Pukekura Park - its ecology and history - Friends of Pukekura Park New Plymouth Inc.

Magnolia Fruits as Food for Birds

Magnolia Magnolia (Magnoliaceae) fruits are borne in a cone-like structure. As the fruit matures, the cone splits open longitudinally and the fruits are exposed and fall to the ground. Magnolia seeds are surrounded by a brightly-coloured fleshy aril that is rich in oil and sugars. In North America, the fruits of at least two species of native magnolia are eaten by squirrels, other seed-eating rodents, and several bird species.

Magnolia species and cultivars are widely planted as ornamentals in New Zealand. Many are growing throughout Pukekura Park and Brooklands in central New Plymouth. Among them is a very large and old Magnolia x soulangeana, probably the best known of all magnolias. I began observing this tree in 2001. It has developed fruit cones every year since then but, with one exception, those cones seemed to die on the tree, and they fell to the ground without opening. In 2004, there was a bumper crop of fruit cones most of which remained on the tree where they opened to reveal their orange-red fruits. Each compartment of the fruit cone contains two fruits. Many of these fruits fell to the ground after their cones opened.

I visited this tree daily from 19-30 April 2004. I saw up to six Tui in the tree at the same time. I watched them actively search many cones closely. Some of the cones they searched were not mature enough to have any exposed fruits, and the Tui were unable to get anything from them. Other cones they searched had visible fruits which were still so firmly embedded that the Tui were unable to extract them despite their attempts to do so. On one occasion I watched a Tui repeatedly pull at a fruit until it succeeded in extracting it. I saw that the Tui were successful in extracting many fruits which they promptly swallowed. They undoubtedly managed to get more fruits than I noticed.

Numerous Silvereyes, and several Mynahs and Blackbirds, also ate fruits from the cones in the tree. They extracted and ate whole fruits, but they also pecked at fruits in the cones and were able to pick off portions without needing to remove the whole fruit. I never saw the Tui peck at the fruits like these other birds did. The Tui used a tweezer movement and seemed to be dependant on extracting the whole fruit from its cone. Mynahs and Blackbirds were often seen on the ground under the tree searching for fallen fruits and eating them.


I am not aware of any published records of birds eating magnolia fruits in New Zealand. It is not surprising that Silvereyes, Mynahs and Blackbirds should do so because those species between them eat a wide variety of fruits, both native and exotic. My observations show that Tui, which eat fruits mostly of native New Zealand plants, will also avail themselves of the fruits of at least one magnolia cultivar should the opportunity arise.

David Medway

Reproduced, with permission, from Miranda Naturalists’ Trust News No. 68 (February 2008).

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