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Wetland birds

by  Christina Troup

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.

Wetlands and their birds

Many interesting native birds inhabit New Zealand’s wetlands – swamps, freshwater lakes and streams. They include grebes, bitterns, spoonbills, black swans, shelducks, dabbling and diving ducks (some flightless), rails, crakes, gallinules and coots, as well as kingfishers and fernbirds at wetland margins.

Some shags, herons, gulls, terns and wading birds also spend part of their time in freshwater wetlands.

Bird species

An unusually high proportion of New Zealand’s native birds are wetland species – 30%, compared with less than 7% worldwide. This includes 15 species that have become extinct since humans first settled in New Zealand, around 1250–1300 AD.

Today some native wetland species are very rare, with less than 1,000 birds. New species have also become established, either by being deliberately introduced or arriving independently.

Loss of wetlands

Wetlands are areas of high biological productivity, and their fish and birds were important food for Māori. When Europeans arrived in New Zealand, freshwater wetlands covered around 672,000 hectares. But many areas have been drained for conversion to farmland or urban development – 87% have been lost since around 1800, and they now cover just 2% of New Zealand.

In some of the remaining wetlands, the water quality has declined. Eroded soil from disturbed land can build up in the water and choke aquatic organisms. Extra nutrients from fertiliser runoff can cause rapid algal growth, oxygen depletion and toxicity, which threaten the invertebrates, fish and plants that wetland birds depend on.

Restoring wetlands

Many community groups, regional bodies and landowners are re-creating or restoring wetlands on private and public land. Organisations such as Ducks Unlimited rear native ducks in captivity and release them at suitable sites, and populations of some wetland bird species are starting to increase.

Grebes and dabchicks

Grebes and dabchicks (collectively known as grebes) form the ancient order Podicipediformes. These freshwater diving birds have separate web-like lobes on each toe. Their legs are set far back – efficient for swimming underwater but awkward for walking on land, which the birds avoid. They feed, sleep and build their nests on water.

Grebes’ nests can be swamped by wash from boats or by changing water levels on hydro lakes. They can be killed by dogs, stoats and other swimming predators.

Australasian crested grebe – kāmana or pūteketeke

The Australasian crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus australis) has a long, sinuous neck with a red-orange ruff. Its elegant head tapers to a long pointed bill. The bird’s black head-crest is known to Māori as tikitiki – the name for the topknots worn by men of rank. Adults are about 50 centimetres long and weigh 1.1 kilograms.

Crested grebes chase fish under water, and also take crustaceans and insects. They can dive for up to a minute.


In crested grebes’ courtship displays, they float facing each other, fanning their wings and fluffing up their head crests and neck ruffs. At the height of the display they rear upwards until almost vertical, breast to breast and bill to bill, crooning and gurgling.

Underwater babies

A Māori tradition recounts that kāmana (crested grebes) dive down to lay their eggs and raise their chicks on the bed of Rotopounamu, a green volcanic lake.

They build floating nests, often anchored to reeds or other plants. Their three or more white eggs soon become brown, stained by the wet vegetation with which adults cover the nest when leaving to feed. Grebes carry their chicks on their backs as they swim. They feed them on fish, and give them downy feathers to swallow as protection from sharp fish bones.

Distribution and population

A subspecies of the great crested grebe of Europe, Asia and Africa, the Australasian crested grebe is found in Australia and New Zealand. Gone from the North Island, it now lives mainly on small subalpine lakes in Canterbury and Otago, on lakes in Fiordland and Westland and lowland lakes in Canterbury. Grebes need lakes with vegetation in the shallows for cover and shelter.

In winter some crested grebes move to coastal wetlands, especially Lake Forsyth (Wairewa) on Banks Peninsula and nearby Lake Ellesmere (Te Waihora), where they have recently begun breeding. Although they have small wings, they occasionally fly long distances – mostly at night.

Crested grebes were endangered in New Zealand. In 2004, there were only about 350 adult birds. Nearly half lived on just two lakes – Lake Heron in inland Canterbury, and Lake Hayes, near Queenstown. By the early 2020s there were nearly a thousand crested grebes, thanks to predator control measures.

