New Zealand's raptor fauna wasn't always so depauperate though. Unfortunately New Zealand has the dubious record for having one of the highest extinction rates in the world. Since New Zealand was first settled by people around 800 years ago, 40% of the terrestrial and freshwater bird species have become extinct. Among these is the largest eagle ever known: Haast's eagle (Harpagornis moorei). Weighing up to 15kg, with a wingspan up to 2.6 metres, and claws the same size as a tiger's, Haast's eagle must also have been a majestic sight to behold. Unfortunately, competition with the newly arrived human settlers for the flightless, herbivorous birds on which Haast's eagle depended saw it decline, and disappear forever.
The impacts of human settlement on New Zealand's avifauna doesn't end there though. Seventy percent of the (remaining) terrestrial and freshwater bird species in New Zealand are threatened with extinction. So should we be concerned? If you're reading a blog about birds I'm guessing you'll say yes. As do I. As I pointed out in my my last post (globe trotting birds), birds are a huge part of our cultural identity. Birds are charismatic, visual, and conspicuous representatives of biological and cultural diversity. They feature heavily in iconography and religion, myths and legends: Noah sent a dove from the ark; babies are delivered by storks; birds adorn our bank coins and notes, as well as countless national coats of arms. The examples are endless. While funding for conservation may be dropping in the priority list of governments in tough financial times, failure to invest in the survival of bird species is a fairly profound statement. What is it that we are losing through the ongoing decline and extinction of such prominent icons of our own culture?
So go out, get your bird geek on. And while you're out enjoying the experience, take a bit of time to ponder the place of birds in our own cultural identity.
New Zealand falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae)