New Zealand Wildlife - Part 1:Birds

New Zealand Wildlife - Part 1:Birds

When humans first arrived in New Zealand, no more than 900 years ago, birdsong and surf would have been the first noise they heard as they approached the lush forested islands - the land was almost exclusively populated by birds that make up the bulk of New Zealand wildlife. New Zealand's 80 million years of isolation, since breaking away from the super-continent of Gondwanaland, has allowed the evolution of nearly 200 species of birds and due to the absence of mammalian predators a high proportion of them were flightless – some of them grew into Giants - but what birds they are!

Want to see New Zealand's wildlife close up? Then take a look at our Self Drive Nature and Wildlife Tours.

Big Bird...

New Zealand's 80 million years of isolation, since breaking away from the super-continent of Gondwanaland, has allowed the evolution of nearly 200 species of birds and due to the absence of mammalian predators a high proportion of them were flightless – some of them grew into Giants...  Large size was an advantage as the only predators were other birds. Consequently, many giant species developed, most notably the three-metre high ostrich-like moa (the Polynesian word for chicken), the average moa caught by Māori weighed around 75 kilos (165 Pounds), half of which was edible and understandably hunted to extinction in pre-European times. Other giants included Haast's eagle (the world's largest eagle), and a giant penguin nearly as large as a human – also now extinct.

Mock up photo of a Moa being hunted 

Flightless Birds

The Kiwi

Our Best known among them is the kiwi, the national symbol, a nocturnal ground-dweller with a long and slender bill, and a large, round body covered in hair-like plumage and vestigial wings (think chicken with a big nose). While shy and difficult to find in the wild, its piercing call "ki-wi" can be heard at night in the more remote regions. Other flightless birds include the kakapo and takahe. The blue-green kakapo is the world's largest parrot, but only fifty birds survive in a wilderness refuge in Fiordland. Likewise, the takahe is another very endangered big, ponderous bird of brilliant plumage which only survives in remote Fiordland. New Zealands National bird 'The Kiwi' seen in the wild 

The Weka

The weka is another flightless bird common to the West Coast forests of the South Island. It is a large, inquisitive, brown rail, ever ready to snap up unguarded objects, particularly if they are bright and shiny. Another notorious thief is the kea, a brown-green parrot with scarlet underwings which lives in mountainous regions of the South Island. With its cheeky disregard for humans and powerful beak, this adaptable scavenger can cause significant damage to virtually anything it sets its determined sights on. Most visitors to the alpine regions of the South Island will encounter keas and they should try to keep temptation out of harm's way! This parrot has a beautiful plumage and is the worlds only alpine parrot

The Kaka

The shy kaka is a brown-green forest parrot similar in size and colouring to a kea but with a distinctive crimson rump and abdomen. It is found exclusively in native bush on island refuges off the North Island and throughout the South Island. (the first picture in the post)

Other New Zealand Wildlife that Star in our Forests

The Tui

The tui, or parson bird, is a beautiful metallic bluish-purple songbird which is found mainly in native bush habitats. It has a distinctive throat tuft of white curled feathers from which the name "parson bird" derives and is an accomplished linguist. Maori villages often featured talking tuis. Another songbird, the olive-green bellbird, or korimako, is common throughout the country. The tui has a splendid song, seen here supping the nectar of the flax flower.

The Other Usual Suspects

The fearless fantail is a pied or brown flycatcher that frequently accompanies trampers in the bush, flitting around catching insects that have been disturbed by the passage of people through the undergrowth. Also frequently heard, if not seen, in the bush, is the soft swoosh of wings as the kereru, or wood pigeon, flies through the forest. Greyish-white with a green head and a large, plump body, the kereru was extensively hunted during early European settlement. Dwindling numbers led to its protection and it has rapidly re-established itself throughout the country. Frequently seen in marshland, are the pukeko and the graceful kotuku. The blue-black pukeko with its white underwing, scarlet bill, and frontal plate, is a large rail that is completely unafraid of humans. With their broad, splayed feet they walk across floating reed-clumps, seemingly walking on water, so they are often referred to as "Jesus birds". The beautiful kotuku, or white heron, was prized by the Maori for its plumage. Ceremonial head-dress and ornaments were made from the brilliant white feathers. The Fantail - this friendly chap is often seen following you as you hike in the great New Zealand bush.  New Zealand has 87 species of seabirds of which 20 percent are endemic. Coastal rookeries teem with life; species include oyster catchers, dotterels, shearwaters, petrels, shags, and gannets.

Here at first Light Travel we run our own tours that get you up-close and personal with some of the extraordinary New Zealand wildlife featured in this article and many more. Whether it be one of our set departure 'Easy Going World Heritage Hiking Tours' or perhaps an individually crafted New Zealand self-drive tour. 



Steve Taylor
Steve Taylor
: 17 Jun 2014 (Last updated: 11 May 2021)

Download Our Free NZ Travel Guide

Get our free guide which is full of actionable tips and information about how to make the most of your time in New Zealand.

Blog archives

Pricing terms

The price is based on current exchange rates but is only an approximation. Please contact us for a final price