Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Tapuae meets technology

By Jess Toomey
A primary school teacher is using modern satellite technology to pinpoint marine life on a section of Taranaki’s rocky shores.
West End School teacher Warren Smart is using Geographical Information System (GIS) and Global Positioning System (GPS) to locate and record marine life at the Tapuae Marine Reserve near New Plymouth.
Warren, who has been teaching for 26 years, is doing this as part of a Teachers Fellowship in Primary Science for the last six months of this year.
He applied to the Royal Society of New Zealand for the fellowship early this year because he wanted to improve his science teaching.
“It’s good to be doing something different and learning new skills,” he says.
Warren is working alongside marine biologist Erin Zydervelt from the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC) and scientist Elise Smith from the Ngamotu Marine Reserve Society.
The 48-year-old is doing a quadrat study in the reserve and is using GIS and GPS to help track wildlife and plants and will be putting data on the society’s online map.
“I’m hoping to add information about what can be found at the reserve so when other people go down there, these will act as a guide for them,” he says of the technology.
He has taken photos of an orange sponge that grows on the side of rock pools and can name different types of limpets and shellfish.
Warren is also using an underwater camera to capture different types of species living in rock pools and taking video and photos of the marine reserve.
On top of this, he is updating wiki posts, which is set up for other interested teachers and he has his own blog: http://tapuaecalling.blogspot.com/.
This keeps a regular update of what he’s doing. His latest post shows him viewing soft sediment samples under a microscope at the TRC.
Jess Toomey is a WITT journalism student doing STAR

