Fantail fun

Okay, so not all birds are garden-friendly – pukeko and blackbirds are notorious for pulling out seedlings, for instance – all of the time but many have their uses to us as gardeners and they all make a garden a much more interesting place to be.

We’ve been intrigued and delighted in equal measure to observe fledgling fantails the past few evenings. They flit around in a pack (maybe five or six, it’s hard to tell) and sit in a line on the badminton net or perch together on a plant obelisk, but then one gets antsy with another and they’re off in a flurry of feathers and chirping until they settle again.

The fantail at the front is older (white eyebrow and a longer tail) so may be a parent of the younger ones. Photo: Sandra Simpson

At this stage they’re little puffballs of feathers without those ‘angry’ white eyebrows and their distinctive tails are still quite short. They also don’t yet know enough, or aren’t strong enough, to stay off the ground in their hunt for insects – adults usually stay in the air hunting, zipping this way and that to capture insects on the wing. Happily, they’ve discovered the whitefly, etc in the orange tree and are also happy hunting in there.

So hard to photograph well – coming on dusk and boy, do these little birds flit! Photo: Sandra Simpson

A fantail inside the house is, supposedly, an omen of a death – my grandmother was always desperate to shoo out any that came in, generally in the heat of summer when the front door was left open. We’d dash about with brooms and long-handled dusters to try and herd it back the way it had come.

This superstition probably derives from the Maori legend that the fantail is responsible for the presence of death in the world. The demi-god Maui believed he could eradicate death by passing through the body of the goddess of death, Hine-nui-te-po. He planned to enter the goddess’s sleeping body through her birth canal and had warned the fantail to be quiet. However, the little bird began laughing (its cheep-cheep call) and woke Hine-nui-te-po, who promptly killed Maui.

But in case you think from this that the fantail is a foolish bird, the tale above is actually the second act in a revenge drama. Act One went like this:

Maui wanted to keep his family warm while Mahuika, the goddess of fire, was trying to keep them in the dark and cold through the long winter months. After discovering the piwakawaka had the information he needed, Maui caught the bird and demanded the location of the fire. “Tell me or I’ll squeeze you to death.” As he squeezed harder, the bird’s tail fanned out and his eyes bulged from the pressure – resulting in piwakawaka’s characteristic appearance today. The bird revealed where the fire was hidden … but didn’t forget his rough treatment at the hands of Maui.

Read more about the fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa, piwakawaka) at NZ Birds Online (includes audio recordings of their song).