Wednesday, December 6, 2023

PULPIT: Rooks and magpies good for us

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Rooks are disliked by district and regional councils and magpies are often disliked by farmers and country people.  There appears to be no real reason for this other than that some people have a dislike for exotic species and this dislike has no regard for the very many people who cherish these birds. 
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That is not the case in Europe where the rook is often revered and praised by farmers and corn growers for its insectivorous habits as far pasture and crop pests are concerned. 

Neither is it the case in Australia for the magpie. There it is a favourite and protected bird, cherished for its insect-eating habit and for its song.

In New Zealand much work was done on the diet of rooks in the 1970s in Hawke’s Bay by P C Bull and R E R Porter. 

Though some damage was recorded to walnut crops and to germinating corn, rooks general diet was pasture insects, earthworms, pasture grubs and stubble waste. 

The same applied to research on magpies in Australia, which showed their general diet was pasture grubs and insects with up to 149 different insects being identified as being eaten by this bird. 

Magpies were proved to be ground-feeding birds only.

To have a rookery on your estate in England has always been something of a status symbol and one I got to know in Hampshire contained an estimate of 10,000 birds. 

The saving to farmers and growers of crops in this locality by way of insecticides in having this nearby rookery was always considered substantial. 

It should be noted much of England grows crops and in most of those areas rooks are abundant. 

In both NZ and Australia similar savings to pasture growth are known in areas where magpies are commonly scattered. Grass grubs, army worm and porina are known to be part of the magpie’s diet.

In NZ rook numbers have dwindled due to council control methods so benefits to pastoral agriculture have been lost but, fortunately, magpies are still with us in quite good numbers. In Australia numbers have been reported as dwindling in some areas, probably because of droughts and that has caused some concern, especially in South Australia. 

The other plus from having a magpie community on a rural property is the good they do in alerting other species to predators. 

Magpies live in social communities of up to about 22 birds and in these communities there are always birds watching for predators and, in particular, in NZ, the harrier. 

As country people will know, magpies will harass such birds untiringly.  

Duck species, in particular, benefit from this as ducklings are a favourite prey of harriers. 

Magpies will also swoop on pukeko, another enemy of ducklings. 

In Australia numerous small birds such as fairy wrens and flycatchers have increased in numbers in magpie areas and this benefit is on top of their role in pasture pest control.

Both these species are intelligent birds that respond to control measures by trying to outwit the controllers. They will quickly move their nesting territories if disturbed. That can result in expensive control techniques of money that would be far better spent on work that benefits the whole taxpaying community, such as road improvement, water supplies and sewage systems.

The rook is not noted for its call, which provides a rural atmosphere rather than a song. 

It is, though, appreciated for its habits of playful activities in its communal feeding groups. 

The magpie is a song bird through and through and quite capable of uttering two notes at the one time. 

With Magpies both sexes sing year-round and their before-dawn caroling brings about a beautiful start for many to the day. They will sing the whole day through.

It is, therefore, time both these species were treated for the role they play in the countryside. 

They should be recognised for the good they do and the pleasure they give to many a country person. 

We don’t, in this country, slaughter every pig just because some take lambs or root up pasture. 

We don’t slaughter every trout because some eat endangered native fish. 

So why do we control birds that give pleasure to many, just because they occasionally might damage a crop. 

We should also note the only reason these birds flourish here is that there is a vacant ecological niche for them to exploit and it is vacant only since NZ’s original cover was removed.

Who am I?
Stuart Chambers is a Hauraki Plains writer and former sheep farmer.

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