Written by Ben Horne (Lincoln University)
Edited by Michael Hudson and Mark Parker, Lincoln University, January 2006
- Scientific name: Rhipidura fuliginosa subspecies fuliginosa (Sparrman)
- Popular Common names: fantail, South Island fantail, piwakawaka.
- Other common names: hiwaiwaka, tirariaka, tiwakawaka, titakataka, grey fantail (Australia).
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Aves (the birds)
- Order: Passeriformes (the song birds)
- Family: Monarchidae (the Monarch flycatchers)
- New Zealand Status: native
- Taxonomy sources: Checklist Committee of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand (1990), Heather & Robertson (1996), Mudge (2002).
The fantail is perhaps one of our more easily recognised and distinctive native birds. Most New Zealanders will be familiar with its flamboyant tail, friendly behaviour, and fluttering flight. It is a small bird with a relatively small head and bill. The most distinctive characteristic is the long fanned tail. There are three plumage phases which help in identification. The pied phase has a grey head, white eyebrow, brown back and yellow under parts (Figure 1). The chest is banded and the tail is mainly white. The juvenile phase is similar but has a browner body and indistinct body markings. The black phase is uniformly sooty black with a white spot behind the eye. This phase is found mainly in the South Island (Heather & Robertson, 1996).
Fantails have distinctive, high pitched “cheep cheep” and twittering songs (personal observation).
Those unfamiliar with New Zealand’s native birds will have little problem in identifying the fantail as there are no other passerine bush species which have such a proud set of tail feathers. Furthermore, there are no other birds in New Zealand with such a seemingly disorientated flight pattern.
Figure 1. Pied phase of the South Island fantail (image source: www.accomodation.co.nz).
Full natural and naturalised range
The species R. fuliginosa are present naturally in New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania, Lord Howe Island, the southern Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Norfolk Island (Heather & Robertson, 1996). Fantails are not naturalised in other parts of the world (Heather & Robertson, 1996). There are ten subspecies of R. fuliginosa, of which three are native to New Zealand: North Island fantail (R. fuliginosa subsp. placabilis), Chatham Island Fantail (R. fuliginosa subsp. penitus), and South Island Fantail (native to Canterbury) (R. fuliginosa subsp. fuliginosa).
New Zealand range
Fantails have a wide distribution across New Zealand, inhabiting the North, South, Chatham, Stewart and Snares Islands. Fantails are absent on the Sub Antarctic islands (bar the Snares Islands) and from the Kermadec Islands (Heather & Robertson, 1996).
Fantails have thrived in Canterbury and can be found in most parts of the province. It is possible to see fantails from the Canterbury coast, across its plains, and into the Nothofagus (beech) forests which cloak the eastern Southern Alps.
Natural History in Canterbury
The natural habitat of the fantail is within forest, however, since Maori and European modification of the New Zealand landscape, fantails can be found in a wide range of habitats providing there is some form of vegetation cover. These habitats include forest edges, secondary growth scrub habitats, suburban landscapes, exotic plantations, gardens and orchards (Cassey, 2001).
The fantails’ natural range is from sea level to around 1500m (Chambers, 2000; Moon, 1992; Heather & Robertson, 1996). There are several places that are notable exceptions in the fantails range; the dry open country of Marlborough, the Mackenzie basin and Central Otago. This is due to unfavourable climatic conditions and lack of suitable habitat.
Prior to human settlement in New Zealand the natural habitat of the fantail was within intact forest. A study based in a lowland rimu (Dacrydium cuppressinium, Podocarpaceae) forest, found that fantails occupy pole rimu, particularly the lower and middle tiers (Warburton et al., 1992). Their study examined the niche differentiation of various insectivorous bird species, illustrating that although the ecology of these birds appears similar it is actually very different.
Modern day habitat use by the fantail has altered markedly and the fantail is found throughout the modern matrix of the New Zealand landscape. This pattern of habitat use is consistent with a study by Berry (2001) in Australia looking at R. fuliginosa fuliginosa. This sub-species thrives on the edge of bush fragments both there and in New Zealand.
Breeding occurs between August and September (Heather & Robertson, 1996). Nest construction commences in August, and usually takes two weeks (Heather & Robertson, 1996).