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Getting hooked on exercise

By Virginia Winder
It’s spring in New Zealand and like the lambs, we’re leaping to life.
Many of you may have started hitting the walkways and roads to slough off the winter kilos to get fit and feel good.
But how on earth do you continue that exercise kick so it becomes part of your life?
Try hitting the books and browsing sports magazines to get inspiration.
Among the dozens of promising titles in New Plymouth’s Puke Ariki library one stands out: Fighting Globesity – a practical guide to personal health and global sustainability by Phillip (son of Les and Colleen) and Jackie Mills.
“Sustainability starts with your own body,” they write. “If we can start to win the battle against obesity and inactive ageing, then many of the trillions of dollars spent on chronic illness can be diverted into more important endeavours such as saving rainforests and subsidising sustainable energy programmes.”
Over a picture of large man, are the words: “Like an overweight person, as a race we are simply consuming more than we can healthily maintain. This over-consumption is not only bad for our bodies but also bad for the world.”
Before we move on to tips on getting going, staying motivated and sustaining exercise for life, let’s have a look at some of the scary facts recorded in A Portrait of Health: Key Results from the 2006/2007 New Zealand Health Survey:
• One in four adults were obese (26.5%).
• One in five children (aged 2 to 14 years) were overweight (20.9%) and one in 12 (8.3%) were obese.
• One in seven adults (13.6%) were taking medication for high blood pressure. This equates to 425,500 adults.
• One in 12 adults (8.4%) were taking medication for high blood cholesterol.
• One in 20 adults (5.2%) had been diagnosed with ischaemic heart disease.
• One in 20 adults (5.0%) had doctor-diagnosed diabetes (excluding diabetes during pregnancy). This equates to 157,100 adults.
• Half of all adults (50.5%) met the definition of being regularly physically active. Overall, one in seven (15.0%) adults were sedentary, reporting less than 30 minutes of physical activity in the previous week.
Those statistics are people and they are putting huge pressure on the New Zealand health system. But much of the above can be remedied through healthy eating and exercise. It sounds so easy, but in our time-poor, fast-food, cheap-fizz, take-the-car society; it’s become the hardest thing many people face.
Yes, what we eat is an issue, but today we are dealing with how to get going and keep moving.
This is the tough part.
Experts say that 25% of people who start a new exercise programme quit within the first week and another 25% quit within the first six months.
And the most frequent reason for giving up is lack of time.
So, make exercise as important as your job, whether you’re a mother or a corporate boss.
But first, you need to choose a sport – and that’s anything that takes your fancy. You can run, bike, dance, swim and zumba your way to fitness, or you can decide to take up yoga, tai chi, tennis, basketball or touch rugby – the list is long.
Then you need to set a goal and here, there are two schools of thoughts.
One is to set realistic goals and the other is to dream big.
The Mills opt for the Big Hairy Audacious Goals, a term coined by Good to Great author Jim Collins.
“We believe that everyone should set major fitness goals; powerful aims that create a much more holistic impetus to exercise,” they say. “There’s a power in allowing yourself to dream, in visualising yourself at your very best. It can be incredibly inspiring and motivating. Great coaches use this technique very effectively.”
They also say you may never reach your goal, but you will get fit and have fun on the journey.
Next, work out a training schedule and set small, manageable goals that you can attain. It could be walking further, adding a hill or steps in to your routine, running faster than before, doing more press ups or increasing the daily steps on your pedometer.
Start a training diary and write down your plans and goals, then record your daily results. This will help you see how far you have come.
The magazines and books (there’s a dozen of each at my elbow) have pages and pages of advice.
Here are 20 top tips:
1. Exercise with friends, so that this becomes not just fitness time but friendship time. My sister has been in a walking/running group for more than 20 years and these women support each other in all areas of their lives.
