Parapara - The bird catching tree

Last updated 13:12 11/02/2013

Like some ghastly chapter out of The Twits by Roald Dahl (where Mr Twit glues the branches of his tree to catch birds to make a pie), New Zealand has its own bird-catching tree.

The Twits (copyright: Quentin Blake)

The parapara tree or Pisonia brunoniana is a New Zealand native and a member of the Bougainvillea family.  It is an island dweller mainly, found on places like the Three Kings and the Hen and Chicken Islands, but can also be found in a coastal few places in the North Island. To ensure the dispersal of its seeds, the seedpods are encased in a sticky coating which glue themselves to the feathers of passing seabirds.

The parapara has become the garden enemy of bird-lovers, due to its ability to capture small (and sometimes quite large) birds who get too close and come to a sticky end.  During the Spring and early Summer, the seedheads turn black and are coated in a glue-like substance that can remain for eight months. Curious bugs get caught in the glue, which then attract small birds. 

Parapara seedheads

Birds such as fantails, silvereyes and kingfishers become gummed up in the gluey substance, and either get stuck to the tree, or get free from the tree but with glue all over their feathers, they fall to the ground, collecting dirt, soil and leaves on their sticky feathers.  At this point the birds can no longer fly, and either starve or are taken by cats or dogs.  Not a nice outcome in any way shape or form. 

It's not just small birds, moreporks too have been found with congealed feathers and the parapara tree I visited near Waikanae had once caught a hawk which had thought the small birds stuck on its branches were an easy takeaway meal.

Morepork in parapara (photo: The Sanctuary)This little morepork has freed itself from the parapara, but been glued together by leaves on the ground. (Photo: The Sanctuary).

I'm pretty matter-of-fact about the sticky habits of the parapara tree and the sad end to the hapless birds that are caught.  It's nothing that doesn't happen every day in the dog-eat-dog world of nature... but perhaps because it is so visual we find it particularly appalling.  Much of the predation on our native birds happens at night, in forests, away from our sensitive eyes.  Finding a fluttering fantail glued to the branch of a tree, looking like a half-sucked jube is not pleasant for anyone to see.

Over the years, many bird lovers have called for parapara trees to be banned from plant nurseries and backyards.  To avoid birds getting stuck, people can prune the seedheads and flowers when they arise therefore avoiding the accidental gluing of small birds.  However, if you find a bird that has come off second-best to a parapara tree, the Wild Bird Care Charitable Trust in Auckland has some good advice.  Most importantly is to cut the plant (not the bird's feathers) around the bird, place the bird (and attached flora) in a box with a towel at the bottom, place in a dark and quiet room and call your nearest bird rescue centre. 

Silvereyes (photo: NZ Bird Rescue Charitable Trust)These silvereyes got too close for comfort to the parapara tree. Luckily someone has rescued them, please note the importance of cutting the plant, not the feathers. (photo: NZ Bird Rescue Charitable Trust).

The parapara these days is actually pretty rare. Apart from angry bird lovers, goats and other browsing animals have put paid to much of it's remaining population. It does beg the question though, would we care as much about the demise of the parapara as we do about sticky birds?

Have you ever seen a parapara tree - did you know about its deadly sticky seedheads? Have you ever found a bird that had a run-in with a parapara? 

Please feel free to email me to send me your questions, feedback, ideas or photographs for In Our Nature blog posts. You can also join the In Our Nature Facebook page.

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