Bird watchers convinced a new species of red harrier hawk had been discovered in Dannevirke were duped by a local man who was trapping and spray-painting them for fun.
Dannevirke dairy farmer Grant Michael Teahan was found guilty this week on two charges of ill-treating an animal after he trapped two hawks, spray-painted them a pinkish-red, took photographs and then released them.
At a defended hearing in Dannevirke District Court on November 24 last year, Teahan denied allegations that the hawk-painting started as a prank which escalated when he enjoyed being part of a prominent community news story.
Judge Geoff Rea, who released his decision this week, said he did "not accept the evidence that [Teahan] had no involvement in painting the hawks".
The mystery began in early 2009 when a number of photos taken by people who sighted the birds were sent in to a Dannevirke newspaper.
The sightings occurred over an 18-month period, but the truth started to emerge in May 2010. An autopsy on a hawk, performed by Massey University Wildlife Centre veterinarian Brett Gartrell, found it had died as a result of being hit by a car, but the paint had a serious effect on its health.
"Any toxic materials applied in that way will be preened by the bird and ingested and can result in poisoning in this way," he said.
Eventually a YouTube clip, sent anonymously to media, gave the SPCA sufficient evidence to search Teahan's Tiratu farm.
It was revealed in court that Teahan asked his nephew to send the footage. The clip, titled Magpie Movie 2, showed a man catching and shooting a magpie in a home-made trap covered in pinkish-red spray paint.
Files, photographs and films relating to red hawks had been deleted on computers seized at Teahan's property.
Additional files found on the computer showed a cow that had been spray-painted with "Merry Christmas" on it in red paint.
But inspectors could not find the trap, and Teahan told them he threw it away because it broke. Teahan told the Manawatu Standard he did not paint any hawks and there was not enough evidence to prove he did. He did not know who was responsible.
"Painted hawks have been sighted right up until 12 months after those inspectors showed up at my property," he said. "So whoever's doing it was doing it until April 2011."
Teahan was considering appealing his "wrongful conviction".
Palmerston North SPCA manager Danny Auger said it was the most bizarre case he had worked on.
"Various people got involved, like experts who thought maybe it was a new strain or a new type of bird or whatever, but then feathers were being found and it was obvious somebody was actually painting these hawks."
Judge Rea said he did not buy Teahan's excuse that he was a victim of coincidence.
"He closely followed the local publicity about the painted hawks and anonymously contributed to it. I do not accept that he was truthful in his explanations to the SPCA officers."
Teahan will reappear for sentencing on January 30.