Fantails are prolific breeders; Powlesland (1982) observed pairs breeding up to five times if previous attempts failed. A typical clutch consists of 3–4 white speckled eggs (Powlesland, 1982). Fantails can be classified as r–selected, meaning they are able to reproduce rapidly, taking advantage of favourable conditions (Wilson, 2004). Rapid reproduction is one of the reasons that fantails have been able to thrive so well in a modified landscape. When comparing the success rate of forest dwelling insectivorous birds, only the grey warbler (Gerygone igata, Acanthizidae) has a higher rate of fledging (Table 1).
During winter it is not uncommon to see small flocks of ten to twenty birds feeding in pasture land (Heather & Robertson, 1996).
|Species||Number of young fledged per year|
|Fantail||2.6 – 2.7|
|South island robin (Petroica australis subsp. australis, Eopsaltriidae)||2.1 – 3|
|Rifelman (Acanthisitta chloris subsp. granti, Acanthisittidae)||3|
|Brown creeper (Mohoua novaseelandiae, Pachycephalidae)||3.2|
|Mohoua (M. achrocephala)||2.4|
Fantails are insectivorous, however their diet can be supplemented by fruit if need be. The staple diet consists of moths, flies, wasps, beetles and spiders; most of which is caught on the wing, aided by their their large fanned tail (Heather & Robertson, 1996). The tail has evolved to facilitate the manoveribility required to catch small flighted invertebrates. The ‘fluttering’ and ‘disoriented’ looking flight is actually an impressive display of acrobatics in pursuit of elusive prey. The tail also serves the purpose of acting as a sweep to disturb insects (Moon, 1992). A good place to watch this display is in bushy areas near a stream or pond, where there is likely to be a good food source for the fantail. Fantails also feed by hopping around on leaves and on the underside of fern fronds searching for insects. Although not as common, feeding does occur on the ground, this is more typical on winter pastures where stock may have dislodged ground dwelling insects. Furthermore they have been known to ground feed on predator proof islands (Heather & Robertson, 1996).
Heather and Robertson (1996) describe the breeding behaviour of fantails. Fantails are strongly territorial while breeding. Curiously, in the North Island it is the female alone which builds the nest. The South Island male, being more of the modern enlightened type, assists the female during nest construction. This chivalry doesn’t stop territories from breaking down during the autumn molt. Fantails typically pair up for the year or until bad weather or a storm separates them.
Prior to the arrival of humans, predation was probably limited to morepork (Ninox novaeseelandiae subsp. novaeseelandiae, Strigidae), and New Zealand falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae, Falconidae). Morepork prey predominantly upon nestlings but may also take adult birds (Mudge, 2002).
The introduction of exotic animals has had a devastating effect on the native bird species of New Zealand, driving many to extinction. While the fantail has been able to thrive under this change, there are a few introduced species which now prey upon them. Stoats (Mustela erminea, Mustelidae) are known to be a predator to fantails at the nesting stage although research is limited concerning the interaction between the two species. Another adversary is the ship rat (Rattus rattus). Mudge (2002) has seen rat predation of more than 60 percent of nests before a clutch has succeeded.
Fantails do have some parasites; however research on them is also limited. Due to their egg shape and colour and open nest, fantails seem to be an obvious choice for nest parasitism, by the Shining cuckoo (Chrysococcys lucidus). This has been recorded; however it appears to be uncommon (Moon & Lockley, 1982).
Fantails are friendly with humans and other bush dwelling birds. They are often associated across New Zealand with feeding silver eyes (Zosterops lateralis lateralis, Zosteropidae), whiteheads (Mohoua albicilla), and saddlebacks (Philesturnus carunculatus, Callaeidae) (Heather & Robertson, 1996). These associations relate to the common interest of searching for insects to eat (Heather & Robertson, 1996). By feeding together there is the mutual benefit of flushing more insects from hiding, resulting in more food for all participants.
How to find a fantail
Fantails are abundant and inquistive birds. They will often find you during bush walks throughout Canterbury (and elsewhere in New Zealand) and will attempt to catch any insects stirred up by your movements (personal observation). Fantails can be seen flitting about in suburban gardens in Christchurch. They are more abundant in the city during the winter months (personal observation).
Abundance and Conservation Status
- New Zealand: abundant
- Canterbury: abundant
They are abundant throughout all of New Zealand, including Canterbury, the Chatham Islands and the Snares Islands (Heather & Robertson, 1996).