New Zealand dabchick – weiweia

The small endemic dabchick (Poliocephalus rufopectus) has a total population of about 1,700 birds, scattered around the North Island and just a few South Island lakes. The bird is shy and secretive. Like other grebes, it builds a floating nest, anchored to reeds or overhanging branches.

The New Zealand dabchick is about 29 centimetres long and weighs 250 grams. Its head is streaked with fine silver feathers.

If disturbed, dabchicks either skitter rapidly across the water, or sink, leaving just the head exposed.

Dabchick man

New Zealand dabchicks lack the flamboyant crests and neck ruffs of crested grebes – hence the Māori expression ‘he tangata weiweia’ (a dabchick man), meaning a person of lowly standing.


Foods include aquatic insects and larvae such as waterboatmen and dragonflies, and freshwater snails, crayfish and small fish. Dabchicks search for food underwater, sometimes starting their dive with a forward leap. They also feed on the surface, dipping their head underwater and sweeping it from side to side. They sometimes snatch flying insects.

Australasian little grebe

The Australasian little grebe (Tachybaptus novaehollandiae) is about 25 centimetres long and weighs 220 grams. Although these grebes seldom fly, they reached New Zealand from Australia in the 1960s, and are a rare self-introduced native. In 2005 there were around 100 birds on sheltered lakes and farm ponds around New Zealand, mainly north of Auckland.

Bitterns and spoonbills

Australasian bittern – matuku

The Australasian bittern or matuku (Botaurus poiciloptilus) is a heron-like bird that lives in shallow, densely vegetated wetlands. It hides among raupō (bulrush), reeds and scrub by standing stock-still with its bill vertical, even swaying with the surrounding plants on a windy day.

The bittern is mottled brown with long legs and neck. Stockier than a heron, it is about 70 centimetres long; males weigh 1.4 kilograms, females 1 kilogram.

Bitterns hunt fish, frogs, eels, mice and young birds.


The male’s foghorn-like boom in the evenings or on dull days during the breeding season (June to February) is the best sign of the bittern’s presence. He booms to attract females, and to guard the territory from other males.

Rear guard action

Māori believed that the bittern made a booming noise from its backside, with its sharp bill stuck into the ground. The Ngāti Awa historian and tohunga (priest) Hāmiora Pio suggested that these blasts were caused by the bird struggling to overcome a writhing eel.

While the male defends the territory, the female bittern makes the nest, breaking down reeds to form a platform 25–30 centimetres above the water. She incubates the eggs and feeds the hatchlings.


A census in 1980 found just 600–700 birds, thinly scattered over the North and South islands. Their numbers have fallen due to drainage of wetlands, and they are nationally endangered.

Australasian bitterns are native to New Zealand, southern Australia, New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands.

Royal spoonbill – kōtuku-ngutupapa

The royal spoonbill (Platalea regia) has a long flat bill with a spoon-shaped tip. In the same family as ibises, it is a stork-like bird with long legs and neck. The royal spoonbill or kōtuku-ngutupapa is a self-introduced native; yellow-billed spoonbills also occasionally visit New Zealand.

The royal spoonbill is white with a black bill, face and legs. It measures about 77 centimetres from bill tip to tail, and weighs 1.7 kilograms. During breeding, pale-yellow breast feathers form, and long plumes behind the head are raised during courtship displays.


To feed, spoonbills stand knee-deep in water, sweeping their bill from side to side in wide arcs. This creates swirls, drawing in small invertebrates, fish or frogs from the surrounding water or muddy bottom. Spoonbills sense their prey by touch, feeding by day or night whenever the tide is right.

Establishment in New Zealand

In the past, royal spoonbills occasionally reached New Zealand in winter. The first recorded breeding was at the kōtuku (white heron) colony in South Westland in 1949. Numbers have fluctuated, but a 2000 census counted 956. A 2012 census found 2360, in 19 breeding colonies around the country.

