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Refugee lawyer turns to helping native birds

Wearing the first Bird Shirts featuring an embroidered kererū are (from left): Tom Grace, Alice Harcourt and Sophie Walton. Photo: Sam Brownie

When Arna McAvoy couldn’t return to Egypt to continue working with refugees, she instead co-founded a social enterprise supporting New Zealand’s native birds.

Bird Shirts sells T-shirts with native birds embroidered on them, with half of all profits going directly to grassroots charities working to conserve and care for the featured bird.

Forest & Bird says that 80 per cent of New Zealand’s native birds are threatened, or at risk of extinction, because of introduced predators, pollution, climate change and human development.

We started this social enterprise with the purpose of nourishing the connection between Kiwis and our native birds,” Arna says.

The idea is to provide people with an easy way to support conservation and also proudly wear the bird they love on their chests.”

Soon after graduating from the University of Canterbury with a law degree, Arna went overseas and worked for six months as a legal advisor for unaccompanied refugee children and youth in Cairo, Egypt.

Helping people was rewarding and confirmed that refugee law was indeed what she wanted to practise, she says.

She returned to Christchurch to complete her Professional Legal Studies qualification, but the Covid-19 crisis closed many international borders and she has been unable to go back overseas until they re-open.

Faced with the prospect of working in a role where I would not feel as fulfilled, or would not be making as big a contribution to people as I would like, I wanted a project where I could get this.”


Arna’s partner is Jon Heslop, who started the Shakti Mats business about six years ago, with an emphasis on corporate responsibility and ethical manufacturing.

Together, they founded Bird Shirts. While they’ve been working on the idea since July, they launched their first run of T-shirts in mid-October.

The 200 garments have a kererū embroidered on them, and half the profits will go to Project Kererū in Dunedin, which rehabilitates sick and injured native pigeons. The money should be enough to feed 140 birds for a year.

Arna says project director, Nic Hurring, looks after the pigeons in “gorgeous” aviaries, then releases them. At present, she needs to fundraise as well as care for the kererū.

“I think it’s going to make a world of difference,” Jon says of the T-shirts’ contribution.

A love of birds 

Arna says she and Jon love birds – watching and identifying them. Her favourite is probably a South Island dotterel and Jon’s is the kererū.

“It’s so cool when you see one, you just get a little grin on your face,” he says.

Bird Shirts co-founders, Arna McAvoy and Jon Heslop, enjoying New Zealand’s native bush on Stewart Island. Photo: supplied


Their next T-shirt will feature the world’s only truly alpine parrot, the kea, and half the profits will go to the Kea Conservation Trust, which carries out education and research.

Bird Shirts has received many requests for a T-shirt celebrating another parrot, the flightless, forest-dwelling kākāpō. However, the pīwakawaka or fantail might be the next to be captured in cotton.

The garments are sold online and will be available at occasional summer festivals and events. Arna and Jon run the social enterprise, working on a voluntary basis while holding down full-time jobs.

She says they chose T-shirts because they are unisex and a staple of most people’s wardrobes. The enterprise hired a graphics designer, digitiser and two artists to help with its first design.

Patches of the country’s ‘Great Walks’ that people used to sew on their backpacks inspired the embroidery, which is undertaken by Embroidery Works in Auckland.

Jon says that just as those patches instilled pride in trampers so, too, the embroidered birds are a symbol of pride in our native fauna and flora.

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For further information:

Birdshirts website

About New Zealand birds


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