Making the kererū count

Environmental gurus Jonathan Bussell and Craig Cottrill from the Hutt City Council tell us how to garden to attract more kererū.

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I don’t know about you, but over the last few years, especially this year, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of kererū in my neck of the Hutt-woods. Sitting on power lines by Percy Reserve, nestled in the trees that line the Hutt River – I’ve seen them in places that I hadn’t ever seen or noticed them before. I wonder if maybe I’m just noticing more as I’ve been consciously working on slowing myself down to enjoy the simple things in life.

{Scroll down to find out how to attract more kererū all year round, according to environmental gurus Jonathan Bussell and Craig Cottrill from the Hutt City Council.}

But rather than continue to wonder, I thought I’d do a little research.

After Googling ‘have kererū increased around the Hutt City + NZ’ (yes, that is what I searched), and before I answered my question, I stumbled across The Great Kererū Count – NZ’s biggest science project to help gather information on the abundance and distribution of the New Zealand pigeon. Oooh! The keywords ‘science’ and ‘project’ captured my attention – geeky stuff, me likes. (I didn’t answer my question definitively regarding whether kererū numbers have increased, but I serendipitously found my way somewhere even better!)

What’s more, I found that The Great Kererū Count is an annual nationwide project that starts today and ends Sunday 1 October – yippee going to get my kid out there with me counting kererū. An opportunity to stretch out my childhood and let out my inner discoverer for as many hours as I can squeeze in.

I also contacted the Hutt City communications team who put me in contact with some amazing environmental and biodiversity gurus – I wanted to get some top tips for attracting kererū from some of our Huttonians.

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Hutt City Council

They took their time out to meet with me to talk about birds and how to attract them (tee hee). We chatted about how to feed kererū year-round, why kererū are important to New Zealand’s native forests, bird corridors, bird poop, tripping on flax bushes, and how making small steps can have a big impact on the environment.

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Craig Cottrill and Jonathan Bussell from Hutt City Council 

Meet: Jonathan Bussell, Senior Contracts Officer, Hutt City Council

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Jonathan Bussell 

Responsible for pest-plant, weed control, revegetation planting; managing parks and gardens, horticulture and gardens with staff and contractors.

When asked about the kereru: ‘Kererū have beautiful colours. And when you get up close they’re not just gray and white, are they? They have that iridescence on them, the green, and the orange beak. They’re stunning birds, we’re lucky to have them. They’re part of the pigeon family. They’re the same shape, but much prettier than the ones at the railway station!’

Meet: Craig Cottrill, Reserves Asset Manager, Hutt City Council

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Craig Cottrill

Manages bush reserves around the Hutt City, coast and foreshore, western hills, and little reserves pottered around the city with staff and contractors.

When asked about the kererū: Agrees that kererū are beautiful. ‘Some refer to the other pigeons as the ‘flying rat’. It’s interesting though. The wood pigeon never seems to scavenge, even in the urban environment. You don’t see them hanging out looking to be fed by people.’

Me: ‘Have you noticed an increase in kererū around the Hutt City?’

Although Jonathan and Craig aren’t ‘bird’ specialists and reiterate that Hutt City doesn’t ‘do bird counts’, they do advise me that anecdotally they’ve noticed more kererū around the Hutt due to a combination of reasons.

‘You notice them around at the moment. They kind of seem to almost disappear over winter, don’t they?’ says Craig.

‘I feel they’re coming back due to a combination of things,’ agrees Jonathan.

And the Council puts a lot of effort into habitat protection and predator control. Craig tells me how they work with Wellington Regional Council in this effort.

‘The additional kererū are probably an impact from that,’ says Jonathan. ‘It’s probably also because the kōwhai are in flower.

Jonathan goes on to tell me how earlier that Monday morning when he and Craig were shooting the you-know-what about their weekends, he mentioned how he saw a kōwhai with 14 tuis on it in the Hutt. He tells me this is part of the picture.

He then hands me a print-out he’s sourced from DOC which outlines a variety of plants that to feed kererū throughout the year.

Download document here – get planting, feed those hungry pigeons

‘This is a great reference for people who are designing their gardens. It has a calendar of food sources for kererū throughout the year. Kererū aren’t stupid, and they’ll travel to get food; they know when it’s kōwhai time, et cetera,’ says Jonathan.

‘Referring to this DOC download, their fodder or food is fruit and foliage. I have several kōwhai and the one closest to my house, I’ve never seen flower because they just come and rip the leaves out. As soon as the buds get sweet enough, enough nectar in them, they just rip them off, but I don’t mind.’

Jonathan elaborates how when you’re doing revegetation planting with biodiversity aims; one of the aims is to keep food available throughout the year. So, it’s not about having just all kōwhai and food in the spring.

Craig mentions how there must have been a point of time when the kererū population was at its lowest, and how it’s just slowly building up now.

‘If you investigated more you’ll probably see, like over a greater period of time, probably what predated kererū the most was man. I’m sure when Cook and Co arrived here they talked about the birdsong being deafening. There are probably some islands around the country which showed how NZ used to be like,’ says Craig.

Me: ‘Why are kererū important to our environment?’

(In a nutshell: It’s their poop)

‘Seed dispersal,’ says Craig.

Jonathan outlines his involvement in pest-plant contracts to control certain plant species over the past years.

‘When you’re doing that kind of work you’ll see there are things called ‘bird poop spots’ which you see in the bush.

