The white-headed female and black-headed male paradise shelduck (Tadorna variegata) make a striking pair. They generally mate for life, feeding and flying together. Their alternating calls form a haunting two-tone cry – the male a deep ‘honk’, the female a higher ‘heek’. The Māori name, pūtangitangi, refers to the call – tangi is a lamentation for the dead. The bird is also nicknamed parrie, short for paradise.
Shelducks are goose-like ducks with long necks. The endemic paradise shelduck is about 63 centimetres long; males weigh 1.7 kilograms and females 1.4 kilograms. They are partially protected, with regulated hunting permitted.
Habitat and feeding
Paradise shelducks are found on open ground such as wide gravel riverbeds, tussock grassland or pasture, as well as around water. They sometimes frequent golf courses and city parks. Their foods include grass and clover, seeds and grain. They are one of the few native species to have benefited from the clearing of land for grazing and cropping. In wetlands they feed on aquatic vegetation, up-ending like dabbling ducks.
Breeding and life history
Nests may be at ground level or up to 25 metres high in trees. About a day after hatching, too young to fly and just tiny balls of fluffy down, ducklings launch into space from the high nests, hitting the ground with a gentle thud. Both parents lead them at a fast clip to water, sometimes more than a kilometre away, where the ducklings feed on aquatic insects initially.
Pūtangitangi were important food for Māori. The birds were caught during the moult, while plump and unable to fly, and then preserved in their own fat. Many were sent to Wellington and sold to European settlers. Settlers hunted paradise shelducks almost to extinction – they survived only in the south. Their numbers recovered with hunting controls and translocations, reaching 120,000 by 1981.
Juvenile males mostly form flocks and move away, but females remain near their parents. Adults generally stay close to their breeding territory, but flock to summer moulting sites.
The related chestnut-breasted shelduck (Tadorna tadornoides) was first recorded as a visitor in New Zealand in 1973, and has bred on at least one occasion.