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Penguins in the pond, kiwi in the back yard: how a city brought back its birds
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Penguins in the pond, kiwi in the back yard: how a city brought back its birds

Some time in the pre-dawn darkness, the commotion starts. From her bed, Danae Mossman hears the noise building: loud romantic liaisons, vomiting, squeals, the sound of bodies hitting the pool at full tilt.

Things get particularly loud between midnight and 4am, Mossman says, “when they are getting busy”.

The kororā, or little penguin, is the world’s smallest at just 25cm (10in) tall and weighing about 1kg (2.2lb): a colony live under Danae Mossman’s house.View image in fullscreen

Mossman’s hard-partying housemates are a flock of kororā, or little penguin, the world’s smallest, which have formed a growing colony beneath her house in the Wellington suburb of Karaka Bays on the Miramar peninsula. They use her lily ponds for pool parties, and during nesting season, they create a stink.

“They go out and get fish, regurgitate it and eat that for three days.”

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation encouraged the birds to move to specially built nests closer to the sea, but so far they have shown no desire to leave. So Mossman has come to embrace her housemates, even installing a ladder in the ponds so the penguins can clamber out.

“We figured if they were happy and safe under our home, then we wouldn’t want them any place they were more vulnerable,” Mossman says. “The most annoying thing about them being under the house is how loud they are.”

A makeshift ladder in a pond at the Karaka Bays home of Danae Mossman to help penguins clamber out.View image in fullscreen

In many cities, forests and ecosystems around the world, the sounds of nature are falling silent. But in New Zealand’s capital, people are experiencing a crescendo in birdsong, thanks to decades of conservation efforts. Some species, such as the kororā, are still at risk, but many native birds have bounced back in their thousands, transforming the city’s morning chorus.

‘The dawn chorus is so loud, we have to shut the doors’

A pīwakawaka – New Zealand fantail – at Zealandia wildlife sanctuary in Wellington.View image in fullscreen

In the dark, still moments as Wellington wakes and the hum of traffic builds, the city’s birds begin to sing.

First comes the tūī’s high, clear trill, slicing through the dawn. The melodious bells of korimako join, followed by the pīwakawaka with its kiss-like squeaks. As the horizon lightens, kākā – large brown parrots – fleck the sky, waking residents as they swoop and screech.

Fifty years ago, when Jack and Jill Fenaughty bought their then bare, rugged farmland in Mākara – 25 minutes from the city centre – they were lucky if they encountered an introduced bird species, let alone a native one.

“You saw hardly any native birds,” Jill says. “Now,” Jack jumps in, “the dawn chorus is so loud, we have to shut the doors if we want a lie-in.”

Jill and Jack Fenaughty in the bush near their home in Mākara, near Wellington.View image in fullscreen
Sheep on the farm of Jack and Jill FenaughtyView image in fullscreen
Highland cattle on the farm of Jack and Jill FenaughtyView image in fullscreen

Wellington may be bucking local and international trends, but nearly 30 years ago conservationist Jim Lynch described the city as a “biodiversity basket case”.

Like many cities across the globe, human activity, habitat loss and introduced pests had decimated Wellington’s birdlife. By the 1990s, many native species were on the brink of local extinction.

In the mid-1990s, Lynch began work to found a new bird sanctuary in a patch of native forest around a decommissioned city reservoir. Dubbed “Zealandia”, it would become the world’s first fully fenced urban ecosanctuary. By 2000, all major predators – cats, possums, rats and ferrets – had been eradicated inside. As native species thrived within the fence, Zealandia worked as a centre, from which recovered bird populations radiated out into the city’s neighbourhoods.

Inside the Zealandia reserve in Wellington earlier this month. A building on a lake or river.View image in fullscreen

“The first thing we noticed coming back were the tūī,” Jack says. As if on cue, one calls loudly in the garden. “Now, they are just part of the furniture.”

The pair notice once-rare native birds year-round in their garden. There are two pairs of kārearea, the country’s only falcon, nesting in a patch of bush nearby and pīwakawaka have become so numerous that the Fenaughtys keep their doors shut to stop the curious birds inviting themselves in.