2. Wear a pedometer and aim for 10,000 steps a day. This will not only tell you how active you are, but also give you a goal to do more.
3. We are what we think. Counter your negative inner talk with positive mantras, like: “Go for it,” and “I can do it”. Or have a key word that stokes your fire, like: “Warrior,” or “power”.
4. Find a mentor to inspire you, give you advice and ongoing encouragement. Or you could employ a personal fitness trainer to get you started and keep you on track.
5. Watch a sports event live and imagine you are out there too – and you can be, will be.
6. Upwards and onwards. When you’re out walking, cycling or running, don’t just go for the flat. Hills will improve your cardio fitness, muscle power and speed, so embrace those upward hauls as your friends. Wherever possible, take stairs.
7. Imagine the rewards of getting fit. It could be weight loss, better health, taking part in or winning a race, or you could organise a reward. This could be something like a trip to Paris if you reach a weight goal or complete a marathon. Remember to celebrate the small steps on the way too.
8. Find your inner motivation. If you’re competitive, make your goal a race. If your life is out of control, think of sport as your way of regaining balance in your life. For others it might be the need to beat depression – regular workouts help your brain release those natural “feel-good” chemicals.
9. Small steps and strokes. Start your exercise programme gently so that you don’t injure yourself, or overdo it so much you hurt and can’t face the thought of doing it again. Also, if you start off swimming 40 lengths of your community pool, what are you going to do the next day – what are can you aim for? So start with 10 lengths and build up.
10. Have your gear all ready to go. If you’re going to train in the morning, have all your clothes, shoes, or togs, towel and goggles out so you just need to change and head out. You could also do this if you are exercising later in the day.
11. Make a pact. Find a friend or family member to go on this fitness journey with you. Talk about your goals, your rules for getting out there, including exercising in the rain and organise a regular time to meet up. You’re less likely to let down a friend than yourself.
13. Variety is the spice of sport. If you’re running, cycling or walking, take different routes and stride out with different people. Or mix it up. Go swimming one day, biking the next, head to the gym for a weight workout and then take a Zumba class.
14. Be inspired. Read stories about people who have gone from fat to thin, from slug to slogger, from loser to winner.
15. Work at making it a habit. Develop a routine to exercise at the same time every day and do it. For those workaholics out there, consider exercise as work and put it in your diary or timetable. Sport will increase your brain power and giving you thinking time.
16. Plan holidays that have a physical element to them. This could be a skiing, canoeing, surfing, tramping or biking holiday. Explore New Zealand and the world the natural way.
17. Move whenever you can. Walk or bike to work or into town. In fact, ditch the car for a month unless you have to travel more than 10km. Don’t scoot around your office sitting on your wheeled chair, get up and walk. Wander round the house during TV ad breaks (but don’t head to the fridge or pantry).
18. Get a dog. Not only do you have a constant companion, but you have a barking, whining, nagging reason to go for a walk or run out every single day. Who can resist those pleading “take me out” eyes?
19. Have fun. Exercise needs to be something that you enjoy and look forward to. So listen to music or an audio book when you’re out. Choose upbeat music that will get you going or a thrilling novel that will inspire you to do an extra block to find out what happens next.
20. Go public. In 2009, my son, husband and I pledged to swim in the sea every day of the year and I wrote about it in the newspaper. When strangers started asking how the swimming was going, there was no backing out. Come hell or high water we were going to do it – and we did. Now I’ve started a blog and gone extremely public about my own fitness and life-balance goals.
In the end, it’s all about keeping on keeping on, say Phillip and Jackie Mills.
Never give up. “Coax and cajole yourself through those difficult early stages,” they write. “If you fail, don’t worry; failing is part of learning to succeed. Keep trying; you’ll get there in the end. It will be worth it.”

