Pacific
31 May 2016

Return of Kākā to Wellington sparks controversy

Iconic New Zealand parrot, the Kākā: Tomas Sobek
Iconic New Zealand parrot, the Kākā: Tomas Sobek
By Mike Britton

Do city dwellers really want a return of wild species to the areas they once lived?  It is a question being asked in many places, especially where some of the species moving back can conflict with the new inhabitants. In Wellington the impact of species reintroduced to the region by the Zealandia Sanctuary and the noise and 'damage' they can cause is creating controversy.

For most of the twentieth Century the birdlife in New Zealand’s cities mainly consisted of species European settlers brought with them, plus a few that got here by themselves from Australia. And they were mainly species that could survive the predation of other imports like rats and stoats and possums. Indigenous species like tui and New Zealand pigeon only survived on the city edges and were rare and special sightings for most people.

But the control of possums in and around cities and more areas where rat and other invasive pest control created safer neighborhoods for birds tipped the balance and allowed some like tuis to move back into urban places. The establishment of predator free sanctuaries was also a huge factor in providing safe places for species to be re-introduced to places from which they had largely disappeared. In Auckland the restoration and removal of invasive predators from islands in the Hauraki Gulf and also in the regional parks was the catalyst. This includes New Zealand BirdLife partner Forest & Bird’s hugely successful Ark in the Park, an area of almost 3000 ha, where invasive predators are controlled by its volunteers.

But in the capital, Wellington, the big tipping point was the establishment, 25 years ago, of the Zealandia Karori Sanctuary in a water catchment valley and its fencing with a predator-proof fence. This has transformed the bird life of the city. Species that now can call Wellington home include Hihi (Stitchbird), Kakariki (Red crowned parakeet), Tieke (saddleback), Takahe and Little Spotted Kiwi. Some prosper only behind the safety of the fence but combined with the possum control by the regional council and the big upswing in public and private predator control in Wellington generally, other species are spreading out from their secure base, and even starting to nest and fledge young.

Cats have been identified as a major threat to these species reclaiming their heritage habitats, in some cases, for the first time in over 100 years. There is now debate in Wellington over how cats are managed (and controlled) with limits on cat numbers and compulsory chipping, to identify pets from wild cats, are all some of the (controversial) ideas being considered by the Wellington City Council. Creating a halo around Zealandia, where predator control is extended, is another idea actively being promoted in the community.

But is the re-invasion of long gone birds to their historical habitats always welcome by the new residents? When tui came back Forest & Bird regularly got calls from the public asking it to “control its noisy birds”. And they are noisy – one of the most beautiful songs. But the latest controversy is about the impact of one of the magic parrots of New Zealand, the Kākā Nestor meridionalis septentrionalis.  Kākā are a large, olive-brown forest parrot and is a ‘cousin’ to the alpine parrot, kea, a bird about which almost every visitor to New Zealand’s South Island alpine areas will have tales to tell.

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Kākā have a loud call and also some beautiful songs and whistles. The word kākā can mean ‘screech’ in Māori. Kākā had effectively been extinct in Wellington since the early 20th century until they were transferred back into the wild at Zealandia in 2002.

From just 6 birds there is now a population of over 200 birds. But like their alpine cousins, Kākā can be mischievous and target exotic trees like pines and eucalypts. Kākā will tear bark off these trees looking to feed on insects and sap – and maybe just for fun. They like fruit too! Potential opponents note that now Wellington is once again becoming a suitable place for previously locally extinct birds to reclaim, what is the future?  Potentially these populations will continue to grow and with some aspirational goals for controlling invasive predators, in the future more and more indigenous species may once again be wanting to share our cities with us. A kiwi in every garden is one of the (very) long term aims of the 'save the kiwi’ campaign.  

This raises many questions about our interaction with wildlife, our responsibilities and their rights. And in places where there are indigenous people with a long history of their own in the interaction with them – yes for food but also in their cultural context – their views are a critical part of the discussion. As conservationists we have a responsibility to be advocates for the birds and other animals when they start to return to places where we once were responsible for their loss. It’s their home and we need to share. But we need to be active in educating, informing and helping minimize conflict where we can.