While predominantly a bush dwelling passerine bird, fantails have proven apt at utilising the changing landscapes imposed by humans over time. Modification of New Zealand may have even been beneficial to the fantail, allowing it to exploit a greater range of habitats. Cassey (2001) conducted a study of bird distributions, finding the ten most common and wide ranging bush birds in New Zealand. He found that six had been introduced from Europe, two have self introduced from Australia post European colonisation, and only two were native pre European. The fantail is of the later group, as with the grey warbler. Cassey (2001) concluded that small, rapidly developing species, with high fecundity have been able to establish in larger areas over New Zealand; the fantail fits this criterion perfectly.
Fantail populations fluctuate greatly from season to season, particularly during severe or prolonged winters. In some extreme instances there may be local extinction (Heather & Robertson, 1996). Because it is such a wide spread species, it is possible for recolonisation to occur in a relatively short period of time.
The abundance and broad range of the fantail in Canterbury has been made possible by the retention of bush fragments, gardens and shelterbelts, all of which provide shelter, nesting sites and habitat. Fantails have even been able to persist in the urban environment of Christchurch. They are one of the more abundant native birds found in Christchurch. It is with great delight that I watch these characters from my kitchen window, prior to an honest day at university.
The fantail is a protected native species.
Significance for people
Traditional Maori significance and uses
Owing to their size, piwakawaka have never had the honour of being a delicacy of the Maori. They do however feature in Maori folklore and language. It is difficult to imagine such a jovial little native bird being omitted in a culture closely linked to the land. A restless person can be said to be ‘he tou tiriraka’, referring to the lively movement of the tail. A small man may be referred to as piwakawaka, with an implication of being bold and assertive (Orbell, 2003). Perhaps the best known story related to the piwakawaka, is that of Maui. Maui had planned to conquer death by passing through the womb of Hine-nui-te-po. For this journey he took an accompaniment of small birds, including piwakawaka. Maui warned the birds not to laugh, but alas the piwakawaka could not resist. This resulted in Maui being crushed mid way through his efforts. From that point on the piwakawaka has been considered a bad omen (Orbell, 2003).
There is not much the fantail can actually be used for; its size excludes it from the dinner plate. Perhaps it is better used as an ambassador for conservation. It is hard not to appreciate the fantail, and being so common allows people to see it in everyday settings. The fantail has iconic potential, promoting the interest of New Zealand’s native species.
The fantail is a friendly native bird, which most New Zealanders will be familiar with. It has a very distinctive tail and fluttering flight. Fantails are wide ranging over most of New Zealand, and have been able to thrive in the highly-modified landscape of Canterbury. They are considered an abundant native under no threat of extinction. It is possible to see fantails throughout Canterbury except in the Mackenzie basin. Next time you are walking in the bush or through the city keep a look out for this inquisitive little bird, if you are lucky and stand still it may come pay you a visit.
Berry, L. (2001) Edge effects on the distribution and abundance of birds in a southern Victorian forest. Wildlife Research, 28, 239–245.
Cassey, P. (2001) Determining variation in the success of New Zealand land birds. Global Ecology & Biogeography 10, 161–172.
Chambers, S. (2000) Birds of New Zealand. Locality Guide. Arun books, Auckland, New Zealand.
Checklist Committee of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand (1990) Checklist of the Birds of New Zealand (third edition). Random Century in association with the Ornithological Society of New Zealand, Inc., Auckland, New Zealand.
Heather, B. & Robertson, H. (1996) The field guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Penguin Books, Auckland, New Zealand.
Moon, G. (1992) The Reed Field Guide to Birds of New Zealand. Reed books. Auckland, New Zealand.
Moon, G. & Lockley, R. (1982) New Zealand’s Birds, a photographic guide. Heinemann Publishers. Auckland, New Zealand.
Mudge, D. (2002) Silence of the fantails. New Zealand Geographic, 55, 70–85.
Orbell, M. (2003) Birds of Aotearoa. A natural and cultural history. Reed Books. Auckland New Zealand.
Powlesland, M, H. (1982) A breeding study of the fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa fuliginosa) Notornis, 29, 181–195.
Warburton, B., Kingsford, S.J., Lewitt, D.W., & Spurr, E.B. (1992) Plant species preferences of birds in lowland Rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum) forest, implications for selective. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 16, 119–125.
Wilson, K-J, (2004) Flight of the Huia. Ecology and conservation of New Zealand's frogs, Reptiles, birds and mammals. University of Canterbury Press, New Zealand.