Tui bird New Zealand (attribute to Sid Mosdell from Wikimedia Commons)

Image: Sid Mosdell (Wikimedia Commons)

A team led by New Zealand's Plant & Food Research will undertake a pilot study this summer to determine if native birds can potentially function as nature’s pest control.

With the blessing of iwi – the largest social units in New Zealand Māori society – scientists will catch and release native birds such as tui, korimako (bellbird), piwakawaka (fantail), riro riro (grey warbler) and tauhou (silvereye) currently present in apple, wine grape, berry and plum orchards in Palmerston North, Levin and Ohau.

The team will use next-generation sequencing (NGS), a DNA-based method, to identify insect DNA from collected avian faeces, which will allow them to understand which insects the birds favour in their diet.

“Birds could prove to be an excellent addition to the orchard ecosystem, particularly if they prefer to eat insect pests over insects that benefit growers,” said Karen Mason, project leader at Plant & Food Research. “The NGS technology will help us better understand what insects native birds like to eat and whether they should be encouraged or discouraged from the orchard environment. This new technology has advantages over traditional methods, offering a fast, accurate and relatively non-invasive approach.”

The study, in collaboration with Dr Isabel Castro from Massey University, is part of a wider vision to incorporate more native plants and animals into Aoeteroa’s horticultural production system.

This could potentially lead to a win-win situation for industry, biodiversity, sustainability and native taonga conservation.

It is hoped the project will provide some insight into another potential tool for growers to reduce chemical pesticides required to grow crops, supporting New Zealand to meet the requirements of export markets, retailers and consumers to minimise environmental impact of food.

Attracting birds to orchards may also have secondary benefits – for example some of the country's nectivorous birds are highly territorial, so they may help keep other fruit-eating birds away.

“Our native species potentially have so much to offer. We should work with them to build a more sustainable future,” said Mason.

The team plans to expand this pilot study to look more in depth at various native species and the services they could provide and establish collaborations with growers and Maori communities.