New Zealand’s open environments include alpine and subalpine zones, tussock grasslands, wide stony riverbeds, shorelines, shrublands and farmland.
The amount of open country has varied over time. For most of New Zealand’s 85 million years as an independent land mass, all the land – except coastal zones and the edges of wetlands – was low-lying and covered in thick forest.
Increased open spaces
As mountains formed during the last 5 million years, more open country has emerged. The area of open country was largest during the ice ages of the last 2.5 million years.
Today, mountain areas above the treeline (the natural upper limit of trees) are inhabited by birds that have either spread from open coastal habitats or evolved from forest-dwelling ancestors. Since humans settled in New Zealand around 1250–1300 AD, they have cleared land and created more open areas, allowing open-country species arriving across the Tasman Sea from Australia to become established.
Birds of open country
- The kea, an alpine parrot, is the best-known bird of the New Zealand mountains.
- The tiny rock wren lives in crevices between large rocks, where it shelters from winter snow.
- Pipits can be found from high country tussock grasslands to the coast.
- Welcome swallows – recent arrivals from Australia – swoop over open ground and still water.
Other birds found in open country are gulls, terns and wading birds of wide river beds and coasts, as well as the swamp harrier, a bird of prey. Most parakeets are forest dwellers, but Antipodes Island and Reischek’s parakeets have successfully adapted to open grasslands on treeless subantarctic islands.
A number of introduced species, including the skylark and several game birds, have also colonised open country since the 1850s. Others, such as starlings, magpies and finches, inhabit both open areas and bush edges.
Until about 500 years ago, several species of moa roamed in open and semi-open country, as did flightless North and South Island geese. The New Zealand quail was very common in grasslands and scrub. The New Zealand raven frequented coastal and open country, while the laughing owl lived in both open and forested areas. These birds are all now extinct.