piwakawaka, tiwakawaka or tirairaka. The fantail also has a prominent place in Maori mythology: it helped bring about Maui’s death and make humans mortal.

“Maui’s objective was to enter the womb of Hinenuitepo when she was sleeping and by passing through her vital organs to her mouth, to destroy death. He said to his companions, ‘My command is that when I enter the womb of Hinenuitepo, you must on no account laugh.’ So Maui, having taken on the form of the noke worm, then entered the womb but as he disappeared within, Tatahore, the whitehead, burst out laughing whilst the fantail rushed out and began dancing about with delight. And then was roused Hinenuitepo who closed her legs and strangled Maui and killed him.”

Earlier today I was listening to Radio NZ Sunday Morning and was introduced to Dunedin musician Dudley Benson‘s song, “Tui,” and I immediately sought out the album on which it appears: Forest (2010).

“While visiting the Southern bird sanctuary Ulva Island, Benson became deeply concerned by the silence that permeated the forests, and the greater plight of Aotearoa’s native birdlife. So, inspired by his love for the waiata of the renowned composer Hirini Melbourne (Ngai Tuhoe, Ngati Kahungunu), Benson arranged his own interpretations of Melbourne’s bird songs and in late 2010 announced their release as Forest: Songs by Hirini Melbourne. Recorded almost entirely with only the human voice and sung largely in te reo Maori, Forest tells the stories of New Zealand’s native birds through seven vividly-textured pop pieces that exist somewhere between the traditions of folksong and barbershop, choral anthem and hip hop.”

Reviewers have described it as “playful and heart-breaking,” as well as “utterly indigenous.” It really is an extraordinary musical set – very NZ – and one of the most striking tributes to animals I’ve ever encountered. You can listen to the full album below.

(I think that art projects like this should be government-funded, but until then we can support Benson’s new album, Zealandia, via Boosted. According to Benson: “The land itself collaborates too: through sampled recordings of rocks and minerals found within our continent I’ve made the album’s rhythm section and sonic textures.” Very cool.)


My favourite native bird, the kereru, isn’t represented – but that’s okay because I get to see and hear them everyday.

Kereru Racer woodcut print by Sam Broad, 2008

Kereru Racer woodcut print by Sam Broad, 2008