Story: Small forest birds

Page 6. Fantails and silvereyes

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These are native species, but the silvereye is not endemic to New Zealand – it also occurs in Australia.


The fantail or pīwakawaka (Rhipidura fuliginosa) is 16 centimetres long, including its 8-centimetre tail. It weighs 8 grams. Most fantails are brown above and pale underneath. Their fan-like tail, usually held high above the body, is made up of long dark central feathers flanked by white feathers. About 20% of South Island fantails are completely black.

The fantail’s tail contributes to its distinctive flight – twisting and turning in the air as it catches insects in flight. Its call is like a kissing sound.

New Zealand’s fantails belong to three separate subspecies: one on each of the North, South and Chatham islands.

Fantails mainly eat insects. They build distinctive nests with hanging tails under protective foliage in tree forks, lay three or more speckled white eggs, and raise two to five broods in a season. The population fluctuates, but tends to recover quickly if it drops. The oldest bird known was three years. Fantails are common in forest, rural and urban environments.

Fantail fan club

Fantails topped a national poll as Bird of the Year in 2006. The birds appear tame and friendly – they follow people, snatching sandflies and other insects disturbed by human activity. They have also been great favourites with Māori, playing a prominent role in many legends.


The silvereye or waxeye (Zosterops lateralis) has a distinctive white ring around its eye. Its Māori name, tauhou, means stranger – it is a recent arrival, first noted in 1832 and established from 1856. It is now abundant all over New Zealand in a wide range of habitats – native forest, scrub, plantations, rural and urban orchards and gardens.

The silvereye has green wings and a grey back, is 12 centimetres long and weighs 13 grams. The same subspecies also breeds in Tasmania, migrating to Queensland each winter. In New Zealand, the birds form flocks in winter and move about in search of seasonal foods – invertebrates, fruit and nectar. Their flocking call is a liquid ‘kee-kee-kee’.

How to cite this page:

Christina Troup, 'Small forest birds - Fantails and silvereyes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Christina Troup, published 24 Sep 2007, reviewed & revised 17 Feb 2015, updated 1 Aug 2023