In 2022, the Science Learning Hub’s pick for Bird of the Year was our native forest kaitiaki – the ruru!
We figure the ruru has a pretty legitimate claim to the title of Bird of the Year. For anyone who thought the ‘spooky season’ of October was a strictly overseas thing, may we remind you that, on Halloween 2021, Aotearoa voted to give Bird of the Year to pekapeka-tou-roa, the long-tailed bat?
And what’s the only bird spookier than a bat? An owl, of course!
An unusual (and scary) taxonomy
Many know the ruru by the name morepork, and in Latin, they’re called Ninox novae-zelandiae. This means they’re owls (Ninox) from Aotearoa (novae-zelandiae).
We use Latin to name and classify animals, plants and minerals using a system of taxonomy first devised by a famous scientist called Carl Linnaeus. In this system, ruru belong to a family called the true owls whose roots we can trace all the way back to prehistoric times.
The Latin name for true owls is Strigidae, which comes from the Greek word ‘striges’ – an ancient term also meaning witches. Told you the ruru was spooky!
We’re talking about the ruru’s taxonomy because this is another reason that 2022 is already the Year of the Ruru.
Scientists have had a hard time working out just how many native species of owl there are in the Pacific, and for a long time, they thought the ruru was the same species of owl as the Australian and Tasmanian varieties of boobooks. (Notice how these birds’ names always reflect the sounds they make? They also make other sounds you may not know are from a ruru!)
It wasn’t until the International Ornithological Congress in August 2022 that the ruru as well as its Tasmanian cousin were finally recognised as their own distinct subspecies.
Te ao Māori perspectives
Cheri van Schravendijk-Goodman is a kairangahau Māori whose work preserves the mātauranga of iwi, hapū and whānau. Her research on ruru is detailed in the publication she co-edited: Te Reo o Te Repo – The Voice of the Wetland. She also looks at some of the ways in which tangi ā te ruru – the ruru’s distinctive evening song – has served as both an omen and inspiration for many generations in Aotearoa.
Reasons why the owl is revered (and sometimes feared) universally by indigenous groups are just as complex as the relationships themselves.Cheri van Schravendijk-Goodman, Te Reo o Te Repo – The Voice of the Wetland
She further explains how the attributes of ruru – their movements, habits and physical appearance – have influenced Māori language, song, artwork and modes of performance such as kapa haka.
Cheri’s research with kaumātua expands on the prior notion of ruru as only a forest bird and shows their importance to river and repo ecosystems and for repo restoration.
In the video Ruru, you can also see a ruru fixing its distinctive glare upon a pīwakawaka as the little bird flits through the bush. According to pūrākau, these were the exact circumstances in which ruru first invented the world-famous pūkana!
Ruru eyes and wings – biological marvels
And why does the ruru stare? How come this one bird can turn its head 270 degrees like the spooky girl from The Exorcist?
To understand that, you need to understand the biological marvels that are the ruru’s eyes. Instead of eyeballs that can swivel in their sockets, ruru have long mushroom-shaped tubes extending deep into their skulls.
You’ve probably heard of how the retina of your eyes has two kinds of cells to see with: cones to perceive colour and depth and rods to pick out shapes and movement. The ruru’s eyes are densely packed with rods, which allows them to see in low light and see shapes and movement – even in near-total darkness – but the relative lack of cones as well as the fixed position of their eyes mean they need to tilt and turn their heads in order to get a sense of space and depth.
Ruru’s wings are also specially feathered so as to make very little sound when they fly. This means prey can’t hear the beat of the ruru’s wings as it flies through the forest – and neither can ruru! This gives them another advantage – being able to keenly perceive the sounds around them as they fly, ruru can navigate and locate prey with remarkable accuracy even when the light is too low even for their eyes.
Bird of the Year – irreverent, engaging and educational
You don’t need mushroom eyes stuck deep into your skull to see that Bird of the Year is a great contest. Not only does it facilitate kōrero about all the awesome birdlife Aotearoa is host to, but it’s a chance to learn more about what these wonderful animals can teach us about conserving native birds and living responsibly alongside nature.
The Bird of the Year is well known as a fun and irreverent competition. The friendly sledging and support campaigns on social media often receive international media attention. The competition is a good example of science communication using humour to promote an important issue – the promotion of New Zealand native birds and their conservation.
Making a video to champion your Bird of the Year
Take a closer look at the video created by the Science Learning Hub team to champion the ruru for Bird of the Year. The video is irreverent and fun but it also imparts important cultural and biological facts to engage people.
In previous years we have championed on behalf of the takahē – see our 2021 takahē campaign video.
What bird would your students champion? What facts and ideas would their promotion video include?
Learning about native bird species, making videos and taking action to conserve native birds are some of the many ways you can support the vibrant diversity of bird life here in Aotearoa – and if the ruru has anything to say about it, supporting the plants and insects too. This is a bird with deep roots in te taiao o Aotearoa, and we think its time has come! Ruru for Bird of the Year 2022!
Video Editor Tom Goulter has spent more than 15 years doing video post-production for the education sector, including holding a founding role in the Science Learning Hub Video Unit. He brings training and experience across the fields of writing and video editing to the task of helping the Hub team tell engaging, informative stories about science, innovation and kaitiakitanga. This is Tom’s first blog for the Science Learning Hub.
The ruru has a number of distinct calls – take a listen and learn more in Ruru monitoring.
The article Sight explains the rods and cones within the human eye for those wanting to compare human and ruru sight.
Birds are designed for flight – read about feathers and flight.
NZ Birds Online has information and an extensive image gallery for ruru.
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