Breeding and dispersal

Royal spoonbills breed at about a dozen coastal sites, some of them near kōtuku, shag and gull colonies. Some nests are high in kahikatea trees, others on low shrubs or on the ground. After breeding they disperse to estuaries and wetlands around the country, especially in Northland. Small flocks fly in a V formation.

Black swans

Swans – as well as ducks and geese – are members of the Anatidae family, in the order Anseriformes.

With its elegant long neck, the black swan (Cygnus atratus) is one of New Zealand’s largest wetland birds, around 1.2 metres long and weighing 5–6 kilograms. On the water, it appears all black with a bright red bill; however, in flight the bird shows wide white trailing wing margins. It has a bugle-like call, and hisses to defend its nest.

Native or introduced?

About 100 black swans were brought to the South Island from Australia in the 1860s, and the species has traditionally been regarded as introduced. However, numbers increased faster than expected, suggesting more birds arrived independently – in which case it should be considered a self-introduced native.

To add to the intrigue, the extinct native swan, previously named Cygnus sumnerensis, is now thought to have been the same species as the black swan.


There are 10 main regional populations of black swans. The overall estimate is around 60,000 birds, down from 100,000 in the early 1960s. Lake Ellesmere (Te Waihora) alone had around 70,000 until the fierce Wahine storm of 1968 destroyed the lake-floor vegetation, causing swan numbers to crash. Large numbers gather at Farewell Spit each winter to moult.


Black swans mainly eat the leaves of aquatic plants, which they reach underwater with their long necks, tail up-ended like a mallard. They also graze on clover and pasture close to lakes, where manure fouling makes them unpopular with farmers.

Life history

Black swans breed either in pairs or in colonies. Their nests are huge mounds of long foliage, built near lake edges. Females may lay up to 14 green eggs, but six is the average. In colonies, up to 40 cygnets gather in large crèches guarded by a few adults.

Juveniles leave their natal lake and spend several years in estuarine or coastal sites, returning to take up permanent residence once they reach breeding age – between two and four years old. Not all birds breed every year. The oldest known swan in New Zealand was at least 29.

Black swans are partially protected, and are hunted in season according to regional limits. About 5,000 are shot each year.

Paradise shelducks – pūtangitangi

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.

Changing fortunes

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.

Whio – blue ducks

New Zealand’s steep mountain streams and forested rivers are far too swift and rough for most ducks. However the whio (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) takes churning rapids, huge boulders and fallen logs in its stride. It has specialised features that are well adapted to this habitat.

Blue-grey with a flecked chestnut breast, the whio blends into its rock and water environment, often hiding in overhanging vegetation on the banks where it roosts and nests.

The whio has large, webbed feet to give it power in fast-flowing water, and well-developed claws for rough terrain. Even hatchlings have oversize feet and strong legs, ready to swim in swift currents and jump onto large rocks and logs.

The duck eats insect larvae – including caddisfly, mayfly and stonefly larvae – which it scrapes off rocks underwater. Its bony bill is protected from abrasion by a fleshy flap.

Whio are about 53 centimetres long. Males weigh 900 grams and females 750 grams.


A whio pair’s territory is typically more than a kilometre of waterway, which the male defends with a high territorial whistle that carries beyond noisy rapids – hence its Māori name, which means whistle. The female has a grating alarm call.


Whio often stay under cover in daylight, feeding at dawn and dusk. They occasionally fly low along their stretch of water by day. Juveniles seeking a new territory may make longer flights at night to a neighbouring valley or over a mountain pass.

Back-seat drivers

Driving to Pūkaha Mt Bruce National Wildlife Centre with a brood of two-week-old whio, wildlife officer Tom Steel was astounded when the strong-legged little ducklings leapt over from the rear seat and climbed onto his shoulder. Next thing they scrambled down and crawled under the clutch pedal.


Whio nest under cover on steep stream banks. Their ducklings are not brooded, but they reduce heat loss by huddling together. Adults guard them attentively as they learn to swim and feed in swift water.


