Bird of the Week: Silvereye

An Australian immigrant

By Cushla McGaughey

The bellbird

Like the tui and the smaller bellbird, silvereyes (tauhou), have a brushed tongue for extracting nectar, but belong to an unrelated family from Australia.

They are even smaller again than bellbirds, yet they somehow established themselves in New Zealand during the 1850s. Appropriately, the Maori name, ‘tauhou’, means ‘stranger’.

One theory is that silvereyes hitched a ride in the rigging of the sailing ships common at the time. Another is that a westerly gale helped large numbers make the 1500 km flight across the Tasman. After all, butterflies can do it: there are eight Australian butterfly species that sometimes visit New Zealand with the help of favourable westerly winds.

The first record of silvereyes breeding here was at Waikanae in 1856. They are now common throughout New Zealand from sea level to sub-alpine scrub, on forest fringes and in suburban parks and gardens. Their success is due to their varied diet and their ability to adapt to a wide range of habitats.

Like pests and fruit!

Silvereyes were also called ‘Blight Birds’, because of their taste for  garden pests such as woolly aphids, greenfly, and caterpillars. With honeybee numbers declining, help from silvereyes in pollinating fruit blossom is also useful.

Less welcome is their liking for fruit crops such as grapes, cherries and figs. However, most of the fruit they eat is taken from native trees and shrubs.

Wineberry or makomako berries, which ripen from bright red almost to black, are a favourite food source.

Close knit families

Silvereyes pair for life, roosting together and preening each other’s neck feathers. Together they build the nest, a delicate cup of neatly woven grass, moss, hairs, spider webs and rootlets.

They also share incubation of the clutch of three pale blue eggs. The chicks leave the nest when twelve days old but remain with the parents as a family group for another two or three weeks.

Pairs are strongly territorial during the breeding season, but form flocks in winter, when they are eager visitors at bird tables.