Before people arrived, New Zealand was a land of birds. Night and day the forests were alive with rustlings, calls, booms, whistles and hoots. There were over 120 species of geese, ducks, rails, moa, parrots, owls, wrens and other perching birds. Around 70 of these were found only in New Zealand. Almost a quarter were nocturnal, and many were giants. The huge, flightless, foliage-browsing moa occupied niches usually the reserve of mammals, while the tiny wren scampered about on the ground like a mouse.
Gone for good
The moa, a huge bird that was once common in New Zealand, has become a national symbol of extinction, much like the dodo. This folk song explains how it died out:
‘No moa, no moa
In old Ao-tea-roa
Can’t get ’em
They’ve et ’em
They’re gone and there ain’t no moa’. 1
Birds such as the weka, kea and kākāpō evolved in splendid isolation. They had few natural predators apart from the giant Haast's eagle, which was swooping down on the very largest moa about 1,000 years ago. It is likely that it was still alive when the Māori arrived. In Māori oral lore this gigantic raptor was known as the hokioi – reputedly after the sound of its call.
Many bird species became extinct after the arrival of Polynesians, who brought the kiore (Pacific rat) and the kurī (dog) from Polynesia. Flightless and ground-nesting birds proved easy pickings for Polynesians, who simply walked up to moa and clubbed them. While humans are the most likely cause of the larger birds’ extinction, the kiore is the prime suspect in the disappearance of smaller birds and invertebrates.
A remarkable coincidence
Scientists Trevor Worthy and Richard Holdaway have clarified why so many of New Zealand’s bird species have disappeared over the past 700 years. Theories about climate or habitat variations, disease, and even the belief that some species were somehow genetically inferior don’t explain a remarkable coincidence. When humans arrived, extinctions occurred: ‘the simple, inescapable fact is that the New Zealand avifauna [birdlife] has been decimated by introduced mammalian predators, including people.’ 2
Birds under threat
Some species managed to survive on offshore islands. Visionary conservationists recognised this and relocated threatened bird populations to these ‘arks’. In the 21st century offshore islands are a major focus of conservation – introduced predators have been exterminated and birdlife has flourished again.
However, around 30 species are listed as endangered. The kiwi is also under threat. A curious bird, it cannot fly, has loose, hair-like feathers, long whiskers and is largely nocturnal. Many New Zealanders have never seen one. Māori refer to it as ‘te manuhuna a Tānemahuta’ – the hidden bird of Tāne, god of the forest. In some areas kiwi still whistle their high-pitched calls after dark.
Wētā, peripatus and other creatures
There were also other native species, many of which survive today. When humans arrived there were only three terrestrial mammal species – all were bats, and one is now extinct.
Other unique fauna include the wētā. These resemble rather terrifying large grasshoppers, but are harmless. New Zealand’s most famous reptile, the tuatara, grows to about 24 cm long, is rather slow-moving, and lives for up to 60 years.
Only birds and dogs
In his 1770 account of New Zealand, Joseph Banks noted (using his own spelling) the scarcity of four-legged creatures:
‘It appears not improbable that there realy are no other species of Quadrupeds in the countrey; for the natives, whose cheif luxury of Dress consists in the skins and hair of Dogs and the skins of divers birds, and who wear for ornaments the bones and beaks of birds and teeth of Dogs, would probably have made use of some part of any other animal they were acquainted with: a circumstance which tho we carefully sought after, we never saw the least signs of.’ 3
Splendidly marked, New Zealand's geckos are also unique in that they bear live young, rather than laying eggs. These reptiles are diverse in both habitat and lifestyle – some live in trees, while others prefer rocky mountain ranges.
The ngākeoke or peripatus is another living fossil – its relatives have been around for hundreds of millions of years. An odd creature, it resembles a worm with legs, and hunts down its prey in the leaf litter by spitting on them. Also on the bush floor are giant carnivorous land snails known as Powelliphanta and Paryphanta.
Freshwater fish have fared better than birds. Although many populations are much reduced, only one species, the upokororo or New Zealand grayling, has disappeared. Many species belong to a family known as galaxiids, and some of their juvenile stages are a prized delicacy known as whitebait. Introduced trout have flourished. Because they prey on native fish species, trout have been implicated in the demise of the upokororo, and the reduced range of many other freshwater species.