This, the best known of the New Zealand song birds, is a member of the honeyeater family and has been famous since the days of Captain Cook's first visit to this country for its chiming notes, uttered – especially in chorus – just after dawn.
Abundant in the early days of settlement, bell-birds became unaccountably scarce during the latter part of the nineteenth century and for a time seemed, with a number of other species, to be in danger of extinction. A recovery, however, was made and bellbirds are now common again over a large part of the country, except in Northland. On some of the off-shore islands, such as Little Barrier, Hen Island, and the Three Kings, they are probably as numerous as in former times. Though predominantly birds of native forest and scrub, bell-birds are by no means unknown to parks and gardens or where nectar-bearing exotic vegetation is found.
Their plumage is predominantly olive green. Males are brighter than females and have a deep purple sheen about the head and neck. Females have a white streak curving from the base of the bill to below the eye. There are three subspecies separable on grounds of minor differences in size and plumage: the Chatham Islands race, presumed extinct since about 1906; the Three Kings race; and, finally, that occupying the three main islands of New Zealand and their off-shore islets.
Food and nesting habits are fairly similar to those of the tui and this similarity even extends to the colour of eggs, clutch size, and incubation period. Breeding occurs from September to January and two broods may be reared during this time. The phenomenon of local “dialect” in song is clearly exhibited by bellbirds and there are seasonal and sexual differences in song as well. The alarm note of “tink, tink, tink” bears some resemblance to that of the introduced European blackbird.
Common Maori names for the species are korimako or makomako. The scientific name is Anthornis melanura.
by Gordon Roy Williams, B.SC.(HONS.)(SYDNEY), Lecturer in Agricultural Zoology, Lincoln Agricultural College.