Silence of the Fantails
The fantail is one of our commonest native birds, loved for its flamboyant tail, acrobatic flight and inquisitive friendliness. Yet life is no bed of roses for these charming little birds. Between August and February each year they pour their energy into reproduction, only to have almost all of their infant offspring devoured by rats and other predators.
I am watching a video recording I have made at a fantail nest, and the clock on the footage indicates 49 minutes after midnight. A rat has just jumped on to the tip of the branch on which the nest sits, waking the hen fantail, which is brooding her chicks. Three minutes later, the fantail flies off the nest in the direction of the approaching rat. The rat is momentarily distracted and hesitates, but then pushes on slowly towards the nest. The leaves beside the nest move as the rat pokes its head through to sniff at the two 10-day-old chicks inside. One chick seeks shelter under the rat’s body while the other senses danger and attempts to leap out of the nest. The rat dives forward and grabs it the fleeing chick by the neck with its teeth. The chick’s wings flay out and quiver as it lies dying on top of its sibling in the nest. The rat then gently takes hold of the head in its front paws and eats one of the eyes. The chick dies a moment later when the rat bites through the back of its skull to eat it’s brain.
It is a repulsive scene, one that churns my stomach every time I watch it. And I have seen this sort of predation many times. Sometimes the rat eats only the head contents of a young bird. On this occasion, it eats practically everything of these two chicks over the course of 13 minutes.
Forty minutes later, the female returns to a branch just above her nest. She carefully looks around for 60 seconds before alighting on the edge of her nest. She is very unsettled. She hops from one side of her nest to the other. Thirty seconds later she sits to brood on the nearly empty nest. Just a few bloody feathers and a couple feet remain in it. She sits restlessly, attempting to brood for eight minutes, then stands up and peers down into her nest. Two minutes later she flies off into the night.
Two hours later the rat revisits the nest-or perhaps it is another hungry predator on the same beat-and at 0607 the hen returns, again gazing into it. Both male and female return 15 minutes later, but stay for only a few seconds. Their home has been invaded, their young family killed and eaten. The site is now abandoned. The nest has failed.
I had kept an account of the industry of this pair of fantails. The day before the rat’s visit, the birds had flown to their nest 263 times. Earlier, they had flown between three and four kilometres gathering nest materials. I estimate that they had flown to the nest at least 4200 times over the preceding 32 days. They had brooded their eggs and chicks for nearly 600 hours.
My photography had provided the nest with temporary respite. The flashguns often frightened the rats away, but they just kept returning. Sometimes they would come back four or five times in a night. Eventually I had to sleep, but the rat did not. My video captured its final visit.
There is only one bright aspect to this tragedy: both adults survived, and will breed again.
Bright-eyed, confident and friendly, fantails are my favourite birds. In the Horowhenua, where I live, we see them regularly. One of their endearing characteristics is that they seem to seek out human company. But the more prosaic truth is they also follow cattle and trail in the wake of foraging flocks of bush birds. They will “befriend” anything which disturbs or attracts the insects on which they feed. Always active, agile and alert, they are constantly moving or ready to move—little white-and-brown fans fluttering in the forest gloom.
Maori have a number of names for the fantail, including hiwaiwaka, tirairaka, tiwakawaka, and titakataka, most of which mean something like “flitting about.” The bird owes its wonderful manoeuvrability to the uplifted tail, which makes up half of its 16 cm length. Using this dextrous fan, a fantail can stop or abruptly change direction in mid flight.
Contributing to its agility is lightness—a fantail tips the scales at a mere 8 g. Sparrows, by comparison, are 2 cm shorter but four times as heavy.
Even when at rest, the fantail’s stubby triangular wings are held extended, like those of a jump jet poised for takeoff. Perhaps this readiness has stood the bird in good stead, for fantails seem to have coped better than many other native birds with the European settlement of New Zealand. They may even be more numerous now than they were 150 years ago.
Fantails seem to prosper on edges or margins, whether they be rural, urban or suburban. They do very well in treed suburbs, broken farm country and horticultural areas with hedges and trees, but are also found in wetlands and native and exotic forests and as high as 1500 m. The dry, open country of the eastern South Island is one habitat where they are scarce.
The fantail species, Rhipidura fidiginosa, belongs to an avian family called the monarch flycatchers. There are thought to be about 10 subspecies of fantail, three of which occur in New Zealand: the North Island, South Island and Chatham Islands fantails. Apart from the Snares Islands, fantails are not found on our subantarctic islands, nor on the Kermadecs. The other subspecies occur in Australia, Tasmania, Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands, New Caledonia, the southern Solomons and Vanuatu.
The average fantail territory is less than a hectare in area and surrounded by a substantial buffer zone. When the breeding population expands, new territories may be wedged in between those already established; even so, territories often remain remarkably stable over many years, despite the fact that they may not be continuously inhabited. (Birds may disappear from an area for a time and then return a few seasons later.) In one 40 ha block I monitor, the number of breeding pairs in September varies between 5 and 12, and does not seem to be directly related to breeding success or failure in the previous season.
