Was the little German owl really a ruthless killer, or was this a case of ‘ecological racism’?

A German owl. Looks pretty harmless to me!
A German owl. Looks pretty harmless to me!

While perusing historical minute books of the New Zealand acclimatisation societies, I came across this gem, from the ‘Presidential address’ at their national conference in 1932:

“The German owl was killing out a tremendous number of native birds, and it should be the duty of the societies to wage war upon it. There was a division of opinion concerning the magpie, which was useful to farmers, but his society considered that only definitely proved killers should be destroyed.”

It is nice to see that acclimatisation societies were beginning to turn their gaze on the plight of indigenous species, but one can’t help wondering whether the accusations made against the little German owl (and the accompanying allusion to the waging of war) were not somehow related to the situation in Europe at the time? Ironically, the magpie, which we know today to be aggressive against other birds – and people – was quite handy to have around the farm, apparently. Though tantalisingly, the minutes leave us wondering what use our pied friend was actually put to…

4 thoughts on “Was the little German owl really a ruthless killer, or was this a case of ‘ecological racism’?

  1. James Braund June 12, 2015 / 3:49 pm

    If there was any anti-German sentiment implicit in the comments in the Presidential address mentioned above, it was – given the date (1932) – more probably a lingering reflection of the virulent anti-German hysteria that swept New Zealand during World War I, although this too could be questioned. As I see from Papers Past, there was a lot of mention about the introduction of the bird in many local newspapers going back over two decades beforehand, with initial criticisms being voiced even before World War I. The introduction of the German owl seems to have been yet another of our misguided attempts at implementing biological controls on introduced pests (in this case, introduced birds). The idea sounded – and seemed – great at first, but it soon became a separate problem in itself.

  2. envirohistorynz June 12, 2015 / 5:24 pm

    Thanks James – very interesting. Looking at your areas of expertise, no one would be more qualified to comment on this than you! (Except a little German owl, perhaps!)

  3. paulknight35 June 12, 2015 / 8:45 pm

    Very interesting discussion.

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