Kōrero: Land birds – overview

Whārangi 1. Weird and wonderful birds

Ngā whakaahua

Land birds are those that live in forests, scrub and open country. The term does not include birds of wetland, shore or sea.

Many of New Zealand’s land birds are strange and unusual. They include a flightless, nocturnal parrot – the kākāpō (Strigops habroptilus), and the almost wingless kiwi (Apteryx species). The kiwi has feathers like stiff hair, an immensely long bill and strong legs. Others have joined it in giving up flight, and growing large. Some live more like browsing mammals than birds.

Other remarkable birds once roamed the land and skies, such as the biggest moa species, weighing 270 kilograms, and its predator Haast’s eagle (Aquila moorei), the world’s largest eagle.

Colour

Very few New Zealand land birds are brightly coloured, although many have subtle patterns and sheens. Even parrots and parakeets, which are brightly coloured in the rest of the world, are mainly plain green, although the kea (Nestor notabilis) and kākā (Nestor meridionalis) have brilliant red underwings.

The endemic South Island takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri) is more colourful than its swamp hen relatives elsewhere. It has turquoise, navy and olive-green plumage and a crayfish-red bill and legs.

From a distance, the tūī (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae) appears plain black, apart from tufts of white feathers on its throat, but its plumage can take on a green and blue iridescent sheen, with lacy grey filaments around the shoulders.

The wattlebird species have blue, orange or red wattles at the base of the bill.

His and hers

The bills of male and female huia were very different. The male of this extinct species had a stout, adze-like bill. The female’s was long, slender and down-curved. The story goes that the pair would forage for food together, he tearing into rotting wood and she using her ‘forceps’ to extract huhu and other large grubs. But was it true? The specimens locked in museum cases will never tell.

Shape and size

Some flightless birds have rotund bodies, particularly the leaf-eaters such as the takahē and kākāpō that carry lots of slowly digesting material. Many, including the kiwi, have stocky, strong legs. For flightless birds large size was no great drawback, and a long neck like a giraffe’s allowed the biggest moa (Dinornis species) to reach leaves up to 2 metres above the ground.

Land ducks and geese

Ducks and geese are usually wetland birds, but in New Zealand some of them seldom, or never, set foot in water. The most terrestrial (land-based) of these were the huge South Island goose (Cnemiornis calcitrans) and slightly smaller North Island goose (C. gracilis), which are now extinct. The South Island goose stood 1 metre tall and weighed around 18 kilograms. Also extinct is the Finsch's duck (Chenonetta finschi), which was abundant and completely terrestrial.

The paradise shelduck (pūtangitangi, Tadorna variegata) spends about as much time ashore as on the water. Before mammalian predators were introduced, the brown teal (pāteke, Anas chlorotis) was probably more terrestrial than the few that survive today.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Kerry-Jayne Wilson, 'Land birds – overview - Weird and wonderful birds', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/land-birds-overview/page-1 (accessed 20 August 2019)

Story by Kerry-Jayne Wilson, published 24 Sep 2007, reviewed & revised 20 Apr 2015