Story: Wetland birds

About 30% of New Zealand’s birds are wetland species – but many are under threat because of their dwindling habitat. Wetland birds include the whio (blue duck), adapted to wild mountain streams; the shy New Zealand dabchick, which builds a floating nest and swims with its chicks on its back; and the red-billed pūkeko, a common sight in swampy areas.

Story by Christina Troup
Main image: Banded rail on nest with eggs

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Wetland bird species

A high proportion of New Zealand’s native birds are species that live in wetlands – swamps, lakes and streams. They include:

  • grebes
  • bitterns
  • spoonbills
  • black swans
  • paradise shelducks
  • whio, teal and other ducks
  • rails and crakes
  • pūkeko
  • kingfishers
  • fernbirds.


Grebes include the Australasian crested grebe (kāmana) and the New Zealand dabchick (weiweia).

Grebes are good swimmers and divers, but not so good at walking on land. They feed, sleep and build nests on water. Grebes swim with their chicks on their backs, and feed them fish.

Australasian bittern

The Australasian bittern (matuku) is shy, and hides among plants. At night and on misty days, the male makes a booming sound to attract females.

Black swan

The black swan is New Zealand’s largest wetland bird, and came from Australia. New Zealand’s extinct native swan is believed to have been the same species.

Paradise shelduck

Paradise shelducks (pūtangitangi) are often seen in pairs – the male has a black head, and the female’s is white.


The whio (blue duck) lives in wild mountain streams. It has large webbed feet which help it swim in rough water, and strong claws for climbing over logs and rocks.

New Zealand scaup

The scaup or pāpango is a small duck. It is a good diver, but clumsy on land. Scaup dive to a depth of 3 metres, and swim around underwater finding food.


The pūkeko is purple-blue, with red legs and bill. Pūkeko are often seen walking around swampy areas, flicking their tails.


The kingfisher (kōtare) sits on a high perch in a tree – or, in towns, on power lines. When it sees a lizard or crab move, it dives down fast to catch it.

Kingfishers tunnel out nests in clay banks or tree trunks.

How to cite this page:

Christina Troup, 'Wetland birds', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Christina Troup, published 24 September 2007, reviewed & revised 17 February 2015