The tui is the largest of the honeyeaters (family Meliphagidae) which are native to New Zealand. The other two representatives are the bellbird and stitchbird.
The tui is rather bigger than the introduced European blackbird. Its plumage is predominantly a shining bluish and greenish black with silver-grey neck filaments and with two dangling tufts of white curved feathers at the throat. Males are slightly larger than females. There are two subspecies – one belongs to the Chatham Islands, where it is now rather scarce; the other is found on North, South, and Stewart Islands, a number of off-shore islands, and also on the Kermadec and Aucklands groups. It is a little smaller and less blue in sheen than the former race. This subspecies is common on the outskirts of most areas of native forest, occurs about plantations of introduced trees, and may often be found in towns and cities if nectar-bearing trees and shrubs are abundant.
Tuis have a loud undulating flight and frequently indulge in aerial acrobatics – twisting, falling, and audibly opening and shutting their wings. When feeding on nectar they use their brush-tipped tongue, and in this process they pollinate a number of native trees and shrubs by virtue of the pollen that clings to the plumage of their head. In autumn and winter they eat berries and insects.
Their song is rich and varied – musical phrases are interspersed with noisy janglings, hissings, mewings, and gurglings. It is frequently difficult to distinguish between the song of the tui and bellbird on the one hand, and of the tui and kokako on the other. The species is also an accomplished mimic. Occasionally a quiet subsong may be heard, and females have been reported to sing while incubating.
Breeding occurs between September and early January and nests are wide, shallow structures made of sticks and usually built well up in trees and tall shrubs. The average clutch is three eggs.
The scientific name for the species is Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae.
by Gordon Roy Williams, B.SC.(HONS.)(SYDNEY), Lecturer in Agricultural Zoology, Lincoln Agricultural College.