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Game birds

by Neil Deans

Waiting for dogs to flush quail, or walking long distances in pursuit of pheasants – New Zealand hunters target various species of game bird, both native and introduced.

Game birds in New Zealand

What are game birds?

In New Zealand, 13 bird species may be seasonally hunted, and are known as game birds. They can be divided into upland game and waterfowl.

Upland game, which live on dry land, are all members of the pheasant family. They include: 

  • ring-necked pheasants
  • grey, red-legged and chukor partridges
  • California, brown and bobwhite quails.

Wetland game birds include:

  • four duck species – mallards, grey ducks, Australasian shovelers and paradise shelducks
  • black swans
  • pūkeko.

Although grey partridges and bobwhite quails remain on the game list, they are no longer present in the wild in New Zealand.

The Wildlife Act 1953 defines all these species as game, and they are managed by regional fish and game councils. Hunters who purchase a game-bird licence, and follow regulations, can legally hunt these birds at certain times of the year (usually autumn and winter) – called ‘the season’.

Native and introduced birds

The grey duck, Australasian shoveler, paradise shelduck, black swan and pūkeko are all native to New Zealand; the other eight species are introduced.

Other birds that are hunted

Some birds not listed in the Wildlife Act as game birds are also hunted. They include the Cape Barren goose, greylag goose, wild turkey and peafowl. The Canada goose was officially a game bird until 2011, when it was removed from the list. It is now unprotected, and may be hunted at any time of year, by any method.

Early game-bird hunting

Game-bird hunting dates back to the earliest years of European arrival. British navigator James Cook and his crew shot many birds in 1769. For centuries, before Europeans arrived, Māori snared and speared birds. Various native species of duck, quail, New Zealand pigeon and even godwit were hunted by Europeans. 

Introducing game birds

European settlers introduced birds to add to the native fauna, and out of nostalgia for creatures of the ‘old country’. They also wanted to provide sport and food, and promote tourism.

Stone soup

Author Brad Parkes wrote about the tough stringy flesh of the pūkeko (also dubbed the ‘West Coast pheasant’): ‘Perhaps I’ve been prejudiced by the time worn cooking recipe for pukeko: Put in 4 gallon kero tin, weigh down with clean river boulder, boil for four days, throw away pukeko and eat boulder.’1

The founder of the Canterbury settlement, John Robert Godley, ensured that pheasants were on the first four ships that established Christchurch. Colonial governor and later New Zealand premier George Grey was a keen importer of wildlife, and provided the first California quail to the Nelson Acclimatisation Society in the mid-1860s.

European mallard ducks were introduced from the late 1860s, but mallards did not become naturalised until Cecil Whitney of the Auckland Acclimatisation Society brought in the more suitable North American species in 1937. Whitney reared many birds and made around 3,500 eggs available to farmers between 1941 and 1943.

Failed introductions

Acclimatisation societies also tried to introduce many other game-bird species. Birds that failed to become naturalised included common snipe, grouse (introduced to the central North Island along with heather, which still remains), ptarmigan, and some species of quail and pigeon.

    • Brad Parkes, Gamebird hunting in New Zealand. Auckland: Halcyon, 1992, p. 119.  Back


Hunting times

Upland game are usually hunted in the middle of a bright, sunny winter’s day. Traditional waterfowl-hunting, on the other hand, is done in the early morning or evening.

Giving them a lead

When shooting at flying birds hunters must swing their shotgun in an arc that follows the flight path and then overtakes it, to shoot at where the birds are going to be, not where they are. One hunter wrote, ‘I know of some shooters who have taken years to realise that, especially with the longer shots, you have to lead them by the length of a farm gate. Over the years I have missed plenty of birds behind but I can’t recall having ever missed one by shooting too far in front.’1

Hunting with dogs

To be shot legally, birds must be flying and within range (30–50 metres) of the hunter, who uses a shotgun. A well-trained and competently-handled gun dog is essential in hunting upland game, as these birds rarely take to the wing unless flushed by a dog. Dogs should not move further than a hunter can fire at a flushed bird. The hunter needs to shoot within seconds of the bird flying up from ground cover in a whirr of wings.

Dogs are also used to flush wetland game from cover, and to retrieve them from waterways.

Different hunters prefer different breeds of dog – often pointers, setters or retrievers. Many hunters belong to gun-dog clubs and gun clubs and maintain their interest in dog training year-round, although the hunting season is only a few months in winter.

