QUAIL, NEW ZEALAND
The three species of quail now seen in this country (the widespread California quail, the Australian brown or swamp quail which is almost wholly confined to the North Island, and the American bobwhite very locally distributed in one or two parts of the North Island) are obviously not natives to New Zealand. The species of quail that was native to these islands is now extinct and has been so for approximately 90 years. It was, in fact, the second species to become extinct within European times, being preceded by Dieffenbach's rail of the Chatham Islands.
Related very closely to the still surviving Australian stubble quail, the New Zealand quail was once common in parts of the North and South Islands. Being a species living mainly in grasslands, it was more abundant in the South Island on its eastern side than in the North where its distribution was far more localised. By the mid-nineteenth century the koreke, as it was known to the Maori, was already uncommon in the North Island, though at about the same time it was still abundant in parts of Nelson and Otago. By 1870 it was regarded as having been completely exterminated in the North, and five years later the South Island populations had vanished too.
It seems most unlikely that hunting accounted for this quail's rapid disappearance; neither can it be said that in the early days of settlement dogs or cats were responsible. Brown rats and black rats were the only introduced predators that were widespread at the relevant period. Even nowadays, with a much greater variety of possible predators plus intensified hunting by man, the introduced species of quail – all ground nesters – are able to hold their own. Habitat and food destruction caused by burning of the natural grasslands may have been the main cause.
The scientific name of the koreke was Coturnix novaezealandiae. It is just possible that a species of the Australian brown quail (Synoicus ypsilophorus) was also native to this country, but the introduction of stocks of the same species from Australia now makes confirmation difficult.
by Gordon Roy Williams, B.SC.(HONS.)(SYDNEY), Lecturer in Agricultural Zoology, Lincoln Agricultural College.