Māori did not find whio tasty, and the birds were still widespread and abundant in the early days of European settlement. But they lost ground as lowland forest was progressively cleared. Whio were still quite common in the 1950s, and their ongoing decline is mainly due to stoats. Introduced trout probably compete for food.


Whio are a protected endemic species. They are classified as nationally endangered, and the total population was estimated at 2,500 in 2004.

The Department of Conservation is working to stop their decline. Stoat control at several sites is allowing more ducklings to survive, and some have been raised in captivity to boost numbers in the wild. A population has also been re-established on Mt Taranaki.


Teal are small, short-necked dabbling ducks.

Brown teal – pāteke

The brown teal (Anas chlorotis) is a small, chubby duck with white eye-rings. Males weigh about 600 grams, females 500 grams, and they are 48 centimetres long.

Habitat and feeding

Brown teal inhabit both freshwater and coastal salt-water wetlands, also frequenting damp forest or grassland. They eat invertebrates, seeds, fruit, foliage and sometimes shellfish, feeding mainly at dusk and into the night. Brown teal mostly breed in winter.


The brown teal is endemic (found only in New Zealand), and is classified as nationally endangered. Fossil records show it was the most common wetland species before humans arrived. The bird was still widespread at the end of the 19th century, but numbers plummeted from the 1920s. On Stewart Island this coincided with the spread of feral cats, and on the mainland with a wider range of predators.

In 2004, the brown teal population was around 1,000. Its main toeholds are on Great Barrier Island, parts of Northland and the Coromandel Peninsula – places where community groups and the Department of Conservation are managing pests and restoring the wetland habitat. Some brown teal are bred in captivity then transferred to sites where predators are controlled.

Auckland Island teal

The Auckland Island teal (Anas aucklandica) is related to the brown teal, but has become flightless in its subantarctic home.

This teal is now absent on the largest of the Auckland Islands because of predation by introduced cats and pigs. On the smaller predator-free islands there are about 2,000 birds. They feed in peaty wetlands or around the coast among kelp, dabbling for invertebrates or dredging in muddy bottoms. The birds stay on their territory year-round.

Campbell Island teal

The flightless subantarctic Campbell Island teal (Anas nesiotis) has been resurrected from near-extinction. They were exterminated on the main island by accidentally introduced rats. However, a few birds were discovered in 1975 on Dent Island, a small, precipitous site with little surface water – but without rats.

Several teal were taken for a captive breeding programme, or for release on an island sanctuary. Meanwhile, by 2003, rats had been eradicated from 22,000-hectare Campbell Island. By 2006, over 150 Campbell Island teal had been released on the island.

Grey teal – tētē

The grey teal (Anas gracilis) is a small brown-grey duck with a dark tan head. It is also native to Australia, and grey teal numbers in New Zealand increased noticeably during the 1957 Australian drought.

The population has continued to increase, from below 20,000 in the 1970s to more than 50,000 in 2005. The birds move long distances around the country, seemingly at random.

They are about 43 centimetres long. Males weigh 525 grams, females 425 grams.

Habitat and feeding

Usually in groups, grey teal frequent shallow lakes and swamps with plenty of edge vegetation. Although more common in freshwater habitats, they also use brackish lagoons. Grey teal filter small insects and seeds from the surface. They also sieve along the muddy bottom, and eat seed heads from standing plants.

Grey teal are protected, but some are shot accidentally when misidentified by hunters.

Grey ducks, shovelers and scaup

Grey duck – pārera

The grey duck or pārera (Anas superciliosa) is a large, finely proportioned duck with tapered dark eye-lines and contrasting pale eyebrows. It is 55 centimetres long. Males weigh around 1.1 kilograms and females 1 kilogram.


Also known as the Pacific black duck, the grey duck is native to New Zealand, Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia and the southern Pacific. The most numerous duck before Europeans settled in New Zealand, it was harvested by Māori after the end of the breeding season, following strict protocols.

Grey ducks were still the most common dabbling duck in New Zealand up to the 1950s, but as introduced mallards became established the two species have interbred. Numbers of grey ducks dropped from 1.5 million in 1970 to fewer than 500,000 in the 1990s. Loss of wetlands is another factor in their decline. They are partially protected, and are hunted in season.