Friday, 2 September 2011

Stress of busyness

By Virginia Winder
If you’re too busy to read this story, then this article is for you.
So stop for a moment, take 15 minutes and read about how your ultra-busyness is not sustainable.
You see, in this online, mobile technology, tweet-a-thought, text-contact, GPS world, we never switch off. Literally, we are bombarded with information, thoughts, friend requests and work expectations at every waking moment.
Not only are we running out of natural resources, many of us are running out of time. That’s down time, quiet time, family time, thinking time, home time, exercise time and time out.
If having a shower is your only peace time in your daily race, then you need to have a serious think about your life, especially if you’re working in excess of eight-hour days and also find yourself labouring away at weekends.
Yes, you’re out there, you 14-hour-a-day sloggers, who can’t stop thinking about work and whose relationships, body and mind are starting to fall apart.
Even those of you who are teetering that way, should pay attention – if you spend all your days working then you’re in danger of burnout or, as one friend found out, break down.
At dinner with friends the other night, I quipped that snapping an Achilles tendon was her body’s way of slowing her down and perhaps that was the message to be learnt.
Her reply was swift: “No, it showed me I need to speed up. I spent 10 years sitting behind a desk and now I exercise every single day.”
My friend now lives by the “use it or lose it” principle spelled out in the book by the same name by Peter Snell and Garth Gilmour – but sustainable exercise story will come later.
For now, we are looking at business, or in this case busyness, and finding out about making more time for yourself without failing in your job.
To do this I took time out and went to the library at Puke Ariki and borrowed 13 books, many of them with tantalising titles, including The 4-Hour Workweek (Timothy Ferris), The Power of Less (Leo Babauta) and The Great Office Detox – minimise stress and maximise job satisfaction (Dawna Walter).
Let’s get some advice from the experts.
Babauta kindly begins his book with a comparison between two reporters. One goes for high volume, putting out about 30 short, fairly limited articles per week. This reporter’s high work rate is noticed and earns praise from the editor.
The other decides to go for just one story, but chooses a subject that will “knock your socks off”. She brainstorms, thinks, researches, conducts a wide variety of interviews, spends time writing it, polishing her work and checking all the facts. The story is an award winner.
“The first reporter was thinking high-volume, but short-term. The second reporter focused on less, but did much more over the long term,” writes Babauta. “That’s the power of less.”
People can choose between doing a lot and opting for high impact. The latter is definitely more sustainable and can lead to long-term contributions to society, your career and your bank balance.
Babauta, a freelance writer from Guam, recommends changing habits slowly (in fact he recommends slowing down in general) and try adopting these, one a month, for a year.
1. Set your three Most Important Tasks (MITs) each morning.
2. Single-task.
3. Process your in-box to empty.
3. Check email just twice a day.
5. Exercise every day.
6. Work while disconnected, with no distractions.
7. Follow a morning routine of your own making. This could involve watching the sunrise with a cup of tea or coffee at hand, meditating, doing yoga, going for a walk, writing, choosing your MITs, reviewing goals, having a gratitude session.
8. Eat more fruit and veggies every day.
9. Keep your desk decluttered.
10. Make a short list of your four to five most important commitments, asking yourself what do you love most and what is most important to you? Say no to commitments and requests that aren’t on your short list.
11. Declutter your house for 15 minutes a day.
12. Stick to a five-sentence limit for emails.
In her book, Get a Life, Not a Job, work psychologist Paula Caligiuri offers advice that our parents told us, including eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep.
