New Zealand is home to some of the world’s most unique plants and animals, mainly because this beautiful land separated from the rest of Earth’s Southern land masses before mammals became a dominant part of ecosystems. Endemic species, such as the New Zealand falcon, evolved for millions of years without any land-dwelling mammalian species present.
New Zealand was a land dominated by birds. Birds hunt using their sense of sight and can fly so it made perfect sense for other birds to nest on the ground or even under the ground instead of up in trees. New Zealand falcons were small fry, and while they hunted for birds they were also hunted by other birds of prey. Falcons across most of the country make their nests in ‘scrapes’ on the ground so they are protected from aerial attack.
Since the arrival of the first humans in New Zealand, the landscape has changed dramatically. Habitat change and the introduction of land-dwelling mammals have caused major shifts in ecosystems. People have brought rats, hedgehogs, stoats, ferrets and cats to New Zealand, all of which hunt using their sense of smell, their nocturnal vision, and hunt from the ground. Many of New Zealand’s unique birds have become extinct since humans first brought land based predators to this landscape, and many others balance on the brink of extinction because of the continual pressure from these pests. Species like the nationally threatened New Zealand falcon have their nests predated so often that very few juvenile falcons manage to leave their nests, and even adults keeping eggs or chicks warm are sometimes killed by larger species such as feral cats.
Persecution by humans
As recently as the 1940’s, people were actually encouraged to shoot Harrier Hawks by the government. Harriers are a species commonly confused with the smaller, endemic NZ falcon. A negative perception of birds of prey has perpetuated throughout human mindsets for generations. Despite their fully protected status persecution of falcons remains commonplace throughout New Zealand, with some birds being shot when their predatory instincts turn toward introduced domestic birds such as chickens, doves and pigeons. These birds are easily adaptable and could live in harmony with humans and native populations.
The MFT prioritises education programmes to counter misconceptions about falcons and improve public awareness with the aim of ensuring falcons are safe.
Electrocution and man-made hazards
Unfortunately the relocation of wild chicks onto the Wairau Plains struck some major hurdles. Number one of those, being the threat of birds being electrocuted on power line transformers.
Because the female falcons tend to perch on an object prior to sweeping down to catch prey, the power transformers are an ideal resting spot. It has been a tragic aspect of the entire relocation programme, that has seen the Trustees look for alternative ideas to increase falcon population numbers.
The Trust is now looking at increasing captive breeding programmes, with releases of the chicks being into areas without the threats of man-made technology.