Grey ducks are found all over New Zealand, including on the subantarctic, Chatham and Kermadec islands. It is uncertain whether any of the remaining birds are pure-bred, or whether all now carry some mallard genes.


Small lakes, slow streams or tidal waterways in forest are grey ducks’ preferred habitat. They have not taken to farmland or urban surroundings.

A glutton for mud

Māori sometimes called a greedy person ‘he pārera apu paru’, meaning ‘a pārera that gobbles mud’.


Grey ducks feed by sieving seeds from the water through lamellae (short comb-like fringes) along the edges of their bill. They also eat aquatic vegetation, or graze above the shoreline. Ducklings eat aquatic invertebrates.

Australasian shoveler – kuruwhengu

The Australasian shoveler (Anas rhynchotis) is native to New Zealand and Australia. It is named because of its long, broad scoop-shaped bill with lamellae – ideal for sieving fine aquatic plants, invertebrates and seeds close to the surface of water or mud. With its bill submerged, the shoveler sieves as it swims – giving rise to the Māori name kuruwhengu, meaning to snuffle.

Small elongated ducks, Australasian shovelers are about 49 centimetres long and weigh 650 grams (males) or 600 grams (females). They fly swiftly on long narrow wings, sometimes travelling nearly the length of the country.


They prefer shallow, fertile wetlands fringed with raupō (bulrush). Flocks of up to 1,000 birds form on large lakes, where they engage in courtship in July and August (winter). Then pairs head off to establish a breeding territory.


The New Zealand population was around 150,000 in 1980. They are partially protected, with around 30,000 killed each duck-shooting season. Some shovelers head out to sea to avoid being shot.

New Zealand scaup – pāpango

The New Zealand scaup (Aythya novaeseelandiae) is a little diving duck with glossy dark-brown plumage. It was formerly known as the black teal. Its huge webbed feet are the secret behind its diving prowess. Scaup’s legs are set back on the body and splayed, which makes them good divers but clumsy on land. They swim about underwater to depths of 3 metres, feeding on aquatic plants, freshwater snails and other invertebrates.

Among the smallest New Zealand ducks, scaup are around 40 centimetres long and weigh 650 grams. Males have yellow eyes, and a darker body than females.


Scaup numbers declined since European settlement, but have begun to recover in some regions. Planting low-hanging vegetation along waterways to provide cover has helped in some urban areas.

An endemic species (found only in New Zealand), New Zealand scaup have been fully protected since 1935. They are sparsely scattered across the North and South islands, the total population being about 20,000.

Rails and crakes

Rails (including crakes) are in the family Rallidae, along with gallinules (swamp hens) and coots.

Banded rail – moho-pererū

The banded rail (Gallirallus philippensis) is a strikingly marked bird, usually only glimpsed briefly as it dashes in and out of hiding. It is related to the more familiar weka, but is slimmer, and can fly. Banded rails have colonised most Pacific islands – from Australia and Indonesia eastwards to Niue, and southwards to the subantarctic Macquarie Island.


The banded rail has a long tapered bill and spindle-shaped body, suited to pushing through dense scrub. Its head is usually stretched forward, led by the pointed bill. Its toes are not webbed, but the bird is a good swimmer. It measures around 30 centimetres, including its long tail, and weighs 170 grams.


Breeding pairs stay on their territory year-round. They make cup-shaped nests, well hidden among dense rushes or grasses. Females may lay two or more clutches of around five light-pink or buff eggs from September (spring) through summer. Both parents take turns to incubate the eggs. After hatching, the young follow the parents to feed for two months, and are then evicted from the territory.


The mainland New Zealand subspecies of banded rail is Gallirallus philippensis assimilis. Related forms on Chatham and Macquarie islands are extinct.

Banded rails were once common all over the mainland, but predators and habitat loss have taken their toll. Now they are restricted to four islands west and south-west of Stewart Island, the Nelson–Golden Bay area, and the northern North Island and a few nearby islands. They are a protected native species.

