New Zealand is noted for the number of its flightless or near flightless land birds, and of these the one most often seen is the weka. There is one very variable species, Gallirallus australis, which is divided into four subspecies – one in the North Island, two in the South, and one in Stewart Island.
North Island wekas, once widespread, are now very much reduced both in range and in numbers and are common only in the East Cape district. They also occur sporadically in Northland. In the South Island the western weka of the forests and alpine grasslands of the main mountain chain from Marlborough and Nelson to Fiordland is now only locally abundant. The eastern subspecies, once common over much of the native grasslands from Marlborough to Otago, is almost certainly extinct in its original range. Luckily, some which were transferred to the Chathams in 1905 have become abundant there and an attempt has recently been made to re-establish the species in Canterbury. The result of this experiment is not yet known. A fourth subspecies occurs in fair numbers on Stewart Island and has been introduced to some of its off-shore islets and to Solander and Macquarie Islands.
In those parts where wekas are still relatively common, their furtive curiosity makes them a familiar sight around houses or camps as they patrol in search of edible scraps or, in fact, of anything unfamiliar and transportable. Wekas also feed on berries, insects, worms, lizards, crustaceans, eggs, and young of birds – even mice, rats, rabbits, and, occasionally, stoats.
Their predominant colour is rich brown mottled with black; in some areas the whole plumage is almost black. The reddish-brown bill, about 2 in. long and stout and pointed, is a formidable weapon. The tail is pointed too and is almost constantly being flicked – a sign of unease and a characteristic feature of the behaviour of the rail family, to which wekas belong. Both sexes are alike, the male being slightly larger than the female. Nests are made on the ground under cover of thick vegetation, and consist of grass or similar material made into a bowl in which about four buff eggs blotched with brown and mauve are laid. Both sexes incubate. The size of a weka is approximately equal to that of a domestic hen.
The common contact call is a loud, reedy cooeét cooet cooet, given with a rising inflection. During the breeding season a rapid drumming note seems to be connected with territorial behaviour.
by Gordon Roy Williams, B.SC.(HONS.)(SYDNEY), Lecturer in Agricultural Zoology, Lincoln Agricultural College.