New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2010) 34(1): 86-114

Predation and other factors currently limiting New Zealand forest birds

Review Article
John Innes 1*
Dave Kelly 2
Jacob McC. Overton 1
Craig Gillies 3
  1. Landcare Research, Private Bag 3127, Hamilton 3216, New Zealand
  2. School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch 8140, New Zealand
  3. Research & Development Group, Department of Conservation, PO Box 516, Hamilton 3240, New Zealand
*  Corresponding author

Holdaway (1989) described three phases of historical extinctions and declines in New Zealand avifauna, the last of which (Group III, declining 1780–1986) was associated with European hunting, habitat clearance, and predation and competition from introduced European mammals. Some forest bird species have continued to decline since 1986, while others have increased, usually after intensive species-specific research and management programmes. In this paper, we review what is known about major causes of current declines or population limitation, including predation, competition for food or another resource, disease, forest loss, and genetic problems such as inbreeding depression and reduced genetic variation. Much experimental and circumstantial evidence suggests or demonstrates that predation by introduced mammals remains the primary cause of declines and limitation in remaining large native forest tracts. Predation alone is generally sufficient to explain the observed declines, but complex interactions between factors that vary between species and sites are likely to be the norm and are difficult to study. Currently, the rather limited evidence for food shortage is mostly circumstantial and may be obscured by interactions with predation. Climate and food supply determine the number of breeding attempts made by herbivorous species, but predation by introduced mammals ultimately determines the outcome of those attempts. After removal of pest mammals, populations are apparently limited by other factors, including habitat area, food supply, disease or avian predators. Management of these, and of inbreeding depression in bottlenecked populations, is likely to assist the effectiveness and resilience of management programmes. At the local or regional scale, however, forest area itself may be limiting in deforested parts of New Zealand. Without predator management, the number of native forest birds on the New Zealand mainland is predicted to continue to decline.