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Story: Small forest birds

New Zealand’s forests were once filled with birds and their clamour: melodious songs, squawks, whirrs, squeaks, buzzing and chattering. These are the sounds of birds finding food, defending territory, attracting mates or guarding chicks. Most of New Zealand’s small forest birds are endemic, and some are from ancient families.

Story by Christina Troup
Main image: Shining cuckoo

Story Summary

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New Zealand’s small forest birds

Most of New Zealand’s small forest birds are endemic – they are found nowhere else. Some have unusual features such as very strong legs and poor flying ability. Introduced predators such as rats, stoats and ferrets have killed many birds. Some became extinct, and others now live only on predator-free islands and in fenced sanctuaries.

Origins of birds

  • New Zealand’s wren family is ancient. It has probably been in New Zealand since the land split off from the supercontinent Gondwana, 85 million years ago, and has no close relatives in other countries.
  • Other bird families arrived later. These include the ancestors of parakeets, honeyeaters (bellbird and tūī), warblers, robins, tomtits, yellowheads and whiteheads.
  • The fantail and the silvereye both came to New Zealand much later, probably from Australia.

Rifleman

The rifleman (tītiti pounamu in Māori) is New Zealand’s smallest bird. It weighs only one-third as much as a mouse.

Saddlebacks

Saddlebacks (tīeke) are from the ancient wattlebird family. Saddlebacks hop on their strong legs and fly short distances. They tear rotten wood apart, looking for insects to eat.

Honeyeaters – bellbirds and tūī

Bellbirds and tūī eat nectar from flowers, and sometimes fly long distances to find food. They pollinate plants by transferring pollen from flower to flower on their foreheads.

  • Bellbirds (korimako) have a beautiful call, and sing alone or with other bellbirds.
  • Tūī have an amazing vocal range, making clicks, whirrs and squawks as well as singing and imitating other sounds. Māori sometimes taught tūī to talk.

Robins

  • The North Island robin (toutouwai) hides food to eat later. The male and female of a pair steal food from each other’s hiding places.
  • The black robin lives in the Chatham Islands, 800 kilometres east of New Zealand. In 1979, only five birds were left, but a female called Old Blue laid many eggs and saved the species from extinction.

Fantails and silvereyes

  • The fantail (pīwakawaka) has a tail like a fan. In flight, the bird twists and turns, catching insects.
  • The silvereye or waxeye has a white ring around its eye. Māori named it tauhou, meaning stranger, after it arrived from Australia in the 19th century.

Cuckoos

The shining cuckoo (pīpīwharauroa) and long-tailed cuckoo (koekoeā) both migrate to New Zealand in spring to breed. They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, which take care of the eggs and then raise the cuckoo chicks.

How to cite this page:

Christina Troup, 'Small forest birds', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/small-forest-birds (accessed 23 October 2017)

Story by Christina Troup, published 24 Sep 2007, reviewed & revised 17 Feb 2015