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Pisonia brunoniana
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This article was published in the Titirangi Tatler, July 2012

Parapara - "Bird-catcher Tree"

Every year at about this time, there is an outcry that birds are being killed by a vicious, viscous tree.
And every year, as a nurseryman, I have to defend the right of the tree to exist.

Parapara would once have been reasonably common around Northland's frost-free coastline, and even as far south as Coromandel and East Cape. Why do you never see its handsome glossy foliage - and its dense fingers of sticky seeds? Well, cattle loved munching it, feral goats roamed our cliffs devouring it, and rodents eat the parapara seeds long before they get a chance to germinate. It's tough being a luscious tree.

You have to use every trick, and parapara knows that to get widest distribution of your seed, it is best to employ birds. They are strong enough to carry the adhesive seed miles away and hopefully deposit it where there is a good chance it will thrive. But if the seeds are too long for a bird to swallow, how can a poor tree persuade a bird to be helpful? The answer is that the seeds are adhesive. However, birds do get ensnared in bunches of the slender sticky seeds.

Certainly Bird Rescue people have been in the forefront of protests about parapara and I have some sympathy for their viewpoint. However, on balance, I keep coming back to support the tree and its place in a diverse environment. It is much more deserving of a secure place than the innumerable cats we keep that do not belong in our environment at all.

The parapara tree is no longer common around Northland's coast - I know of just three naturally-occurring trees, all near Mangawhai. If we are extending the range of the tree by planting it inland a bit, I think that is compensation for the destruction man has vented on it. Its propensity to catch birds is a natural phenomenon that illustrates Mother Nature's amazing 'lateral thinking'.

First evolve a plant with seed that oozes a sticky coating. Second, imbue the plant with a pheromone-like quality to attract insects. The insects get stuck on the seed and the plant can then, by offering a captive meal, attract hungry birds.

Having got some feathers stuck on the seed, clever birds struggle free and fly away having learnt the lesson that there is no such thing as a free lunch. But they may also take a seed or two with them and eventually rub it off to renew the cycle of life when the seed germinates. However, stupid and greedy birds strive to eat more insects, and in so doing get totally enmeshed in the spreading seeds. Exhausted they die. In time the tree's seeds ripen, and in falling to the ground are provided with nutrients as the bird is recycled.

Who am I to argue with Darwin's 'Survival of the Fittest" theory?

Observations made by botanists over many years suggest it is mainly the inexperienced exotic birds and urban dwellers that get caught. The canny native species in the real wild on off-shore islands where there are many 'bird-catcher trees' seem to know to avoid the trap.

At what point do we let our sensibilities rule over Nature's rather more ruthless methods? My over-riding philosophy is that nature knows best.

When it can be shown there is a serious risk to a native species, either birds or insects, caused by the presence of parapara trees, then I will reconsider my position. Meantime I will continue to grow and sell the "Bird-feeder" tree.

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