Bird and insect sounds that are disappearing

By Tony Orman

Shining cuckooThe arrival of the migrant native bird the cuckoo used to be eagerly listened for around 1 October. The bird is small and is more often heard than seen, identified by its distinctive whistling call repeated several times. But this summer in Marlborough, I heard only two or three.

Yesterday I saw a kingfisher as I drove to the river. The kingfisher has markedly declined in numbers in the last few years. Once I would frequently see several or more sitting on roadside power lines. Now only occasionally while fishing the Wairau River, I might hear the kingfisher’s distinctive call.

On the upper Wairau River while trout fishing, there is no song of the cicada but only silence. Cicadas are important as food for insectivorous native birds such as fantail, rifleman, whitehead, grey warbler, fantail and others. For trout they are a considerable part of the summer months’ diet.

The decline of native bird life

But it’s not only cuckoos, kingfishers, cicadas and other life that is silent. Agencies which should be concerned, are mute too. Birds have almost certainly declined drastically but bureaucracies and bureaucrats are thriving in number and dominance.

The Department of Conservation (DoC) is just one bureaucracy that is duty bound by an act of Parliament to protect native birds such as cuckoo and kingfisher and invertebrates such as cicadas. 

But it is strangely silent on the demise of native bird life such as the native cuckoo and kingfisher and of insects.

Hippos and Rhinos

Nor does the Marlborough District Council seem to show the slightest concern. Its Pest Management Strategy was recently approved by council and drew from some councillors, words of warm praise. 

Yet the same strategic plan bizarrely excluded the rambling Old Man’s Beard as a pest because it is so widespread.  This reflects council’s inability and utter failure to combat it. In the same breath, the plan inexplicably declared wallabies a pest, although none exist in Marlborough. In 150 plus years the marsupial has only just started to spread from its original liberation point in South Canterbury.

I quipped to a Marlborough District Council “pest” officer, well if non-existent wallabies are a pest, perhaps rhinos and hippos could be listed as pests. The officer was not amused.

Council would rather chase imagined pests than deal with real, increasing pest plants. Not only mute they seem deaf to the ominous signs of ecological collapse. 

As a teenager in the 1950s and for a couple of later decades, frogs croaked by every stream or marshy hollow and catching tadpoles was a major pursuit for youngsters. Now they have gone. Bees are struggling in numbers.

Evening mayfly hatches on the river are almost non-existent, so are after dark caddis fly (sedge) hatches. There’s a big, big decline in insects banging into and being squashed on car windscreens after dark in country areas. 

Are these apparent declines in numbers of wild creatures symptomatic of an ailing and declining ecosystem?

Few Moths too

Nearer home, moths in dozens no longer cluster around street lights or lighted house windows. Is any authority or agency concerned? Overseas there is growing concern.

A year or so ago, the International edition of The Guardian reported that the biomass of flying insects in Germany had dropped by three quarters since 1989, threatening an “ecological Armageddon”. 

Insects are the vital pollinators and recyclers of ecosystems and the foundation of food webs everywhere. In the United States, scientists recently found the population of monarch butterflies had fallen by 90 percent in the last 20 years, with bumblebees dropping 87 percent. 

Researchers are deeply worried that a whole insect world is silently going missing. It is a decline verging on loss that could have deep, dark, unknown consequences for the planet.

Undoubtedly chemicals have to be a major suspect in the downward spiral of wildlife.

Are we dowsing an environment with an unprecedented mixture of chemicals? Household effluent contains bleaches and detergents that did not exist forty years ago. Are we dumping upon the environment via urban waste-water systems and widespread spraying of the country-side with agri-chemicals, insecticides and pesticides, a “cocktail of chemicals” of unprecedented volume and variety?

An indictment of the ignorant, short-sighted lack of respect for the environment is that many urban areas still discharge sewage into waterways, either regularly or in substantial rainfall times. Chemicals, rather than cutting and composting weeds, is used on water ways.

Diazinon and 1080 are lethal for aquatic life

DianzinonNaturally farming practices have sought greater efficiencies and production. But don’t blame farmers. The authorities are at fault. DDT was replaced by diazinon for aerially spraying for grass grub. Although banned in the EU, its use is un-restricted in New Zealand. 

Diazinon is “lethal to aquatic life” and water bird life. That should concern agencies like DoC and Fish and Game.

1080 drop1080 originally developed as an insecticide “by-kills” other life such as birds and animals. In essence, it’s an “ecosystem poison.” The DoC aerially drops 1080 on huge areas of wilderness public lands.

Science paid to suit

Around Marlborough’s Wairau valley, there’s a virtual monoculture of vineyards. Vineyards are regularly dowsed with sprays. What does science say? Unfortunately science is a confused mess corrupted by a system of commissioned, paid research providing financial motivation. 

Mike MeadsSome scientists have spoken out. But the system comes down heavily on them as it did on an eminent entomologist the late Mike Meads, who warned of long-term ecosystem damage following aerial 1080 drops at Whitecliffs in Taranaki.

The fury that descends on any scientist who steps out of line will ensure that their career and reputation will be in tatters. Consequently few buck the system.

Is New Zealand in Chemical Cloud Cuckoo Land?

Are hippos likely to be on Marlborough’s pest lists?


(First published in the magazine for The Council of Outdoor Recreation Associations of NZ Inc)