A tūī at Zealandia.View image in fullscreen
A saddleback or tīeke at Zealandia.View image in fullscreen
A kākā feeding at Zealandia.View image in fullscreen
A pied shag or kāruhiruhi at Zealandia.View image in fullscreen

The Fenaughtys’ experience tracks with the data – a 2023 Wellington regional council report shows that since 2011, the average number of native bird species in the city’s parks and reserves had risen by 41%. Between 2011 and 2022, kākā increased by 260%, kererū by 200%, tūī by 85% and pīwakawaka by 49%.

The Zealandia sanctuary, it noted, was having a “measurable halo effect” and “driving spectacular recoveries in several previously rare or locally extinct native forest bird species”.

Zealandia’s conservation and restoration manager, Jo Ledington, says the five miles (8km) of anti-predator perimeter fence has meant birds can thrive, but the community efforts outside the sanctuary have allowed them to expand their habitats.

A penguin warning sign on the Miramar peninsula, Wellington.View image in fullscreen

“Wellington is one of the only cities in the world experiencing this bounce-back,” Ledington says, adding that a healthy ecosystem “is more important now than ever”, not just for biodiversity but for people’s wellbeing.

Perhaps most extraordinarily, the Fenaughtys now hear kiwi – the country’s beloved national bird – calling at night in the hills around them. In 2022, the Capital Kiwi Project, a community initiative, reintroduced kiwi to Wellington’s wilds after a 100-year absence.

Jill pauses when asked what it is like hearing such rare birds in her back yard. “It’s hard to describe – it’s just wonderful.”

“I didn’t think we would hear those out here in our lifetime,” Jack says. “When you hear the kiwi in your back yard, you know it’s worked.”

Community buy-in key

A sanctuary alone is not enough to bring back a city’s birds. Part of the success of Wellington’s biodiversity boom has been widespread community work to create a safe environment for birds – and a deadly one for invasive predators. Introduced pests kill an estimated 25 million native birds a year in New Zealand.

A member of the Capital Kiwi Project team holding a male kiwi after changing a transmitter on the bird’s leg before rerelease on Tawa Hill, Terawhiti Station, Wellington.View image in fullscreen
A roadside kiwi sign in Mākara.View image in fullscreen

On a bright Sunday morning on Miramar peninsula, 10 minutes east of the city centre, six volunteers gather to check a vast network of pest traps and cameras crisscrossing the landscape.

Trudging over the headland, Dan Henry, a coordinator at Predator Free Miramar, says volunteers have managed to eliminate rats – ruthless hunters of native birds – from the peninsula. The Wellington urban area alone (population 215,200) boasts at least 50 community pest-trapping and planting groups. They work alongside the government’s department of conservation, Predator Free Wellington – a project to make Wellington the world’s first predator-free capital – and initiatives such as the Capital Kiwi Project.

A pīwakawaka or New Zealand fantail follows Dan Henry, coordinator of volunteer pest trapping group Predator Free Miramar, around the Miramar peninsula.View image in fullscreen

As Henry removes a dead mouse from a trap, he explains how the thriving birdlife has created a positive feedback loop: as residents encounter native birds in their daily life, the desire to protect them becomes more pronounced.

“It was particularly evident around the lockdown. People were out walking, the birds came out to play and people were much closer to nature,” he says. “I think people saw that and [thought]: ‘Holy shit – look what’s around us,’ and doubled their efforts. It was quite remarkable.”

Ross Findlay, a retired teacher and grandfather, attends the meet-up every Sunday morning. In his 40 years in Wellington, he has noticed remarkable changes.

“Birdlife used to be sparrows, starlings and blackbirds, now we have tūī, fantails, kōtare and kererū in our streets – it is truly amazing.”

Predator Free Miramar volunteers Sue Hope and Ross Findlay check a trap.View image in fullscreen

Another volunteer, Sue Hope, agrees. “Everyone notices it, not just us,” she says.

As the crew gather to discuss the morning’s work, a rare kārearea crashes through the branches above, sending a ripple of excitement through the group. “We’re in the middle of a big city and there are these amazing birds,” Hope says. “It makes you appreciate you are not the only thing here.”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on X for all the latest news and features

Source: theguardian.com