A reliable water supply in a territory is an asset. Fantails enjoy water, bathing and washing regularly and vigorously all year round. You can readily attract fantails to your garden with a bird bath. During dry weather, they are drawn irresistibly by the sound of water, whether garden sprinkler, dripping tap or babbling stream.
In late autumn and early winter, groups of fantails can be seen moving beyond their usual territories. During this time the occasional black fantail often arrives in the southern North Island. In the South Island, black fantails constitute 25 per cent of the total population, but they are rare in the North.
While it is common to see mixed-colour pairs in the South Island, I have never seen courtship or pairings between pied and black fantails in the North Island. Those black individuals that straggle across Cook Strait are bullied, chased and generally harassed by the resident pied birds.
New Zealand is unusual for the number of endemic birds that have a black form. Other examples are the black robin and Snares Islands tomtit. Black fantails occur only in New Zealand.
Fantails’ preferred food is small flying insects, which they catch on the wing and immediately swallow. You can hear their small beaks snap shut when they have made their catch. They also search for insects that hide in cracks or crevices in the bark on branches and tree trunks. Upside down, they prowl the underside of tree fern fronds, looking for moths that might be hiding there.
Fantails are active from dawn to dusk. When other small bush birds have retired for the night, fantails are still busy hunting a last snack for supper. In winter and early spring, when food is at its scarcest, they can be seen on the ground turning over leaves as their hunt becomes more desperate. Some even enter houses in search of sustenance. Should they take large blowflies and moths, they hammer them, kingfisher style, to soften them.
Capturing insects on the wing calls for impressive flying skills—hawking, hovering, gliding, swooping, diving. Yet the birds are not always quick enough. In her book Immigrant Killers, zoologist Carolyn King quotes from a reader’s column in the Southland Times of June 20, 1980, in which “Old Prospector” writes: “I once saw a stoat jump off the ground and catch a fantail on the wing and that bird was three feet above the ground.”
Fantails remain in pairs year-round, keeping up a companionable chit-chat of “contact conversation.” They are especially territorial in spring, but less assiduous in leaping to the defence of their boundaries in autumn and winter. Sometimes they may be found in groups, especially family groups.
Chicks reared early in the breeding season are vigorously driven from their parents’ territory as the next brood hatches. They may be only five weeks old. On the other hand, chicks from a late-season brood are often still with their parents five months later. Having been welcome for so long, these older juveniles fiercely resist their eventual expulsion.
The birds chase, threaten and click their beaks at each other, and in rare cases end up wrestling on the ground. Grasping each other with their feet, they roll around, locked together like an untidy feather ball propelled by random wing-beats.
The onset of breeding varies considerably with both the year and the location. Weather also plays a part. Rain followed by mild conditions induces early nest building, with egg laying as early as August. Continual cold wet weather delays both nest building and egg laying until mid-September. Cold weather may also lengthen the interval—normally 24-hours—between the laying of one egg and the next. If the weather stays wet and windy, exposed nests, especially those that have not been laid in, may be abandoned.
Before they start to build, both birds of a pair sit for some time at their chosen nest site in an incubating pose, sometimes side by side. Often copulation takes place on the nest site before work starts.
Fantails build a nest that is slightly smaller than a tennis ball, usually with a “tail,” giving it the look of an upside-down pear. Nests are constructed from a range of fine Materials-dried grasses, rootlets, moss, bark fibre, small pieces of dry, rotten wood—bound together with cobwebs. Nest linings include animal hair, tree-fern hair and seed down. Fantails sometimes thieve material from the nearby nests of other species. Once I saw a pair demolish one of their own old nests and reuse the materials. Nests are typically 3 to 5 m above the ground, usually sited at a branch fork and always protected by overhead foliage.
The work of nest building is interspersed by extended periods of feeding and courtship. During courtship, both birds chase and trace each other’s flight. The cock sings from a perch, the hen often above him. He expands his wings horizontally and rapidly vibrates them. Often he feeds the hen before mating with her.
In early spring, the time taken to build a nest is 15 to 20 days. In summer it is much shorter, usually just three or four days. These quick constructions typically follow predation events, when eggs or young chicks have been seized from a previous nest. If this trauma takes place at night, the nest is usually abandoned and a new one built. The fastest rebuild I have observed was 36 hours from site selection to nest completion. In this instance, only 57 hours elapsed between predation (a rat ate two eggs) and the first egg of the next clutch being laid in a new nest.
When nest building follows the successful fledging of a family, the hen takes seven or eight days to complete the task by herself, while her partner cares for the brood that has just fledged. A clutch usually consists of three to five eggs, which are white with brown markings. Larger clutches are laid mid-season (November) and smaller clutches at the beginning and end of the season.