The laugh of death

One of the banded rail’s calls resembles laughter, and its Māori name, pererū, also mimics a laugh. In Māori tradition, when the demigod Māui tried to pass through the body of Hine-nui-te-pō, the goddess of death, the moho-pererū laughed and woke her, bringing death to Māui and to the world.


Banded rails inhabit dense rush, salt marsh or mangrove that surrounds freshwater and coastal waterways. Their diet includes land snails and coastal molluscs, crabs, spiders, insects and worms. They also eat berries and seeds, and sometimes scavenge in rubbish tips. They feed mainly at dawn and dusk.

Auckland Island rail

The Auckland Island rail (Dryolimnas muelleri) is much smaller than the banded rail. It is endemic to the subantarctic Auckland Islands, where it lives only on two predator-free islands. The population is around 1,500 birds.

Spotless crake – puweto

The spotless crake (Porzana tabuensis) is a very small rail, found all over Australasia and the Pacific – but it is so secretive that it is rarely seen. It has several calls, some soft and others strident – one is a loud trilling purr, resembling an alarm clock. It is 20 centimetres long and weighs 45 grams. The spotless crake is a protected native species. Its population is unknown as the birds are difficult to find.

Habitat and breeding

Spotless crakes are thinly scattered over the North Island (including Tiritiri Matangi, Poor Knights and Three Kings islands), and are found in just a few South Island sites. Their usual habitat is raupō (bulrush) and sedge swamps. The birds stay on their territory all year. The nest is made by weaving the top of a clump of sedge, ferns, rushes or grasses into a cup shape, usually with foliage pulled over as a cover.

Marsh crake – koitareke

The marsh crake (Porzana pusilla) is even smaller than the spotless crake – a slender, shy rail about which little is known. It weighs 40 grams, and is 18 centimetres long. The subspecies Porzana pusilla affinis is found only in New Zealand, and is protected. Numbers are unknown – most records are from birds that cats have killed and brought to houses.

The marsh crake’s habitat includes freshwater raupō swamps, salt marsh around estuaries, and alpine wetlands. It is reasonably mobile, and flies mainly at night.

Pūkeko and Australian coots

Gallinules (swamp hens) and coots are in the family Rallidae, along with rails and crakes.


The pūkeko (Porphyrio melanotus) – also known as the swamp hen or purple gallinule – ranges beyond wetlands on to pasture and croplands. Its wide diet has allowed it to adapt to farmland and urban parks.

Pūkeko are bulky birds with long legs and long-toed feet adapted to swampy country. Males weigh over 1 kilogram, females 850 grams, and they average 51 centimetres long. Pūkeko are deep purple-blue and black, with red legs and bill. They flick their tail with each step, showing the white patch underneath. The birds usually walk holding their heads up like hens, and fly with feet dangling below the body. They swim with their tails erect.


Pūkeko and closely related species are found in most regions of the world, except the Americas and Antarctica. Fossil records indicate that they arrived in New Zealand around 1000 AD. Related species arrived much earlier and evolved into two endemic flightless species – the North and South island takahē.

Pūkeko appear to fly laboriously, yet they colonise distant islands and reach unlikely places. They normally live in lowland areas, but one intrepid bird was seen on the upper Tasman Glacier, stepping across a small crevasse.


Pūkeko eat a wide range of foods, including various kinds of vegetation – especially rhizomes and corms, shoots, seeds and clover leaves. They also feed on grubs, worms, small fish, chicks and small mammals. They sometimes scavenge larger carcasses. Chicks are generally fed a protein-rich diet of invertebrate or other animal foods.

Noble villains

To Māori, red was a noble colour – so pūkeko, with their bright red bills and frontal shields, had high status. But the birds were unpopular because they raided gardens, damaging kūmara (sweet potato) and taro crops. Pūkeko were cast as villains in a number of traditions. Some farmers still consider them pests.


