A flight of fancy – a digital hierarchy

Welcome New Zealand Birds Online, a valuable new web resource

Welcome New Zealand Birds Online, a valuable new web resource

One of the frustrating and yet exciting aspects about preparing an online encyclopedia of New Zealand is that the more you find out about the natural and social world of this amazing country, the more you realise how little you really know. Reading a Te Ara story on almost any subject – whether trees and plants, or social institutions and histories – just whets the appetite for more detail and richer explanation. Te Ara needs a host of offspring who can develop all this further.

This thought is sparked by the publication of New Zealand Birds Online. This is a  comprehensive encyclopedia of all 457 species of New Zealand birds. Each bird gets its own page on which you will find the common name, the scientific name, the classification, other names (which often means the Māori name), and information about the bird’s physical description, habitat, population size, conservation status, and breeding behaviour. In the right gutter of the page are photos, identification information about length and weight, a link to sound recordings of the bird’s call, images of the bird and very useful and relevant extracts from important books, including reproductions of maps from the Atlas of bird distribution in New Zealand. There is a also a tab that gives details about each bird’s breeding characteristics such as nest size and egg colour. References and links provide a pointer to further information.

For a budding bird watcher keen to identify a sighting, or anyone who wants to know a bit more about a particular bird, it is a wonderful resource. Colin Miskelly – who is the mastermind behind the project, with the backing of Te Papa, the Ornithological Society and the Department of Conservation – deserves warm congratulations.

This new website is a perfect companion to Te Ara. Te Ara has 27 stories covering New Zealand birds. They range from stories about individual species such as penguins or herons, to larger groupings including birds of open country or introduced land birds, to generic issues such as bird migration or extinctions. What Te Ara cannot possibly do is provide the detailed scientific characteristics of every species – for this people can now turn to New Zealand Birds Online. However, what Te Ara can (and does) do, is spark people’s interest, and provide the wider ecological and cultural context. And then we can send people along to New Zealand Birds Online for that more detailed information.

Take, for example, the kiwi – our national bird. New Zealand Birds Online will tell you how to distinguish one kiwi from another by the colour of its eggs or its feathers or the pitch of its call. What Te Ara can do is to stand back and identify what is unique about the kiwi from a comparative perspective – why its bone structure is so distinct and why its breeding habits make it so vulnerable to predators – and it can place the kiwi in its cultural context. It can explore how and why the kiwi became such a central symbol to the people of New Zealand.

Kiwi in a cultural context, from Te Ara's story on kiwi

Kiwi in a cultural context, from Te Ara's story on kiwi

In the wake of New Zealand Birds Online, it is our hope that other similar encyclopedias will spring up which can work in this way to amplify and give comprehensive rigour to Te Ara. This has already started to happen. In the area of indigenous plants, the New Zealand plant conservation network site offers a very similar listing of flora with details about their features, distribution, habitat and reproduction.

In the field of New Zealand history, we have long worked in association with our sister site, NZHistory. Where Te Ara has an introduction to a topic, NZHistory is able to explore it in more depth. For example, Te Ara has a wonderful entry by Ian McGibbon on the First World War, which gives an outline history of New Zealand’s involvement in the war. Then, if you turn to NZHistory, you will find no fewer than 34 essays that give you far more depth – with essays on specific topics such as the Imperial Camel Corps and the Sinai campaign.  Similarly, you can go from Te Ara’s story on memorials and monuments to NZHistory’s database of memorials.

At the moment Te Ara is beginning work on entries that cover the creative arts. Almost every subject we touch, whether literature or dance or music, cries out for more comprehensive coverage of individual artists or their works. We’d love to see new websites like New Zealand Sculptors Online and New Zealand Dancers Online, just as we have New Zealand Birds Online. We want sites that we can bounce off and work with, where our broad overview provides context and their detail gives specific answers.

The beauty of the digital world is that you can link to another site with one click, opening up the possibility of this knowledge hierarchy. For providing an exciting example and inspiration, we are grateful to New Zealand Birds Online. Take a look, enjoy and try bouncing back every so often to Te Ara. It works a treat.

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