by Ian Duggan, The University of Waikato
Parapara (Ceodes brunoniana[i]), also known as the Bird-Catcher (or Bird-Catching) Tree, is native to northern New Zealand, Norfolk Island, Lord Howe Island and Hawaiʻi. While the tree is almost extinct in the North Island, where it would once have been common, it is still utilised as a decorative tree in gardens. Nevertheless, its use in gardens has been controversial.
The moniker ‘Bird-Catching Tree’ comes about due to the tree’s production of sticky ‘fruits’, which are known to ensnare birds. Prior to human arrival, this stickiness would have allowed seeds to be dispersed by seabirds, such as boobies, gannets, petrels, mollyhawks and shearwaters, which were once common around the coasts of the northern North Island. The decline of the tree in natural settings is thought to have begun following the introduction of the Polynesian rat kiore (Rattus exulans), followed by other rat and predator species with European colonisation. These removed most of the bird colonies, [ii] or consumed seeds and seedlings. As a result, the species is now found primarily on predator-free islands.[iii]
Small birds have commonly been noted in newspapers to be captured by the tree. Here I look at some of the earliest reports of this occurring.
The first reports by Pākehā of Parapara ensnaring birds in gardens comes from the late 19thC. Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, on 26 September, 1883, R.H. Govett noted:
About a month ago my brother mentioned that in a shrub growing in my father’s garden at New Plymouth, two Silver-eyes (Zosterops) and an English Sparrow had been found with their wings so glued by the sticky seed-vessels that they were unable to move, and could only fly away after having been carefully washed.
A friend to whom I mentioned the circumstance just told, remembers a shrub in Mr. James Russell’s garden, at Auckland, being pointed out as remarkable for the same behaviour. There were tufts of feathers adhering to it also, and the shrub, if not of the same species, closely resembled the one at New Plymouth.[iv]
This finding was reported widely in newspapers at the time. It was noted that “Mr Govett’s sister, thinking to do a merciful act, collected all the fruit bearing branches that were within reach and threw them on a dust heap. Next day about a dozen silver-eyes were found glued to them, four or five of the pods to each bird”. She writes:
Looking at the tree, one sees tufts of feathers and legs where the birds have died, and I don’t think the birds could possibly get away without help. The black cat just lives under the tree, a good many of the birds falling to her share, but a good many pods get into her fur, and she has to come and get them dragged out.[v]
Govett observed that the tree was already known to Māori for its bird catching qualities:
[The natural historian John] Buchanan, too, tells me that he and Dr. [James] Hector recollect that when travelling to the north of Auckland, they were told of a tree which captured birds; but they did not pay any heed to what they regarded as a bit of Maori romance. It is clear, then, that Pisonia brunoniana [as it was previously known] is a confirmed bird-slayer, and that the specimen at Taranaki is not a depraved individual of a harmless species. [vi]
Newspapers also later acknowledge that the bird-catching tree was known as such to Māori, and that they had informed some of our earliest botanists of the fact, but they did not at that time credit the story. [vii]
Silver-eyes, also known as pihpihi and ‘blight birds’, appear to be particularly common victims of the Parapara. In 1910, Mr Hugh Boscawen, Auckland, noted that there
is a large bush of the New Zealand parapara (Pisonia brunoniana) growing up here at Government House. The seed is always covered with a sticky substance, like bird lime. This morning seven little blight birds had to be rescued from starvation. They had become stuck to the seeds, and were perfectly helpless. The more the birds struggle, the faster they get entangled.[viii]
Similarly, in 1923, “In the gummy berries of a parapara tree at Te Araroa [Poverty Bay] one recent morning, no fewer than 20 pihipihi or blight birds were found to have been caught”. [ix]
While pihipihi appear to be highly susceptible, larger birds have also been found to fall victim.
The particular tree, which a Taranaki Herald reporter saw on Saturday, is in the garden of Mr I John Wheeler, Vogeltown, New Plymouth. The method by which the birds die is one of the cruellest possible. Mr. Wheeler said that he often pulls off twigs with numerous small birds on them in the mornings. During its life the tree has caught hundreds of sparrows, fantails, goldfinches and silvery eyes. One day this week a much larger bird, a morepork, was caught, and died in the tree. It had apparently gone to the tree to feed on the smaller birds which were hanging there and was itself caught. [x]
As might be expected, concern was raised in the 1930s about whether such trees should be utilised in gardens at all, or even that they should be destroyed.