‘Obviously part of their daily routine is they sit there and they have a poop. And underneath there are seeds of kahikatea, rimu, all kinds. They’re [the kereru] reseeding the forest. The acids in the bird’s stomach will take off a lot of the hard seed coats, which assist in germination. And of course, because they’re pooping, the seeds will land somewhere with some ready nitrogen.

‘So it’s a clear function. Birds are essential to bush regeneration.’

Craig adds how to increase these bird-poop droppings, the Hutt City works with Forest and Bird creating these things called ‘bird corridors’.

‘So we’re looking at these areas with these big tracks of native bush and how we can fill some gaps to create some forest bridges for these birds to move throughout the different areas. Because some species get to the end of the woods, and they’re like, ‘we can’t go over there,’’ says Craig.

‘The bird corridors provide linear strips of vegetation throughout urban areas, so birds can fly through urban areas with some form of cover.’

Jonathan outlines how within their team they’ve had many discussions about linking the western and eastern hills with this bird corridor theory.‘Creating bird corridors can involve revegetation planting where you can. For instance, planting a lot of large, native trees every 50m. That’s what a bird – not directly any species – can comfortably transfer from area to area needs. We plant about 300 of these trees each year,’ says Jonathan.

‘Creating bird corridors can involve revegetation planting where you can. For instance, planting a lot of large, native trees every 50m. That’s what a bird – not directly any species – can comfortably transfer from area to area needs. We plant about 300 of these trees each year,’ says Jonathan.

‘And we probably do about 12,000-15,000 revegetation plants per year,’ confirms Craig.

‘The trees are eco-sourced, native trees,’ says Jonathan.

‘And the seeds come from the Wellington environment,’ adds Craig.

Click here for more information about bird corridors 

Me: ‘If you were to choose just two top tips for attracting more kererū to your garden, what would they be?’

(In a nutshell: plant a kowhai, get involved – small steps can make a big impact on the environment.)

Top Tip #1: ‘Protect the environment,’ says Craig.

‘Everything you do in life you should be thinking about the environmental impact. From the products you purchase in the shop, to how you drive, to how you travel around. That’s my motto in life. It’s got to become the way you live your life.’

Jonathan tells me how, drilling down from the biodiversity to the domestic sphere, it’s about planting trees and plants that are beneficial to kererū – from foliage to fruit to habitat.

Me: ‘And what are the easiest things to plant?’

‘Don’t mow your lawn that’s Jono’s motto!’ jokes Craig.

Top Tip #2: ‘Plant natives, and plant a kowhai. These are bomb proof, quick-growing and will guarantee to attract tuis and kereru,’ suggests Jonathan.

‘But perhaps, don’t plant flax within two metres of a walkway because they grow and are a tripping hazard!’ jokes Craig. ‘Who knew it [flax] would grow and attack people!’

‘It’s a tripping hazard, where you step on it, and then the other foot goes steps through the loop you made with the first foot, and you’re on your face!’ says Jonathan.

In contrast removing pest plants is another way of maximising the native plants in your garden. Jonathan tells me how weeds like old man’s beard, which smothers native bush, minimises the food and native habitat for native birds.

Craig goes on to outline a unique programme the Hutt City has, which is the only programme like it in the Wellington region.

‘So if you have old man’s beard, cathedral bells, banana passionfruit, we’ll come onto your property with your consent and remove these plants for free,’ says Craig.

‘It’s one of the many ways we protect the environment,’ confirms Jonathan.

And speaking of playing your part in protecting the environment, Craig tells me how there are about a dozen environmental groups that run through the Hutt City Council.

‘Getting involved in the environment is a bit like exercise. Incremental efforts all add up. If everyone took a day off every year and got involved with planting trees, or cleaning up the beach, it would make a huge difference,’ says Craig.

If you’re interested in making a difference to the environment through planting and other efforts by either joining or creating your own group, you can contact Janet Lawson, volunteer coordinator, at the Hutt City Council about how to join or set these up.

Craig then outlines yet another resource the Hutt City Council provides for free to increase pest-plant control.

‘If you also find that your property backs onto a forest and that pest-vegetation is growing through your fence, such as gorse. You’re welcome to call us; we’ll remove the gorse for free, and replace the gorse with some re-vegetation plants. We’re focusing on people’s property that backs onto our environment,’ adds Craig.

Jonathan tells me how it’s a triple win. We get weed control, some planting, and buffering/margin panting to help build our excellent reserves.

‘We don’t at present provide plants for private gardens, although we’d like to,’ says Jonathan.

For more information about pest-plant removal and volunteering, contact Hutt City Council

**I didn’t find out in the end if kererū have increased in New Zealand over the last few years. However, I did come learn this from The Great Kererū Count’s website, which has been going since 2011: 

  • In 2016, there were 5,880 observations and 11,990 kererū counted.
  • In 2016, Nelson, Marlborough, and Tasman respondents were of the overall opinion that numbers of kererū had decreased. Wellington region, Southland, and Canterbury reported with the greatest confidence that kererū numbers were increasing.
  • From 2014-16 Count results, there were 17,567 observations made and 32,757 kererū counted. The most observations have been made in these regions: Wellington (4,710), followed by Auckland (3,913), Otago (1,839), Northland (960), Waikato (758), Manawatu (707) and Bay of Plenty (670). The most kererū counted have been made in these regions: Wellington (10,025), followed by Auckland (6,132), Otago (1,893), Northland (1,747), Tasman (1,595), Canterbury (1,428), and Bay of Plenty (1,388).
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Kererū in a tree lucerne

Kererū images courtesy of Tony Stoddard