Story: Herons

Most celebrated of New Zealand’s herons are rare white herons, or kōtuku, but there are several other species in this group of elegant birds.

Story by Gerard Hutching
Main image: White heron in flight

Story summary

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White herons – kōtuku

White herons are known to Māori as kōtuku. In Māori tradition they were honoured for their rarity and beauty. Only chiefs or important men could wear a heron’s feathers in their hair or cloaks.

There are only about 100 of these birds in New Zealand, although they can also be found in India, China, Japan and Australia (where they are known as great egrets). They have a long, slender neck and a yellow bill. During the breeding season their bill turns black and they develop long, fine plumes from their backs.

Every year around September white herons gather near Ōkārito, in the South Island, to breed. It is their only breeding colony in New Zealand. They make their nests high up in trees, and lay three to five eggs. The parents share the job of looking after the chicks, which leave the nest after about 42 days.

In 1940 there were only four nests left. Numbers had declined because stoats were eating the heron chicks and vandals were taking the birds for their feathers. However, the breeding colony is now a nature reserve, and the Department of Conservation has trapped the stoats. There are now about 50 nests each year.

Reef herons

Reef herons have yellow-orange eyes and beaks. They live around parts of New Zealand’s coast, where they eat small fish, eels and crabs. These herons make their nests in rocks or beneath vegetation.

White-faced herons

White-faced herons came to New Zealand from Australia in the early 20th century. They are now the most common heron in the country.

Nankeen night herons

Nankeen night herons turned up in New Zealand in the 1990s. They have a shorter neck and are plumper than some other herons.

How to cite this page:

Gerard Hutching, 'Herons', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 April 2024)

Story by Gerard Hutching, published 12 June 2006, reviewed & revised 17 February 2015