By Eden Fearnside, 7 years old Photos by Julia Fearnside
My name is Eden and I think birds of prey are fascinating! Debbie Stewart is the hard-working Founder of Wingspan. She and her staff are an amazing group of people who look after birds of prey. We visited the Wingspan centre in Rotorua. I got to talk to Debbie about the work she does. I liked the Wingspan display, because we got to see lots of birds of prey up close. My favourite part was the magpie drone used for training the falcons. I enjoyed patting the barn owl. It was beautiful! I want to go to Wingspan again! You can be a member and support Wingspan. My family became members to help them. At the end of our visit, we bought a cool ruru nesting box from the Wingspan shop. We are going to hang it up in our native bush, for moreporks to have a home. At our property, we trap possums to keep the birds safe. My family made a hawk feeder to let the hawks eat the pests we caught, in a safe place. I want to thank Wingspan for helping to save New Zealand’s birds of prey.
What is a bird of prey?
Everything about a bird of prey is sharp and pointy. They have sharp beaks and claws. They are hunting birds that eat meat.
What birds of prey are there in NZ?
There are five birds of prey in New Zealand. That includes two endemic birds. These are the kārearea (NZ falcon) and ruru (morepork owl). We have a couple of native birds of prey, the swamp harrier and barn owl. We have one that was introduced by people, the Little Owl (only found in the South Island). We don’t have as many birds of prey in NZ as we do in the rest of the world. We already have some extinct ones which is a bit sad.
Definitions: Endemic = found only in NZ. Native = self-introduced and breeding in NZ (and other countries). There are also birds of prey that are ‘stragglers’ or vagrants like Black Kite, Nankeen kestrel. Introduced = Introduced by people.
What makes the NZ falcon special?
They are awesome, spectacular and dynamic birds! Falcons are New Zealand’s fastest birds. They fly very, very fast!
Why are NZ falcons so rare?
It depends on which part of New Zealand you look at. They are doing very well in some places but not so well in others. We are still doing research about that.
There are three main reasons why their numbers are low:
- Pests that have been introduced to NZ. Falcons often nest on the ground and become prey to introduced species like rats, cats, dogs, ferrets, weasels, stoats, hedgehogs and pigs. They will eat the falcons’ eggs, baby chicks and sometimes the parents who are guarding the nest.
- Electrocution. Falcons like to land on high power line posts
- Deliberate shooting by people who don’t know or care about the falcons.
How many falcons are there in NZ compared to hawks?
Hawks are quite common and are found all over New Zealand. There are less than 10,000 falcons remaining. This may sound like a lot, but when you compare it to a threatened species like the kiwi, falcons are a lot rarer than kiwi.
Are there different types of falcon in NZ?
They are all the same genetically (originate from the same species). But they differ depending on where they come from – some are a little bit different in the North Island than those in the South Island.
What is their habitat? Where would you find them in the wild?
Before people came to NZ it was all covered in forest. They always like forests. Falcons are very clever, as they can learn to live in new places. They love native forest, farm land and pine forests. It comes down to what sort of food is available in those areas.
What do falcons eat in the wild?
They are all meat eaters. They catch birds, rodents, rabbits and large insects. Our research has shown that 95% of the falcons’ diet is introduced bird species. We can confirm our research of this – published papers, PhD. We can identify prey eaten by examining the regurgitated pellets that we collect from the wild.
They can eat anything from small mice, all the way up to the size of a hare. A hare can be up to 3kg in weight. An average female falcon would weigh about 500 grams. The falcon can catch prey that weighs 6 times it’s body weight.
They also need to eat bone, feather and fur as well. Because they don’t have a stomach like we do, they have to eat roughage. This helps to grind up the food. The following day after eating, they cough that up as a pellet (a bit like a fur ball).
An interview with DEBBIE STEWART:
- Where did your passions for ‘birds of prey’ come from?
I have been working with birds, fish, lizards, tuatara for over 40 years. I have been a falconer for just over 35 years. As a child, my family gave me animal books to read, which I loved!