Incubation takes 13 or 14 days. During the daytime, the parents change over every 20 to 30 minutes, but the hen sits through the night. When they hatch, the chicks are brooded continuously for the first 5 to 6 days, the parents taking turns. The nestlings fledge when they are 13 or 14 days old. During wet weather, the brooding parent sits very upright in the nest, with wings held out like a partially opened umbrella, providing very effective protection.
After leaving the nest, the chicks stay close together. They usually spend their first two or three hours away on or near the ground, where they are vocal and therefore vulnerable to predation. But they quickly gain strength and some flight skills, and soon follow their parents up into the branches. Until the hen starts building the next nest, both parents feed the young birds. The cock then looks after them by himself until the next clutch hatches.
Fantails are potentially very prolific breeders. The most productive pair I am aware of (recorded by A. Blackburn) raised 15 chicks from 16 eggs in five clutches over a single season. This contrasts with one unfortunate pair I studied which produced no chicks from 20 eggs in six clutches.
During breeding, fantails are vulnerable to adverse weather and to predation, especially by ship rats. Losses due to bad weather are widespread. During high winds, nests are blown about like pendulums, swinging through arcs of up to 110°. Adults have to stay on the nest to keep the eggs from falling out. I have known storms in which every active nest was lost. Four or five days after such a storm, every pair will be nest building simultaneously. These storms usually occur in spring, and there is plenty of time for re-nesting afterwards, so they are not the complete disaster they might at first appear.
Losses due to predation are more specific. Particular territories or areas within territories can be predation “hot spots” or “safe spots,” depending mainly on the distribution of ship rats. In the Horowhenua, ship rats are the main predators of fantails, although cuckoos take some eggs and moreporks get some chicks.
In some hot spots, more than 60 per cent of nests are predated even before a full clutch of eggs has been laid. Rats even visit and revisit nests still under construction, as if to check the scheduling of future meals. In these circumstances, 8 to 10 nesting attempts are common, usually all unsuccessful.
In the area where I live, fantail breeding success is significantly greater near houses where there are cats—especially when rat numbers are high.
Female fantails are at greater risk than males because they incubate and brood at night, when rats are out scavenging. A hen’s maternal instincts seem to strengthen as her investment in her brood increases. While a clutch of eggs is incomplete she is fairly easily flushed from the nest, but once she has chicks she is more tenacious and may even threaten the rat with beak snapping and posturing. This behaviour is dangerous, for the rat will lunge at the female in an attempt to catch her, as well as eating the nest’s contents.
Moreporks are another nocturnal predator of fantails. I have monitored the prey moreporks take to their nests, and have found that adult fantails are rarely captured—out of 51 birds taken, one was an adult while the rest were juveniles. But with nestlings it is a different story. Seventeen out of 23 birds taken were positively identified as fantail chicks. Interestingly, two thirds of these were aged between 7 and 9 days. I have the impression that moreporks harvest chicks once they reach a desirable size.
Fantails are also victims of daylight assaults. Magpies and cuckoos are the main culprits. I have a video recording of a cuckoo visiting a fantail nest after the adults had departed. The cuckoo was there for only five seconds, but that was more than enough time for it to make off with an egg.
The fantail even has an enemy in the vegetable kingdom. Parapara, also known as the birdcatcher tree, often snares fantails on its sticky pods. Insects are attracted to the pods and become stuck, and fantails are drawn to the insects and become stuck too. One trapped bird often draws others to the same fate. In his book The Bird Next Door, Piers Hayman records an instance in which eight fantails were caught in one small parapara.
Fantails are not always the victims of an altercation. They take a leading role when a mixed group of birds mobs a morepork, moving in closer than any other species and sometimes striking the morepork on the head in dive-bombing attacks from the rear. They will even attack after dusk, when the advantage of deepening gloom is starting to swing the balance in the morepork’s favour. That said, they are naturally very cautious of moreporks. A fantail will not return to its nest at dusk if a morepork is nearby.
I have watched two fantails try to intimidate a kingfisher. They took turns flying after it, scolding loudly with beaks snapping. I have also seen a group of fantails threaten and attempt to drive off a tun with multiple attacks.
Snapping the beak is a threat behaviour the fantail uses in several situations, such as in territorial disputes, in trying to scare off predators, or even in trying to warn off humans who might intrude on a nest or newly fledged chicks.
I think it would be a rare New Zealander who didn’t have a soft spot for fantails. They are very lovable birds. One day I was watching a pair and noticed the female was visibly unwell. Her plumage was fluffed up, she was panting and had trouble keeping her balance, and her flights were brief and her landings bumpy. For the 30 minutes I watched, her partner was constantly attentive, cuddling up beside her and then flying off to catch an insect with which to feed her. When settling beside her on one occasion, he put his wing over her body. After that encounter I did not see her again.
Despite hundreds of hours of watching and photographing fantails, I have not grown tired of these birds at all. I remember them from as far back as my memory as a child goes, and am unashamedly a fantail fan. My hope is that, by drawing attention to their plight, I will help cast them in the role of flag-bearer for all our other less conspicuous small birds and animals in peril from rats.