If you are working every waking moment, then it’s highly likely you are failing on these three as well. Trust me, this way of life is not sustainable and you will suffer from mental or physical burnout, whichever comes first.
Caligiuri also recommends seeking volunteer opportunities, reducing energy-sapping work-related cynicism (or get a new job) and taking a holiday. “The downtime can increase your energy, creativity and productivity,” she says of the latter.
She also doesn’t believe in time management. “You need to rethink your relationship with time. You need to fall in love with the 24 hours you have each day. Love your time. Respect your time. Protect your time.”
We all know people who do this and admire them for it. I have friends that only work four day weeks, others who have one afternoon that is entirely there’s, and many who will do absolutely no work at the weekend. Ever.
Dawna Walter deals with the greatest time waster of them all: Procrastination.
“The obvious way to conquer procrastination is to tackle the things you hate doing first thing each day and get them out of the way,” she writes. “You will release all the anxiety that may have built up about them and can then get to grips with the remainder of your day without worry.”
Easy to say, of course, especially because procrastination is often caused by fear of failure or being uncertain what to do. People can simply get paralysed by perfection, Walter says.
To get over this, get used to losing. She recommends playing a game – bowls, cards, charades or trivia – with friends or family once a week and viewing it as therapy. “There will always be someone who can play better, faster or have the luck of the draw. You will soon discover that the world doesn’t come to an end as a result of not being the best.”
That in turn, will help you overcome fear of failure and break through the procrastination barrier.
Entrepreneur Timothy Ferris lives by the 80:20 law propagated by Italian Vilfredo Pareto (1848 to 1923).
“Pareto’s Law can be summarised as follows: 80 per cent of the outputs result from 20 per cent of the inputs.”
When Ferris came across Pareto’s law, he had been working 15-hour days, seven days a week, was feeling completely overwhelmed and generally helpless. “Faced with certain burnout or giving Pareto’s ideas a trial run I opted for the latter.”
Ferris put aside an entire day to ask himself:
1. Which 20 per cent of sources are causing 80 per cent of my problems and unhappiness?
2. Which 20 per cent of sources are resulting in 80 per cent of my desired outcomes and happiness?
When he answered those questions and then acted on eliminating problem customers and focusing on what he did want, Ferris’ life changed forever for the better.
Robert Holden’s book Success Intelligence: Timeless Wisdom for a Manic Society is also a life changer.
He talks of the need to join The Space Programme.
One day a highly successful lawyer who suffered from a nervous breakdown came to see Holden, the founder of The Happiness Project. “He told me: ‘I curse the day I installed my car phone. My car was my thinking space. I got all my best ideas driving to work. It was also my place to unwind. I used to listen to Vivaldi on the freeway home. But my car phone made my car into another office and I became extremely busy and I lost my space’.”
Holden says we all need space to think and simply to be empty, so we can be filled again. He is also an advocate for less is more: Less urgent – more wise; less activity – more vision; fewer hours – more success; less effort – more imagination; less struggle – more ease; less waste – more efficiency; less stress – more peace; and less ego – more God (or spirituality).
We will finish this story on being sustainable in your work practices with Holden’s wise words on simplicity. “The decision to simplify things is a gift because it returns you to your essence and to what you most value. Greater simplicity helps to avoid excess busyness and unnecessary effort. It increases effectiveness and it welcomes grace and inspiration. It also preserves your sanity. Talk time to reflect on how you could simplify your life and work to enjoy greater success.”

