Fantails at our Grove

The fantail is a small, cheeky, insect eating bird. Showing no particular fear of humans it thinks nothing of showing off its aerobatic skill as it snatches small insects you have disturbed from in front of your face, even if you didn’t see them!

Its most commonly used Maori name is piwakawaka, though there are many others in different Maori dialects. We have seen it stated that there are sixteen, but our web surfing has so far uncovered only 10 (hiwaiwaka, pirairaka, pitakataka, piwaiwaka, piwakawaka, tirairaka, tirairaka pango, titakataka, tiwaiwaka, tiwakawaka). If you know some more or can provide some history for the names, please send us an email –

Its scientific name is Rhipidura fuliginosa. British settlers called it the fantail because its tail fans out much like a hand-held fan.  It is key to its areobatic skills. Since European settlement it has been one of the more successful birds at adapting to the changes man has forced on the landscape, seemingly as at home in the olive grove as in the New Zealand forest.

Their numbers build rapidly in warm weather as they can have several broods in one season (up to 5 recorded), but likewise they sadly decline in cold weather. Their life-span is short – few survive past two years.

They will often accompany us about the grove with their high pitched chirp (try saying “cheat cheat” in a high pitched voice) as we go about a task. It would be nice if this was friendly behaviour, but really it is the insects we stir up, and possibly a little indignation at our intrusion on their territory (they are very territorial birds). Sometimes rather than just “cheat cheat” they break into a long sequence of chirps, even sounding on occassion like you are being given a good telling-off!

This video clip taken on our grove shows a particulary vocal fantail on our grape vines, taken in August 2010:

For better resolution you can download this video file (43MB XVid AVI).

There are three subspecies of the New Zealand Fantail. The North Island (Rhipidura fuliginosa placabilis) – which is of course the one we see on our grove, The South Island (including Stewart Island) (Rhipidura fuliginosa), and the Cahtham Island (Rhipidura fuliginosa penita). Most New Zealanders consider the fantail a native species, though different members of the genus can be found through Australia and parts of Asia.

For more information, try the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Other good sources are Wikipedia, and The Internet Bird Collection.

The photos below were taken by by a friend on our grove during olive picking 2007. Please remember they are protected by copyright – ask if you want to use.

Fantail 1 Fantail 2 Fantail 3 Fantail 4 Fantail 5