Fantastic fernbirds

More like a mouse than a bird, fernbirds or mātātā are elusive little birds that live in low, scrubby vegetation in wetland areas throughout the country - and are another species that are only found here in New Zealand. 

They are around 18cm long, but half of their length is their tail, which hangs down when they make their short flights. In fact, fernbirds are more at home on the ground, or hopping around in the tangled vegetation that they favour. Surprisingly, despite their death-defying habits of spending time on the ground in a land rampant with introduced mammal predators, they still eke out an existence in a range of places.

Extremely well camouflaged, and a bit shy in coming forward, a fernbird might be heard before it's seen, as the males and females live in pairs and make constant little "u-tick" calls to each other as they hop among the low-lying scrub. However, they're not wusses, and if you click a couple of stones together, or try to emulate their high-pitched call, they'll pop out of their hiding place in the shrubbery to check you out, before returning to their busy work of eating invertebrates.

While fernbirds require suitable habitat with low predators, the range of places they are found has surprised me. The first time I saw fernbirds was at the Awarua wetlands (which includes the Waituna Lagoon) in Southland. They really did look like wee mice to me, scurrying in and out of the rushes.

The last time I saw fernbirds was near the awesome Trent's Stream at the Denniston Bioblitz, where we got quite close and heard them calling away merrily while one of the scientists was being interviewed for television news. In the weekend, I heard a fantastic radio interview about fernbirds that are living in my old neck of the woods on the Te Atatu Peninsula, within a stone's throw of one of New Zealand's busiest motorways.

Fernbirds are certainly no albatross, and generally are known as weak fliers, though young ones will make the effort to travel further to find new territories.

Māori considered the mātātā to be a "manu tohu" or wise bird. Its unique call was thought to warn of future events.  Early Europeans called them "swamp sparrows" given their similarity to the introduced sparrow.

Perhaps the fernbirds really are manu tohu, since it was their presence in wetlands that determined stronger protection for many of New Zealand's wetlands when the Department of Conservation was formed. In this instance, their distinctive call has been a life-saver for the myriad other species of wetland wildlife.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the destruction of 90 per cent of our wetland habitats, and the significance of these places for species like bitterns, whitebait, and eels. It seems quite in keeping with our humble way of doing things in New Zealand, that an unassuming wee bird like a fernbird could remind us all why looking after wetlands is crucial, and to ensure we don't lose the lot.

I'm going to visit my local wetland to see if we've got fernbirds there, fingers crossed, but given they can live at sea level, near motorways, at higher altitudes, I'm hoping that some of you might have seen or heard them too. Have you got fernbirds in your patch?

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