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Story: Land birds – overview

Huge, flightless moa once lumbered around New Zealand’s forests – easy meat for Haast’s eagle, the largest bird of prey in the world. Both are now extinct. But the kiwi, kākāpō and other remarkable birds have survived. These unique species evolved over millions of years in isolation. That all changed when people arrived, along with other predators, and plans for progress.

Story by Kerry-Jayne Wilson
Main image: Kea and kākā

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Land birds are those that do not spend time at sea or near lakes, rivers and estuaries. Until recently New Zealand had 91 species of land bird, many of them found nowhere else. Forty of these are now extinct. Some of the land birds are weird or unusual. The kākāpō, the world’s biggest parrot, climbs trees but cannot fly. The kiwi is also flightless, and some native ducks hardly ever swim.

How New Zealand’s land birds evolved

Eighty-five million years ago New Zealand split away from the supercontinent of Gondwana. It is not known whether any bird species survived from that time. However, some, such as moa, wrens, kiwi, adzebills, wattlebirds and parrots (the ancestors of kākā and kākāpō) were present in New Zealand as far back as 20 million years ago. There were no land mammals such as rats or wolves to attack them or compete for food on the ground. Because they were safe, some species eventually stopped flying, and grew big and heavy. Others flew less often.

Birds from Australia

Over millions of years, birds would sometimes arrive from Australia, blown by the wind. These included the ancestors of the tūī, bellbird and weka. They evolved in different ways from their Australian cousins. For example, the weka cannot fly. Some arrived recently – including the silvereye and welcome swallow.

Features of native land birds

  • Most are endemic – only found in New Zealand.
  • Many live on the ground (e.g. kiwi, takahē, weka).
  • Many cannot fly.
  • Some have strong legs for walking.
  • Most are not brightly coloured.
  • Most are endangered or threatened.
How to cite this page:

Kerry-Jayne Wilson, 'Land birds – overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/land-birds-overview (accessed 23 September 2017)

Story by Kerry-Jayne Wilson, published 24 Sep 2007, reviewed & revised 20 Apr 2015