In Māori mythology the fantail was responsible for the presence of death in the world. Maui, thinking he could eradicate death by successfully passing through the goddess of death, Hine-nui-te-po, tried to enter the goddess’s sleeping body through the pathway of birth. The fantail, warned by Maui to be quiet, began laughing and woke Hine-nuite-po, who was so angry that she promptly killed Maui.
The fantail is one of the few native bird species in New Zealand that has been able to adapt to an environment greatly altered by humans. Originally a bird of open native forests and scrub, it is now also found in exotic plantation forests, in orchards and in gardens. At times, fantails may appear far from any large stands of shrubs or trees, and it has an altitudinal range that extends from sea level to the snow line.
Cats, rats, stoats and mynas are as great an enemy to fantails as they are to other native birds. Of all the eggs and chicks fantails produce, only a few survive and grow up.
However, the secret to fantails’ relative success compared to other native birds is their ability to produce lots of young. Some chicks are therefore likely to escape predation and populations can bounce back quickly after a decline.
Its broad diet of small insects also makes the fantail resilient to environmental change, because certain insect populations increase in disturbed and deforested habitats
Fantails use their broad tails to change direction quickly while hunting for insects. They sometimes hop around upside-down amongst tree ferns and foliage to pick insects from the underside of leaves They seldom feed on the ground.
Fantails use three methods to catch insects.
- Hawking: Used where vegetation is open and the birds can see for long distances. Fantails use a perch to spot swarms of insects and then fly at the prey, snapping several insects at a time.
- Flushing: Used in denser vegetation is called flushing. The fantail flies around to disturb insects, flushing them out before eating them.
- Feeding associations: Trampers are familiar with this method, where the fantail follows another animal to capture insects disturbed by their movements. Fantails frequently follow silvereyes, whiteheads, parakeets and saddlebacks, as well as people.
Monitoring fantail in Tongariro Forest
Rats are known to have a significant impact on forest birds. They take eggs and nestlings of small perching birds like fantails, but are also large enough to kill adults of forest birds. Monitoring the success of nests is an effective way to determine the success of predator control. If rats are controlled to a low level, more birds are expected to successfully raise their chicks.
Tongariro Forest uses fantails as an indicator of what’s happening to other birds. Rangers carefully follow fantails they hear until they find their nest, and observe how many of them successfully raise chicks, and how many of them fail. Wherever possible, the cause of failure is also recorded. This can be difficult because so little evidence is left behind.
As expected, in the years where there was predator control (in this case, in the form of aerial 1080), nesting success more than doubled. As rats began to creep up in numbers again, the nests failed more often. An interesting finding was that long-tailed cuckoos frequently raid nests, completely cleaning them out of eggs and chicks. The impact of cuckoos as a natural predator had not previously been well understood.
You can help
Help protect our native birds
When visiting parks, beaches, rivers, and lakes
- Only take dogs to areas that allow them, and keep them under control.
- Check for pests when visiting pest-free islands.
- Leave nesting birds alone.
- Use available access ways to get to the beach.
- Avoid leaving old fishing lines on beaches or in the sea.
- Follow the water care code and local navigation bylaws.
- Don't drive on riverbeds, or keep to formed tracks if you have to.
Other ways to help
- Get your dog trained in avian awareness.
- Volunteer to control predators and restore bird habitats.
- Set predator traps on your property.
- Put a bell on your cat's collar and feed it well.