Fretting Fantails Protest Pruning!

Fantails (piwakawaka) are reasonably common in my Invercargill garden and our bush backed Catlins' retreat. In our usual brief encounters they flutter around me, chirping a quick greeting, but something quite different occurred recently that was a little disturbing.

Although I have planted more trees than I have felled, and enjoy being surrounded by native plants, some growth becomes problematic and pruning becomes a necessity. A large non-native strawberry tree had grown substantially over the years on our Invercargill property and was hanging over our greenhouse, blocking early morning sun, and dropped copious amounts of berries in Autumn. I finally removed some large branches with a pruning saw which brought more light into the garden, allowing the natives underneath to thrive and also provided some useful firewood.

While sawing through the branches and piling them up for further processing, a fantail appeared. Rather than a quick hello it flitted around me, often within an arm's reach, chattering incessantly. It actually felt as if I was being scolded for removing large parts of the tree. I am regularly trimming the hedges that surround our property and have never experienced anything similar.

A couple of weeks later I finally decided to remove a good part of a large healthy pittosporum that was hanging over our Catlin's cottage roof. It was a lovely tree but its leaves fell into the spouting that provided our water supply and its flowers decomposed into a smelly mush that tainted the water. After flowering I was having to flush the tank and loose a considerable quantity of water just before Summer when we needed it the most. The tree had to be pruned and last Saturday I attacked it with a a reluctant vengeance after delaying the inevitable for some time.

As the first branch dropped a fantail appeared and I experienced the same scolding I received in Invercargill. The bird flew around my face and sat on close branches emitting the same intense fantail diatribe that could hardly be construed as friendly. On the following Sunday morning as I stripped the branches of twigs and leaves to turn the larger pieces into firewood, two fantails appeared. They continuously flitted around the felled foliage while expressing their dismay at the carnage to their habitat.

Fantails are insect eaters and they follow walkers on bush tracks because their movement creates feeding opportunities. What appears to be friendliness is actually opportunism. Perhaps I am overly sensitive because of my reluctance to cut back a healthy plant but the behaviour I experienced from these tiny birds couldn't be easily explained as feeding or defending territory.

Despite their attractive appearance and dancing flight, Maori regard fantails as harbingers of death if they enter a house.


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