What is a falconer?
A falconer is somebody who looks after birds of prey. You have to love birds of prey to be a falconer. A falconer is somebody who can see the natural behaviour of falcons. Falconry is an ancient practice, dating back to around 4000BC. Before guns for hunting and supermarkets for shopping, falconry was a way in which people could provide food for families.
Why did you create Wingspan?
One of the things that Wingspan does, is wildlife engagement. People coming to Wingspan get to see birds up close that they wouldn’t normally see. We are the only centre in New Zealand that looks after all birds of prey. This makes our centre quite special.
Why is helping birds important to you?
I think helping the birds helps people too. The reason I say that, is because whatever happens to birds of prey in the wild, it shows that where they live are important places for people to live too. If birds of prey aren’t well, then people aren’t good either. It’s all mixed in together really.
WINGSPAN National Bird Of Prey Centre
- What does the WINGSPAN centre do?
We put on bird of prey displays for people to watch. These are part of the falcons training regime and visitors can see the falcons natural behaviours and get close to birds of prey. We also do research, we study birds in the wild and in captivity. We do captive management, where we have birds that can’t go back to the wild, because they are not going to survive. We keep them here instead and we breed from them. Then we let their little ones go back into the wild. We also do education and public awareness, so people will love them and don’t want to shoot them and harm them.
How do you look after the birds?
It takes lots and lots of time. We look after them the best we can. We try and look after them in ways similar to how they would live in the wild. We feed them the same sorts of things and let them fly as well. We try to improve their fitness and hunting, so they can make it in the wild.
How many birds do you help each year?
At any one time we have 30 birds that we keep. Birds of prey don’t like to share aviaries with other birds, even other falcons. They are not very social and like to stay on their own. They all have a cage each. We get about 40 birds that are brought into us each year, that need our help. We have falcons that are brought in that have been shot. We have owls that are brought in because they have been attacked by cats. Hawks that are sometimes killed or hurt by cars, because they like to come down and eat the roadkill. Sometimes they have a bit of trouble getting out the way quick enough.
What are the main costs of the Centre?
Mainly for administration things, such as staff time, paying the bills, paying tax. We have a lot of volunteers that help us. We have a lot of people that donate things, like plants for the site and building materials. We are lucky that we have lots of people that care and want to help.
How do you make money to support the birds?
Wingspan is a registered charity. That means people can donate to our program. People and families can visit too. We run a 1 hour ‘Flight of the Falcon’ display, membership offers and we have a gift store on site and online (at www.wingspan.co.nz).
How can someone help if they find a sick or injured bird of prey?
The best thing would be to let us know, when they can. Our website has some basic things they can do. Sometimes it’s a matter of just watching the bird for a while, to see if it needs help or not. If the bird can’t fly away, we suggest people put them into a dark box. As soon as it is dark, it makes the bird start to rest and become less stressed. Then it can be brought into us and we can help.
How can people help the Wingspan Centre?
They can donate or volunteer. They can report sightings of birds of prey. They can tell people it’s a cool place to visit.
What are your hopes for birds of prey in the future?
I hope they make it, I hope they survive! The sad thing is we have already lost three birds of prey in New Zealand by extinction. One of them particularly was really cool – the hokioi or pouākai (Haast’s eagle). It was the biggest bird ever on the whole planet and it used to live in NZ! It became extinct around 400 years ago. Other extinct New Zealand birds of prey are the laughing owl and owlet nightjar.
Part of the philosophy for Wingspan, is that we want birds of prey to be in the lives of all New Zealanders, so that they see them every day. That could be a hawk, an owl at night or a falcon. Then we know they are doing ok.
What message would you give to children who care about our wildlife?
For children, watching and counting the birds in your backyard. If you watch birds for long enough (it doesn’t matter what type of birds), you start to appreciate them. You can learn about identifying males and females, watching them playing together and seeing young ones learning to fly. Learning helps people get interested in birds. You don’t have to go out into the bush, you can do it in your own backyard and when you are travelling around. Nature is good for all of us!