Concern is being expressed in Auckland because of the propagation of the parapara or “bird catching” tree, two or three dozen plants being nurtured in the Domain for transplanting. “It seems to me a very cruel thing to permit such trees, capable of dealing death to a great many birds, to be propagated in such a manner,” said Mr J. B. Donald, president of the Auckland branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “Birds that become entangled in these trees die a very slow and agonising death, and I am satisfied it is only because the authorities do not realise this that they contemplate for a moment increasing the number of such trees. The president of the Auckland Acclimatisation Society, Mr V. W. McKenzie, also does not think any of these trees should be planted. “From what we have read concerning their ability to destroy birds”, he said, “it appears that they destroy them in a particularly cruel way. This is so apparent that the Parks Committee of the City Council might seriously consider destroying any tree of this kind that exists in Auckland.[xi]
Soon after, it was clear that on a number of occasions, despite their rarity, trees were indeed being removed or pruned to stop them capturing birds: A report of 1933 noted that “A parapara was recently cut down on Moiti Island, near Tauranga, because birds were continually getting captured by it”. [xii] “At the time of its destruction,” observed a report from 1936, “84 dead silver-eyes were counted in the in tree”. [xiii]
Elsewhere, trees have been managed in a similar way to that used by Mr. Govett’s sister. In 1943:
Some mysterious person every year at this season breaks off the branches of a “bird catching” tree in Pukekura Park, New Plymouth, so that it cannot flower and trap any birds or insects… It is thought to have been the act of a bird-lover, who objects to the presence of the tree because of its danger to birds during its brief flowering season.[xiv]
Parapara has long been a controversial tree, and nothing has changed. Despite its rarity, calls are still being made to remove the trees. In early March 2018, a morepork/ruru (Ninox novaeseelandiae) was brought to the Whangarei Bird Rescue Centre, tangled in a mess of parapara pods. This was untangled using a citrus-based solvent and then set free the next day. In response, Whangarei Bird Recovery Centre’s Robert Webb called for the tree to be cut down and to be banned from sale in garden centres: “I know it’s a New Zealand native tree, but to me personally, with the amount of native bird those trees claim every year, I don’t think they’re worth having”.[xv]
In contrast, their removal has been successful from reserves, with calls to only keep the trees in gardens! A tree that had trapped fantails was cut down from a reserve in 2011 near Nelson. At that time, Council horticultural supervisor Peter Grundy said he saw no reason why people could not grow the plant in their gardens, but it was not appropriate in a reserve where it was affecting the birdlife.[xvi]
[i] Formerly Pisonia; Rossetto EFS & Caraballo-Ortiz MA. 2020. Splitting the Pisonia birdcatcher trees: re-establishment of Ceodes and Rockia (Nyctaginaceae, Pisonieae). PhytoKeys 152: 121-136.
[ii] Stanley B & de Lange PJ. 2005. Misunderstood our native parapara (Pisonia brunoniana). Auckland Botanical Society Journal 60: 150-151.
[iii] Stanley, R. 2005. City Slickers: Auckland’s Urban Threatened Plants [online]. Australasian Plant Conservation: Journal of the Australian Network for Plant Conservation 14: 23-24.
[iv] Govett RH. 1883. A Bird-Killing Tree. Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 16: 364-366. http://rsnz.natlib.govt.nz/image/rsnz_16/rsnz_16_00_0455_0364_ac_01.html
[v] Scientific Gossip. Lyttleton Time, 7 February 1885
[vi] Govett RH, 1883.
[vii] Auckland Star, 20 August 1927
[viii] In Touch with Nature, Star (Christchurch), 2 July 1910
[ix] New Zealand Herald, 6 August 1923
[x] Nature’s cruel trick, Stratford Evening Post, 2 August 1932
[xi] Press, 13 September 1932
[xii] Manawatu Standard, 4 November 1933
[xiii] Evening Star, 31 October 1936
[xiv] New Zealand Herald, 6 July 1943
[xvi] Kids’ detective work is one for the birds, Nelson Mail, 11 May 2011