Fantail/pīwakawaka
PHOTO: James Mortimer DOC

Introduction

Known for its friendly ‘cheet cheet’ call and energetic flying antics, the aptly named fantail is one of the most common and widely distributed native birds on the New Zealand mainland.

Facts

There are about 10 sub-species of fantail, three of which live in New Zealand: the North Island fantail, the South Island fantail and the Chatham Islands fantail.

It is easily recognised by its long tail which opens to a fan. It has a small head and bill and has two colour forms, pied and melanistic or black. The pied birds are grey-brown with white and black bands.

In Māori mythology the fantail was responsible for the presence of death in the world. Maui, thinking he could eradicate death by successfully passing through the goddess of death, Hine-nui-te-po, tried to enter the goddess’s sleeping body through the pathway of birth. The fantail, warned by Maui to be quiet, began laughing and woke Hine-nuite- po, who was so angry that she promptly killed Maui.

Fantail.  Photo: D Mudge.
Fantail having a bath in a puddle created by a tree root.

South Island fantail. Photo: D Crouchley.
South Island fantail

Fantail feeding chick. Photo: D Mudge.
Fantail feeding chick

Where is it found?

The fantail is widespread throughout New Zealand and its offshore islands, including the Chatham Islands and Snares Islands. It is common in most regions of the country, except in the dry, open country of inland Marlborough and Central Otago, where frosts and snow falls are too harsh for it. It also breeds widely in Australia and some Pacific Islands.

The fantail is one of the few native bird species in New Zealand that has been able to adapt to an environment greatly altered by humans. Originally a bird of open native forests and scrub, it is now also found in exotic plantation forests, in orchards and in gardens. At times, fantails may appear far from any large stands of shrubs or trees, and it has an altitudinal range that extends from sea level to the snow line.

Breeding

The fantail lifespan is relatively short in New Zealand (the oldest bird recorded here was 3 years old, although in Australia they have been recorded up to 10 years). Fantails stay in pairs all year but high mortality means that they seldom survive more than one season.

The success of the species is largely due to the fantail’s prolific and early breeding. Juvenile males can start breeding between 2–9 months old, and females can lay as many as 5 clutches in one season, with between 2–5 eggs per clutch.

Fantail populations fluctuate greatly from year to year, especially when winters are prolonged or severe storms hit in spring. However, since they are prolific breeders, they are able to spring back quickly after such events.

Both adults incubate eggs for about 14 days and the chicks fledge at about 13 days. Both adults will feed the young, but as soon as the female starts building the next nest the male takes over the role of feeding the previous brood. Young are fed about every 10 minutes – about 100 times per day!

Feeding

Fantails use their broad tails to change direction quickly while hunting for insects. They sometimes hop around upside-down amongst tree ferns and foliage to pick insects from the underside of leaves. Their main prey are moths, flies, spiders, wasps, and beetles, although they sometimes also eat fruit. They seldom feed on the ground.

Fantails use three methods to catch insects. The first, called hawking, is used where vegetation is open and the birds can see for long distances. Fantails use a perch to spot swarms of insects and then fly at the prey, snapping several insects at a time.

The second method that fantails use in denser vegetation is called flushing. The fantail flies around to disturb insects, flushing them out before eating them.

Feeding associations are the third way fantails find food. Every tramper is familiar with this method, where the fantail follows another bird or animal to capture insects disturbed by their movements. Fantails frequently follow feeding silvereyes, whiteheads, parakeets and saddlebacks, as well as people.

Sound recordings

Fantail: Chatham Island fantail song (MP3 1,597K) 
01:41 – Singing from a song perch.

Fantail: North Island fantail song (MP3, 230K)
00:14 – Making short feeding flights and giving calls.

Fantail: North Island fantail song (MP3 1,842K)
00:1:57 – Adult giving territorial calls while moving from perch to perch in willows.

Fantail: South Island fantail (MP3, 2,015K)
02:08 – Adult male territorial song.

Bird songs may be reused according to our copyright terms.

Threats

Ship rat at fantail nest. Photo: D Mudge.
Ship rat at fantail nest

Cats, rats, stoats and mynas are as great an enemy to fantails as they are to other native birds. Of all the eggs and chicks fantails produce, only a few survive and grow up.

However, the secret to fantails’ relative success compared to other native birds is their ability to produce lots of young. Some chicks are therefore likely to escape predation and populations can bounce back quickly after a decline. Its broad diet of small insects also makes the fantail resilient to environmental change, because certain insect populations increase in disturbed and deforested habitats.

Fantail on branch. Photo: P Forest.
Fantail

Fantail on moss. Photo: D Mudge.
Fantail on moss

Our work - monitoring fantail in Tongariro Forest

Rats are known to have a significant impact on forest birds. They take eggs and nestlings of small perching birds like fantails, but are also large enough to kill adults of forest birds.  Monitoring the success of nests is an effective way to determine the success of predator control. If rats are controlled to a low level, more birds are expected to successfully raise their chicks.

Tongariro Forest uses fantails as an indicator of what’s happening to other birds. Rangers carefully follow fantails they hear until they find their nest, and observe how many of them successfully raise chicks, and how many of them fail. Wherever possible, the cause of failure is also recorded. This can be difficult because so little evidence is left behind.

As expected, in the years where there was predator control (in this case, in the form of aerial 1080), nesting success more than doubled. As rats began to creep up in numbers again, the nests failed more often.  An interesting finding was that long-tailed cuckoos frequently raid nests, completely cleaning them out of eggs and chicks. The impact of cuckoos as a natural predator had not previously been well understood.

You can help

Emergency hotline

Call 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) immediately if you see anyone catching, harming or killing native wildlife. 

Help protect our native birds

When visiting parks, beaches, rivers, and lakes
  • Only take dogs to areas that allow them, and keep them under control.
  • Check your gear for mice and rats when visiting pest-free islands.
  • Use available access ways to get to the beach. 
  • Leave nesting birds alone.
  • Follow the water care code.
  • Avoid leaving old fishing lines on beaches or in the sea.
Other ways to help
  • Get your dog trained in avian awareness.
  • Volunteer with DOC or other groups to control predators and restore bird habitats.
  • Set traps for stoats or rats on your property. Get more information from your local DOC office.
  • Put a bell on your cat's collar, feed it well, and keep it indoors at dusk/dawn and at night.
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