This story was first published in the Taranaki Daily News on 30/8/11

Friday, 8 May 2009

Living the now of mindfulness

By Virginia Winder
The Tasman Sea is roaring like an angry taniwha and the woman walking barefoot just beyond its surging clutches notices everything.
She inhales salt air tossed on a westerly wind, feels soft cool sand suck at her feet and watches a black dog tear along the beach, tongue lolling from a canine grin.
Then, madly, she plunges into the sea, focused only on each wave that rushes at her. Then she dives under a big wall of tumbling white froth and holds on to the sand, feeling the power of water pass over her.
She pops up, takes a deep gulp of air and faces the next wave.
For her, nothing else exists but her body and the sea. Every worry is gone, every looming bill, every job waiting to be done, every smudge of sorrow, all gone, left on dry land in what feels like another life.
This woman is in an absolute state of mindfulness, a concept that is finding favour with university scientists from Boston to Dunedin.
Earlier this year, a story in The Wow! Factor detailed research from Otago University that showed how women taught relaxation techniques and mindfulness had better relationships with food and, after two years, had maintained their weight or even shed a few kilos – all without dieting.
Study co-author Caroline Horwath, from the university’s human nutrition department, used relaxation response training modelled on the Harvard Mind/Body Medical Institute’s symptom reduction programme. Mindfulness was a big component of this.
Now, in Taranaki, a man from India is teaching mental health clients this new and yet ancient way of being – and it’s changing their lives.
Dr Samir Heble, 37, works for the Taranaki District Health Board and is one of the youngest clinical directors of mental health in New Zealand.
He came to New Zealand seven years ago from Goa in India. “I was seeing the different types of illnesses in the Western cultures and I felt the treatments we were doing were helping some but not everybody.”
He thought something from the Eastern cultures might be helpful and decided to run courses on mindfulness, a philosophy that he lives, breathes and writes about.
“Mindfulness is a concept that derived from Buddhism more than 2500 years ago. The basic principle is radical acceptance.”
However, he makes it clear that he is not a Buddhist and the programme is not based on religion.
“What mindfulness basically means is living in the present moment and accepting every moment is unique and has a special grandeur,” he says.
He acknowledges that both the past and future are important. “However, a lot of the time we get so engrossed in the past or engrossed in thinking about the future that we fail to relish and enjoy the present moment.”
In his courses, Dr Heble teaches how to focus on the now. Those who take his courses aren’t in crisis mode, but are heading towards recovery or are well and need tools to stay healthy.
“I tell the clients that this is one of the truths in life, but I don’t tell them it is the truth.”
He believes there are many other ways of living and if people have already found useful tools or treatments, Dr Heble doesn’t tell them to give these up. “I don’t tell them they should stop medicines or other therapies like CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) because all that is equally as important. It (mindfulness) is another asset to what they already have.”
From a mindfulness perspective, a person’s mind is like a guest house. “All our thoughts, emotions, feelings, wishes, hopes, desires, ambitions, dreams, aspirations, projects, disappointments, pleasures are guests. Some of these are wanted guests and some are unwanted guests.”
People tend to only welcome the wanted guests and not the unwanted guests, like anger, frustration, grief. “That’s what creates the unease or the suffering, because the more we won’t take those unwanted guests in, the more they keep knocking at the door.”
Dr Heble teaches his clients to acknowledge both the joys and pains of life – the wanted and unwanted guests. “As soon as the unwanted are acknowledged, they tend to knock less and people will feel more at ease.”
Then he teaches people how to let go – that’s where a concept he calls “radical acceptance” comes to the fore.
In the first session he asks the group two questions – what is happiness and how do we find it.
The answers, 99 per cent of the time, refer to finding happiness via external forces – through pets, nice partners, good jobs, wealth and more. “From a mindfulness point of view, happiness doesn’t depend on external conditions; it’s a state of mind.”
It’s important for people to deal with thoughts and feelings in a non-judgemental way and remember that thoughts are just thoughts and are not necessarily truths.
“In some people’s lives their minds are like a balloon. If the wind is strong it goes in this particular direction and if the wind is stronger this way it goes in this direction,” he says, moving his head from side to side.
“No matter how strong the wind is we should be able to keep in one place.”
Dr Heble also turns to nature for some powerful lessons about the impermanence of life. “Whatever rises will fall. There are no exceptions.”
In his courses, he illustrates points with poetry and often uses his own works. “My grandfather was one of the national poets of India.”
He is talking of Balkrishna Bhagwant Borkar who, in 1967, received the Padmashree, an Indian national award, for services to literature and education.
People doing Dr Heble’s courses are also encouraged to write their own poetry or find words that inspire them.
The first workshop was held in the middle of last year, the second in November and December and the latest one began this month. The third course is being facilitated by the health board’s community adviser, Nic Magrath.
“It’s a six-week course, but mindfulness is a life-long process,” Dr Heble says.
There are about 20 people in the group and many have found the lessons helpful.
One patient says it has transformed her life. “I feel empowered and in control of my life for the first time in six years.”
The woman, who cannot be named because of privacy reasons, says the techniques are simple to use. “It’s made a huge difference to me. I use the skills I’ve learnt every day to cope with situations.”
She says big crowds no longer cause her anxiety. “I can go to the supermarket and out to dinner with friends – I never used to be able to do those things.”
Dr Heble says another woman who used to be lonely, no longer feels that way because mindfulness has taught her that she is part of nature.
“We are all made up of molecules and are part of the great cosmos,” he says.
“When I told that to one of the ladies in an earlier group, all the loneliness went away from her life. Each time she starts feeling lonely she looks out the window at the sun and the mountain and she feels part of the whole big universe and she’s not depressed now,” he says.
Mindfulness is about letting go of self, of ego and all expectations.
“One must hope and dream, and have aspirations, but do not have expectations because expectations are not always met and expectations are the root cause of most suffering,” he says.
But mostly, it’s about focusing on the moment.
The woman in the sea is deeper now.
She watches a wave rushing towards her and turns ready to ride it. Just at the instant before it breaks she begins swimming furiously towards land, feeling the sea lift her and throw her forward in a rush of white water and speed.
And she’s flying, lost in a pure moment of mindfulness.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Freaky Facts to keep in mind

