This aptly named species is one that has been able to adapt itself very satisfactorily to an environment that has been greatly changed since European settlement. Originally a bird of open native forests and scrub, it is now also to be found in the forests of introduced pines, in orchards, and in and around the botanic gardens of our largest cities. At times it may appear far from any large stands of shrubs or trees and has an altitudinal range that extends from sea level to the snow line. Its geographical range is very wide within New Zealand, though it does not occur on our sub-Antarctic islands, nor on the Kermadecs.
Three subspecies are recognised – one on the North Island and its off-lying islands, one on the South Island, Stewart Island, and their nearby outliers, and one on the Chathams. The differences between the subspecies are small ones of plumage pattern and size. Except for the Chatham Islands race, the species is dimorphic; that is, two colour phases exist. In addition to the usual pied, or black and white form, there is a black one. This is relatively common in the south-western part of the South Island and is not infrequently met with in other parts of this island and on Stewart Island but is rare in the North Island, though it has been reported from a wide area. Pied and black forms readily breed together to give both black and pied offspring, and matings between two black birds have been reported to yield both black and pied young.
Sexes are alike, though males are slightly larger than females. The common call is a sharp and repeated chirp, the song a series of high-pitched twitterings. Feeding is usually carried out during the characteristic and erratic batlike flight, and food consists entirely of small insects. Fantails will readily enter houses in search of prey.
The breeding season extends mainly from September to January, and a cone-shaped nest of moss, hair, and grass bound with cobwebs is frequently sited in vegetation near or actually overhanging water, presumably because of the abundance of insects in such a situation. Three to four creamy eggs with light-brown markings at their larger ends comprise the usual clutch. Incubation is shared and takes about 14 days. Two or three broods may be raised in one season.
The scientific name for the species is Rhipidura fuliginosa.
by Gordon Roy Williams, B.SC.(HONS.)(SYDNEY), Lecturer in Agricultural Zoology, Lincoln Agricultural College.