Monday, December 13, 2010

Silver-eye, wax-eye or white-eye

Zosterops lateralis, the little silver-eye, is not so numerous in the Wairarapa as it is up north where huge flocks congregate in the winter and descend upon berry producing trees and shrubs in their hoards. Hurrying from tree to tree, from one garden to another, with a continuous, noisy twitter, or uttering short plaintive notes, they set about distributing seeds, mindless as to what is is they are casting about, and with no concern at all as to whether the seeds are native or obnoxious. Poroporo keeps on sprouting in my garden here, undoubtedly spread by silver-eyes.

Now that the house sparrow numbers are very much in decline, the silver-eye is probably New Zealand's most numerous bird, far out numbering the more obvious starlings which tend to get the blame for the silver-eyes' crimes against orchardists. Silver-eyes have a particular fondness for fruit. They happily eat their way through a wide range of fruits, including apples, kiwi fruit, feijoas, figs, grapes, pears and persimmons. Their pointed beaks can break the skin of fruit more readily than other birds, and once the skin is broken it allows other birds the opportunity to feast. But as Buller said, “It far more than compensates for this petty pilfering by the wholesale war it carries on against the various insects that affect our fruit trees and vegetables”.

The silver-eye is a small olive–green bird with white rings around the eyes. They have a fine tapered bill and a brush tipped tongue like the Tui and Korimako, the bellbird, for drinking nectar. There are many species in Africa, southern Asia, and the south western Pacific, but it is the Tasmanian sub–Australian species which migrates to the eastern states of the Australian mainland in winter which colonised New Zealand. They were recorded in New Zealand as early as 1832 but it was not until 1856 that they arrived in very large numbers. It is assumed that a storm caught a migrating flock in Australia and diverted them here. The Maori name, Tauhou, means “stranger”.
Their success as a species has probably a lot to do with their varied diet which is mainly comprised of insects, fruit and nectar, but they will also readily take fat, cooked meat, bread and sugar water from bird tables.
They are delightful, busy little birds and are strongly territorial and are often seen fluttering their wings aggressively at another bird. I have seen them cuddling up in pairs on a branch busy preening and feeding each other. With their white ringed eyes set close together, they look so much like clowns. And then to see them with a bright red cotoneaster berry in their beaks, the picture is complete.

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