1. Mindfulness is being used in research programmes around the world to help people improve their physical and mental health. It’s been trialled for many things, including the treatment of fibromyalgia, stress reduction, helping people to stop smoking and for cancer outpatients with sleep, mood, stress and fatigue symptoms.

2. One of the world’s leading advocates of mindfulness is Jon Kabat-Zinn.
He is the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He teaches mindfulness meditation as a technique to help people cope with stress, anxiety, pain and illness. “The present is the only time that any of us have to be alive, to know anything, to perceive, to learn, to act, to change, to heal.”

3. Harvard Medical School is also backing mindfulness. It says mounting evidence shows mindfulness can increase life enjoyment, expand the ability to cope with illness, and possibly improve physical and emotional health. It says one of the more popular ways to practice mindfulness is through meditation, which involves sitting or lying down quietly for 20 or 30 minutes, once or twice a day.

4. The practice of mindfulness is being taught and researched at universities all around the world. Even Bangor University in northern Wales now has the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice. It is committed to the relief of suffering and the promotion of wellbeing through the application of mindfulness-based approaches.

5. Mindfulness has been integrated with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to help people with mental illness. Researchers say the integrated treatment is a paradigm shift in psychotherapy.

Monday, 2 February 2009

NZ pigeons flock to park

By Virginia Winder

Pukekura Park is the New Zealand pigeon capital of the world.
So says Taranaki ornithologist David Medway who has been taking count of the plump birds that swoop-whir overhead like miniature Hercules helicopters.
“We have got more pigeons in New Plymouth city than any other city in New Zealand. I think I’m pretty safe in saying that because there are some cities like Hamilton that don’t have any pigeons and they are busy trying to attract them back.”
The native pigeon (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae), also known as kereru, has become firmly established in the New Plymouth park and Medway believes there are about 20 birds in residence.
“It’s because of the variety of food that’s provided by the vegetation in the park year round that we are able to maintain such a good population.”
Also, the pigeons’ major foes – possums, ship rats (Rattus rattus) and stoats – are either in such low proportions in the park they don’t pose problems, or simply not there at all.
Perhaps that’s why they don’t venture far from the park boundaries.
During the day some of the pigeons will make flying visits to neighbouring properties, but generally, they don’t go far.
“But they tend to go back into the park – that’s their home base,” says the Friends of Pukekura Park vice-president.
When the Department of Conservation surveyed the park three or four years ago, they discovered the birds stuck close. “They were somewhat surprised at the little movement of pigeons here compared to elsewhere. In other areas, such as Invercargill, where they did their studies, pigeons travel kilometres to get to food sources, but they don’t need to do that here.”
Medway can back this up through his own observations.
“I embarked on a definitive study in Pukekura Park about 10 years ago,” says the retired lawyer.
He visits the park three to four times a week, for a few hours at a time, quietly, methodically, recording his observations of the birdlife.
During his studies, Medway has found that not only is the 52-hectare botanical garden (including the adjoining Brooklands Park) the native pigeon capital; it’s also the tui centre of the world. But that’s another story.
He also notes that pigeons are not easy to spot because after feeding they perch silently in trees for a couple of hours. “You might actually walk under a dozen pigeons and not even know they are there.”
Pigeons are herbivores, but they don’t just go for native plants.
That’s why Pukekura Park, which boasts a wide botanical collection of both home-ground plants and exotics, is such a bird magnet.
Because of this, Medway has had to become an amateur botanist and learn about the plants that lure the birds.
One of his most surprising discoveries is the fact that New Zealand pigeons are partial to magnolias. But not all varieties.
Medway says he’s never seen a pigeon eating a Magnolia grandiflora, or any other evergreen magnolia.
But he has seen them dining on the deciduous, especially sargentiana robusta, stellata and soulangeana magnolias. “The big old historic magnolia on the Brooklands lawn is Magnolia soulangeana.”
“The part the pigeons eat depends on the season. They eat the leaf buds and new leaves, flower buds and flowers of quite a variety of magnolias and magnolia cultivars.”
To make this clear here, the New Zealand pigeon doesn’t like all deciduous magnolia. Just like a person picking from a box of chocolates, the birds have their favourites.
Medway doesn’t know why they prefer some and ignore others.
“My studies show that from about June to October the pigeons in the park are feeding primarily on the foliage and flowers of a variety of different magnolias,” he says.
“That’s pretty unique in New Zealand because I know of nowhere else where pigeons rely to such an extent on magnolia. That’s one thing special about here.”
In fact, he hasn’t found any mention of pigeons feeding on magnolia anywhere else in the New Zealand and so plans to publish a scientific paper on the topic.
The pigeons do eat other plants, he says.
“In the later periods, they also rely on the new leaves of kowhai,” he says.
Bird watching is about being open-minded. “You’re learning all the time.”
But he is a man of pedantic accuracy.
He doesn’t totally dismiss stories of pigeons “drunk” on fermented fruits, or birds too full on berries to fly. But he does wonder if they are urban myths. “In my 50 or so years of bird observations I’ve never seen any of those things. I don’t deny that those things could happen, all I’m saying is I’ve never seen.”
But he has observed many pigeons munching magnolia.
And so, when he says Pukekura Park is the New Zealand pigeon capital, it’s best to believe him.
Caption: A New Zealand pigeon eating a loquat fruit in Pukekura Park. Photo: James Harmsen

NB: This story first appeared in the Taranaki Daily News on January 5, 2009

Freaky Facts about kereru

1) In Northland the New Zealand pigeon has the Maori name kuku or kukupa. Other places it’s known as kereru. On the Chatham Islands the native pigeon is called parea, but that’s a different species altogether, called Hemiphaga chathamensis.
2) The kereru has an important job helping the spread of native trees. Since the moa became extinct, back in the 1500s, the native pigeon is now the only seed disperser with a bill big enough to swallow large fruit, such as those of karaka, tawa and taraire, the DOC website says.
3) A New Zealand pigeon is a big bird. They can measure up to 51cm from tail to beak, and weight 650g.
4) Nest-making is not one of the kereru’s greatest skills. The pigeon throws together a flimsy nest of twigs and lays a single egg, which takes 28 days to hatch. Both parents take turns to sit on the egg.
5) Pigeon chicks are fed on a fruit smoothy mixture that helps them grow fast. This is made from a protein-rich milky secretion that comes from the walls of their parents’ crops, which is mixed fruit pulp. The chicks generally leave the nest after 40 days.