Iconic New Zealand birds

Millions of years before man set foot on the islands of New Zealand, a magnificent array of birds ruled the land.

For 80 million years, New Zealand's birds thrived in a paradise where there were no natural land-based predators. They evolved into unique specimens - giant powerful creatures, flightless land-walkers, colourful songbirds - found nowhere else on earth.

Giant birds

The flightless moa was a docile beast as heavy as a cow and taller than any man - up to three metres high, it was the tallest bird to ever live.

The moa's enemy - Haast’s eagle - was the largest of its kind to fly. It had a wingspan as wide as a moa was tall, a vicious beak and talons to prey on its victims.

A giant penguin species, big enough to look a man in the eye, swam in the sea and waddled along the coastline.

But over the last 1000 years, the arrival of men and animals has led to the extinction of one third of the indigenous birds that once walked and flew in New Zealand.

The most recent victims were the laughing owl and the huia, with its glossy black feathers and bright orange wattle.

Protecting the species

While New Zealand’s sky and forest floor still abound with extraordinary birds and the trill of the dawn chorus, the race is now on to protect those species that still exist.

Species such as the treasured kakapo, a nocturnal parrot that hops like a sparrow and growls like a dog, now number just 125 in the world. A few years ago, their numbers were even fewer but, while recovery takes time, the progress is encouraging.

The takahe, a colourful flightless bird with a blue-green cloak and vivid red beak, was thought extinct for more than 50 years, before being rediscovered in the remote tussock grasslands of Fiordland. The takahe remains on the endangered species list.

Found nowhere else

A quarter of New Zealand’s birds are found nowhere else on the planet.

The tui is a melodious bird with a metallic sheen and a tuft of white feathers under its chin, which sups on the nectar of native flowers. Past summers have seen significant increases in tui numbers, especially in Wellington's city suburbs where the Karori Sanctuary is helping to restore birdlife.

Tourists often photograph the mischievous kea, a mountain parrot that roams the South Island high country, and loves to snoop in campers’ backpacks, or grapple with the wipers on car windows.

The true icon of New Zealand birds, and the most unusual, is the kiwi - a flightless wonder with hair-like feathers, long whiskers and nostrils at the end of its bill for sniffing out food.

Human New Zealanders carry the nickname 'Kiwi'. The bird appears on coins and lends its name to the local currency.

Department of Conservation

It is the responsibility of 'Kiwis' to keep these rare and unique species alive because they cannot be conserved in nature anywhere else in the world.

Along with many volunteers, and organisations such as the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, New Zealand's Department of Conservation (DOC) has become a world leader in bird recovery science. The results of their work are ensuring the survival of New Zealand's endangered birds.

More information:

Kapiti Island - national treasure for birdlovers

Motuihe Island eco-success story

Zealandia - Karori Sanctuary experience