While pūkeko sometimes breed in pairs, they often breed communally – they mate polygamously, several females lay eggs in one nest, and several males and non-breeding helpers assist with the incubation of eggs and the guarding and feeding of chicks. Nests are usually beaten-down clumps of tussock or rushes, often in water.

Australian coot

New Zealand had two endemic coots, now extinct. In the latter half of the 20th century the Australian coot (Fulica atra australis) became established. It was first recorded breeding in 1958 on Lake Hayes, in Otago. By 2005, around 2,000 were scattered on lakes throughout both main islands.

The bird is one of four subspecies of the Eurasian coot (Fulica atra), which is native to Europe, northern Africa, Asia and greater Australasia. The Australian coot breeds in Australia and New Zealand. It is a protected self-introduced native.


Coots are mainly sooty black with a white bill and forehead shield. They superficially resemble pūkeko, but are smaller – 38 centimetres long, weighing around 550 grams. Mainly aquatic, coots have lobed toes. Their heads rock back and forth as they swim.

Feeding and habitat

Coots dive to gather aquatic plants or invertebrates, which they bring back to the surface to swallow. They also graze ashore. Shallow bays on medium-sized lakes with plenty of raupō (bulrush) and other shelter are their usual habitat, but they also visit lakes in urban parks. Most long-distance flying is done at night.


Coots make floating nests of twigs and raupō attached to lake vegetation such as willow, and usually raise two broods per year. After breeding they may gather in large flocks.

Kingfishers and fernbirds – wetland margins

Kingfisher – kōtare

The kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) – sometimes called the sacred kingfisher – is iridescent blue, green, buff and white, with a disproportionately hefty bill. Kingfishers sit on perches above tidal flats or pasture. When their sharp eyes detect movement, they dart down to snatch the prey. They carry it to their perch, where they kill it by repeated thwacking against the branch. Their main call during the spring breeding season is an insistent ‘kek-kek-kek’

Feeding and habitat

Kingfishers eat aquatic fare – fish, tadpoles, crabs and freshwater crayfish – and also earthworms, cicadas, dragonflies, lizards, mice and small birds. They are found in most habitats, but are most common in coastal or freshwater wetlands, forest edges or farmland. Power lines provide perches in the absence of trees.

Tunnel engineering

Kingfishers put their strong bills to the test when building nests in steep clay banks or soft tree-trunks. The male and female take turns to fly repeatedly at the bank or wood, bills outstretched, delivering chisel-blows until the hole is deep enough to perch in. Sitting on the lip, they excavate an upward-sloping tunnel about 20 centimetres long, then hollow out a nesting chamber. Sometimes they make several tunnels before deciding on one.

This species is found in Australia and several south-west Pacific islands. The subspecies in New Zealand and on Lord Howe Island is Todiramphus sanctus vagans. It is 24 centimetres long and weighs 65 grams.

Fernbird – mātātā

The fernbird (Bowdleria punctata) is a small brown bird with an intricate pattern of dark flecks and a beautiful long lacy tail. On the North and South islands, fernbirds inhabit dense thickets of scrub, usually close to or within wetlands. They may have been more common in forests and shrubland in the past.

Well camouflaged and very secretive, fernbirds are more easily heard than seen. Their calls are varied – the most common sounds like ‘oo-tik’, and is often called in duo between a pair of birds.


Fernbirds build nests of tightly woven tussock or other long rush-like leaves, either low down or raised up to 2 metres above wet ground. They often make a hood, oriented to shelter the nest against wind and rain. The Māori phrase ‘te whare o te mātātā’ (a fernbird’s house) describes a woven flax cape, made to keep out the weather.


There are five fernbird subspecies on separate islands:

  • North Island (B. p. vealeae)
  • South Island (B. p. punctata)
  • Stewart Island (B. p. stewartiana)
  • Codfish Island (B. p. wilsoni)
  • Snares Islands (B. p. caudata).

All are classified as sparse, restricted or endangered. A Chatham Islands species is extinct.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Christina Troup, 'Wetland birds', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Christina Troup, i tāngia i te 24 o Hepetema 2007, reviewed & revised 17 o Pēpuere 2015