Many of New Zealand’s diverse species have ancient origins, and birdwatchers are fascinated by their unusual features – some species are ground dwellers, or can scarcely fly. Birds fill many of the niches occupied by mammals in other countries.
Impact of humans and mammals
New Zealand has over 300 bird species. Birds occupied the land without competition or predation by mammals until the first people arrived from Polynesia about 1250–1300 CE. They brought the kiore (Pacific rat) and kurī (dog). The impact of these predators, combined with the tribes’ own harvest of birds, led to the extinction of 39 bird species. However, this happened thousands of years later than on most other land masses.
From the late 18th century onwards, European settlers introduced a range of new mammals that compete with or prey on birds. These included pigs, goats, deer, more rat species, cats, rabbits, mustelids (ferrets, stoats and weasels) and possums. Since that time, 15 more bird species have become extinct, and others are endangered. In addition, the numbers of native birds have dropped dramatically because of land clearance and drainage in the past 200 years.
Bird or badger?
In the absence of land mammals, species such as the giant flightless moa evolved to occupy niches filled elsewhere by four-legged grazing animals. Kōkako (wattlebirds) still run through the forest along branches rather like squirrels. Ground-dwelling kiwi and weka probe for food like badgers or pigs.
Saving New Zealand’s treasures
In the late 20th century, other imminent extinctions were prevented. New Zealand conservation managers pioneered breeding and pest control techniques that have saved some species. Pests have been removed from many offshore islands, so that endangered birds can re-establish. Researchers have studied breeding and feeding habits, and species have been moved to new sites to spread and increase their populations. Birdwatchers can see some of the rarest land birds at some of these restoration sites.
Sanctuaries and reserves
Open sanctuaries and ‘mainland islands’ (predator-free reserves) are the best places to see threatened, rare and endangered birds in a more natural setting. The abundance of these birds in predator-free environments gives a sense of how New Zealand really was once ‘a land of birds’.