Pheasant cloaks

Hunter and fly-fisher Keith Draper tied flies using feathers from game birds he shot, and also gave the plumage to Māori weavers. He wrote, ‘The old kuias [elderly women], involved in the traditional art of weaving feather cloaks, treasure the feathers of the cock pheasant. The bronze and green plumage is an acceptable substitute for that of the kaka [parrot], which was used in olden times.’2

Quail and pheasants

 Upland game hunters have to be keen and hard-working, as there are few places where pheasants and quail are common. Partridges were introduced to New Zealand, but their numbers remain very low. Hunting quail involves considerable work for the dog, but little action for the hunter except watching for the sudden flushing of a bird. Once a covey is found in a gully, the hunter must wait to see if they will be flushed by the dog or sit tight, which they may do for hours.

Pheasant hunting, by contrast, may involve travelling long distances before the dogs find their strong-smelling quarry. To keep pheasant numbers up, only the cocks are hunted – so hunters need split-second judgement to target the right birds when they are in flight.

Generally quail and pheasants are hunted by a group, in which each hunter has a similar chance of firing a shot. If they are successful, the dog must retrieve the downed bird.

Ducks and other wetland birds

Wetland game birds, including various species of duck, are shot from hunting places on farms and at publicly owned waterways and wetlands where hunting is permitted. Usually hunters conceal themselves in a hide near the water, and use artificial decoys and calls to lure ducks and geese into shooting range.


Most game-bird hunters eat what they shoot or give birds to friends and relatives. Birds bound for the table must be cleaned and plucked or skinned. Since the 1990s wild foods have become more popular, and recipes are readily available. Most towns have restaurants that will cook game provided by hunters – a welcome change for chefs, particularly those trained in Europe, as New Zealand traditionally offered few opportunities to cook game.

    • Keith Draper, A duckhunter’s tale: wildfowling in New Zealand. Christchurch: Shoal Bay, 1999, p. 149. Back
    • A duckhunter’s tale, p. 107. Back



The administration of game birds is the responsibility of fish and game councils. The Wildlife Act 1953 protects all wildlife, unless specifically excluded. Game birds are covered by the First Schedule of the Wildlife Act – meaning that all species are fully protected except during the hunting season, when they can be hunted subject to regulations.

The species listed as game are reviewed occasionally, and sometimes their legal status changes. Some protected birds, such as kererū, have been game in the past, and some formerly protected birds, such as paradise shelducks, are now game.


Fish and Game New Zealand has a statutory mandate to manage game-bird hunting. Within its region each fish and game council can open seasons for hunting particular species, set daily bag limits, and restrict the types of shot, guns or hunting methods. 

Hunters can only use shotguns and must shoot birds in flight. They must buy game-bird hunting licences – the revenue is used by Fish and Game New Zealand to administer hunting. No funds come from the government (unlike in other countries).

Licence holders elect regional councils to set the policies and budgets for managing species. Fish and game councils monitor game bird numbers, harvest levels and hunter satisfaction. They try to ensure that the harvest is sustainable.

Seasonal populations

Bird numbers increase and decrease seasonally because of food availability and the weather. For example, most ducks lay 12 or 14 eggs, but often only four or five hatch and survive to fledging. Food is plentiful in summer, but by autumn is harder to find. In winter many birds starve, or are killed by the cold or by predators. By spring, probably only two of the brood will have survived to maintain the population and restart the breeding cycle. Well-managed hunting harvests some of the birds that would die anyway over winter, and this is called a compensatory harvest.

Increasing bird populations

Wildlife managers increase the numbers of game birds in two ways. 

Rearing birds on farms

Game farms increase populations artificially, by predator control or using supplementary food. Most populations of game birds are truly wild, but up to the 1990s some fish and game councils maintained farms to supplement wild stocks. The last of these, which supplied pheasants to the Heretaunga Plains in Hawke’s Bay, closed around 2000. Private game farms rear pheasants as poultry for the restaurant trade. Some private preserves with farm-reared game stocks have been established in several parts of the country in the 1990s and 2000s, with tight controls by Fish and Game New Zealand.

Habitat protection

Providing a habitat, or preserving existing habitats, allows populations to increase naturally.

Since the 1950s, Fish and Game New Zealand has focused mainly on protecting wetlands. These environments have often been seen as wastelands, and 87% have been lost since Europeans settled in New Zealand. 

Until the 1980s, few other people or groups were interested in preserving wetlands. Hunters such as Horrie Sinclair in the lower Taieri plains in Otago, and groups such as the former Auckland Acclimatisation Society in the lower Waikato and Hauraki, bought and protected wetlands long before the government and other groups saw their value. Wetland protection has benefited native species (such as freshwater fish) and provided opportunities for other recreational activities.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Neil Deans, 'Game birds', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)

Story by Neil Deans, published 24 November 2008, reviewed & revised 29 April 2015