Spreading the seeds: 'Human birds' find a way

Kapi-Mana News | Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Conservationist kids are becoming 'human birds' to help our feathered friends recreate their native habitat and reclaim it from the introduced pest, gorse.

Kapi-Mana News, 5 August 2008: Spreading the seeds: 'Human birds' find a way

As another 'human bird' tosses seed balls in the background, Caroline Hollow of the Kiwi Conservation Club gets ready to use a tennis racquet to 'serve' a seed ball into the gorse.

[Larger image]

The hills are alive with the songs of birds, but there would be more of them if there were more native bush for their food sources and habitat.

Instead, the hills are alive with the bright yellow shout of flowering gorse that leaves little room for anything else.  Habitat loss is a chief reason for a diminishing dawn chorus.

Wholesale native habitat regeneration requires either costly removal of gorse, with attendant erosion, or people trying to plant new trees in gorse patches.  Gorse, of course, makes barbed wire look friendly, so that's out.

Birds do help grow forests, by dropping seeds they carry around on feeding trips, or leaving them behind in their droppings.

Kapi-Mana News, 5 August 2008: Spreading the seeds: 'Human birds' find a way

Getting ready to swat a seed ball into the deep gorse bush in Maara Roa Reserve above Cannons Creek, 'human bird' Sarah Tutton is helping plant a new native forest to replace gorse.

[Larger image]

But nature's method isn't very efficient.  When they're up against whole plantations of gorse, the statistical odds are stacked against the random droppings of birds.

But there's another way besides becoming a human pincushion.  A 'human bird' does just what a real bird does to create new forests: it spreads seeds of native trees and plants.

So green-minded youngsters from the Kiwi Conservation Club (KCC), the Royal Forest and Bird's club for children, have become human seed-carriers to regenerate the Maara Roa Reserve near Cannons Creek in East Porirua, part of Greater Wellington Regional Council's Belmont Regional Park.

Maara Roa means "long garden", the historical name coming from an unknown Maori woman who tended a long strip of land in the valley and shared her produce with Maori and Pakeha alike.  KCC area co-ordinator Janet Hollow says, "It's a really popular thing for the kids - they like the concept.  I read them a poem from a book called "Play lightly on the Earth", about a 'tree hotel' for the birds, that starts out "A leafy roof to shade your head... ."

About 15 kids and an equal number of parents gathered at Maara Roa recently to put the idea into action.  But without wings, the human birds have to find other ways to sow the seeds far and wide.  Just trying to toss loose plant and tree seeds into the gorse-infested areas is a little like spreading chicken feed in the wind.

Kapi-Mana News, 5 August 2008: Spreading the seeds: 'Human birds' find a way

Langley Payne readies two of the clay and potting mix seed balls for dispersal by 'human birds'.

[Larger image]

So botanists developed the seed ball, a sticky lump of binder with seeds throughout it.  The balls are thrown, swatted, sling-shot, and even golfed into the gorse-covered areas, where they lie until the seeds are washed into the ground and can sprout and take root.

Made from clay and a form of potting mix, the balls are stuffed with seeds sourced from Pauatahanui Wildlife Reserve.  Seeds included in the line-up were karaka, mahoe, kohuhu, poroporo, pigeonwood, kaikomako and five finger.

Ironically, the gorse itself acts as a 'nurse-maid' to the young trees, sheltering them until they grow above the gorse, and then shading the gorse so it dies from lack of light.

The kids helped gather the seeds at Pauatahanui Wildlife Reserve and made the balls at a Tawa nursery.  When 100 balls were ready the kids and supporters recently [8 July 2008] joined with Friends of Maara Roa and GWRC mobile parks ranger Dean Scott in a steep gorse area and threw the balls deep into the bush.

While not as perfect as planting saplings, it makes it possible to work in difficult terrain such as swampy and steep areas, otherwise unsafe and unsuitable for volunteers.

And using things like badminton racquets to loft the seed balls adds fun to the exercise.  It is also a method that members of the community at any age can do for themselves.

"We've really enjoyed being a part of this project and plan to continue our involvement long term assisting Maara Roa in their forest regeneration," said KCC national co-ordinator Donna Sherlock.

For more information see: Kiwi Conservation Club website — www.kcc.org.nz,
Friends of Maara Roa's 'Human Birds Programme' or
Greater Wellington Regional Council website — www.gw.govt.nz.