Fantail | Piwakawaka
Fantail | Maori name Piwakawaka
Known for its friendly ‘cheet cheet’ call and energetic flying antics, the aptly named fantail is one of the most common and widely distributed native birds on the New Zealand mainland.
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.
The timing of fantail breeding varies with location and weather conditions. Those at southern localities (Southland) and offshore islands (Chathams) have shorter breeding seasons than those further north. The nest is constructed of fine materials (mosses, dried rotten wood fibres, hair, dried grasses, fern scales) tightly woven with cobwebs. Most nests are sheltered from above by foliage, and often include a ‘tail’ of material below the base of the nest. Two to five eggs are laid, with both adults taking turns on the nest through the approximately 14-day incubation period. Likewise, both male and female brood and feed the young during the approximately 14-day nestling period. Recent fledglings have short tails and often remain together, often perched side by side. The male looks after the fledglings when the female starts building the next nest. One monitored pair reared five broods in a season, totalling 15 fledglings.
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