Weka

The weka is a large, brown flightless bird that has a famously feisty and curious personality. These two qualities traditionally made the bird an easy food source for Māori and early European settlers.

Facts about weka

North Island weka. Close up of head. Photo: J.L.Kendrick.
North Island weka

Historically, the weka was a significant resource for some iwi, and the birds’ availability for sustainable harvest (mahinga kai) remains an important issue in weka conservation. Weka were also used by early European settlers, who gave it the name woodhen.

The weka’s best known call is a repetitive, loud ‘coo-et’ that is usually heard at dusk and in the early evening. It is presented as a duet, with the male giving the lower and slower part.

Weka are usually heard, not seen, although some birds, usually those living near farms or tramping huts, get a reputation for pilfering crops, food and other small objects.

They will take the objects to the nearest cover to investigate them. For this reason it is best not to chase weka but to simply watch where the weka goes and retrieve the objects a little later.

Weka in Sinbad Valley. Photo: Sabine Bernert.
Some weka, usually those living near farms or tramping huts, get a reputation for pilfering crops, food and other small objects

Where are they found?

Currently four sub-species of weka are recognised:

The North Island weka (G. a. grey)

North Island weka. Photo: Peter Morrison.
North Island weka

This sub-species was once widespread, is now only found on the mainland in the hills between Matawai and Opotiki, where a few thousand survive. Since 2000, weka have been released near Russell, in the Whirinaki Forest and there is a small population on the margins of the Hauraki Gulf near Auckland.

A substantial proportion of the population is on Kawau Island. Several other offshore island populations have also been established and they are also on Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua.

Western weka (G. a. australis)

These are the most common sub-species and are found throughout the Marlborough Sounds, scattered in other regions of Nelson, the upper West Coast, and Fiordland in the South Island.

Buff weka (G. a. hector)

Buff weka were once common on the eastern South Island. They have been reintroduced to Te Pekekara and Waikatipu islands. They are abundant on Chatham and Pitt islands, where they were introduced in 1905.

Stewart Island weka (G. a. scott)

Stewart Island weka (G. a. scott) are found at a restoration site near Halfmoon Bay on Stewart Island, and some surrounding islands. Weka occupy a range of habitats including forests, sub alpine grassland, sand dunes, rocky shores, and even modified, semi-urban environments.

The fact that some weka populations persist in highly modified habitats suggests that they can adapt to a wide range of environmental conditions.

Buff weka at Willowbank. Photo: Sabine Bernert.
Buff weka

Did you know?

  • Weka mainly eat invertebrates and fruit. They occasionally eat chitons and other rocky coast invertebrates, lizards, rodents, food scraps, carrion, and the eggs and young of other groundnesting birds.
  • Weka populations are subject to large fluctuations. Populations increase during favourable conditions and decline abruptly when food becomes scarce. Moist islands and those with rich soils support the most stable populations.
  • The decline and destabilisation of weka populations on mainland New Zealand, which has resulted in legal protection, has inhibited mahinga kai in modern times. Some iwi today welcome conservation projects that would potentially enable the restoration of harvesting while others believe that the time for harvest has gone. The only place where the legal harvest of weka can occur is on the Chatham Islands and on some islands around Stewart Island.
  • Weka have demonstrated that under good conditions and with high food availability, they can be very productive with year-round breeding recorded at several sites. However, pairs in other stable populations breed once a year or less.
  • Weka mate for life where the populations are territorial, but this is not so when the need for defence is less likely.

Weka conservation

Because of its scavenging habit, the weka occupies a problematic conservation niche. Some subspecies are threatened, but moving them to offshore islands can disrupt other threatened wildlife species, especially lizards, seabirds and other ground-nesting birds.

Weka at Sinbad Valley. Photo: Sabine Bernert.
The weka’s best known call is a repetitive, loud ‘coo-et’ that is usually heard at dusk and in the early evening

For example, weka released onto Codfish Island, where they did not occur in recent time, threatened the viability of the Cook’s petrels there and were removed.

Weka sound recordings

Listen to or download recordings of weka song.

Buff weka song (MP3, 1,315K)
1 minute 37 second recording of a weka answering recorded calls.

North Island weka song (MP3, 1,080K)
1 minute 7 second recording of a North Island weka giving territorial calls.

Western weka song (MP3, 651K)
41 second recording of adult Western weka song.

Find more bird song recordings

Help with files: see Open and save files.
Copyright of files: Song files may be reused as long as you attribute the work to the Department of Conservation. Read our Copyright terms.

Threats

The stability, density and causes of decline of weka populations are linked in complex ways to the ecosystem of each local region.

The main threats for weka are:

  • They are preyed upon by ferrets, cats, stoats and dogs.
  • Competition with introduced species for native fruits and invertebrates.
  • A change in forest and forest leaf litter composition due to the impact of introduced animals such as deer, pigs and possums.
  • Habitat depletion, modification and degradation.
  • Disease and parasites, although this is not well understood.
  • Climate change, which could enhance the number or length of droughts and lower food and water availability.
  • Motor vehicles causing road kills.
  • Snail and slug baits.
  • Pest control operations where weka are exposed to poorly protected traps, anti-coagulant baits (some rat baits) or acute toxins (like cyanide). Weka can be killed by feeding on other poisoned animals (secondary poisoning). Safer toxins are now available.

DOC's work with weka

North Island weka hand held before being released, Whinray Scenic Reserve. Photo: Bruce Dix.
North Island weka

Weka stories: watch videos, read blog posts by DOC staff, and check out the latest news about weka and DOC's work with these birds.

Potential for recovery

Weka find it difficult to withstand the suite of pressures present in parts of the North and South Islands. If some of these pressures are controlled or eliminated weka can recover.

In good conditions and high food availability they can breed all year and raise up to 9 young. Most pairs raise on average 2 - 3 young a year.

Buff weka return to Te Waipounamu: Ngāi Tahu/DOC partnership project

This Ngāi Tahu initiative was supported by DOC with the joint partners introducing 30 buff weka from the Chatham Islands in 2001.

The birds have been successfully breeding on Te Peka Karara (Stevensons Island, Lake Wānaka) and other local islands since then, and Ngāi Tahu are now investigating the introduction of buff weka to a mainland site.

Watch a video about the buff weka and find out more about this project.

Recovery Plan in action

North Island weka study site at Motu. Photo: Heather Miller.
North Island weka study site at Motu

The Department of Conservation Weka Recovery Plan was approved in 1999. The plan promotes the recovery of the weka, outlines different management options, and a work plan.

The long-term vision of the recovery plan is:

"To restore all weka taxa to their traditional range as a significant component of mainland and island ecosystems, ensuring that all taxa have the conservation status equivalent to Category 'C' or lower."

The short-term goal of the plan is:

"To improve the conservation status of threatened weka taxa, to clarify the status of data deficient taxa, and maintain the non-threatened status of other weka taxa."

You can help weka

Weka can become a nuisance if you encourage them to take or find food near houses. They can also become a nuisance in some gardening situations as they are attracted to newly disturbed soil. It pays to do the digging first and then plant a day or two later to prevent your plants being disturbed.

Stewart Island weka.
Stewart Island weka

In droughts, place water away from the house and open your organic compost area to the weka. If you need to control rats use weka-safe baits (Coumatetralyl, Racumin®) or protected traps.

Do not use second generation anticoagulant baits (Brodifacoum, Talon®, Pestoff®, Flocoumafen, Storm®, Bromadiolone) even in houses as the rats do not die there and can be accessible to weka.

If you are concerned about weka feeding on newly sown crops or other disturbances, please report the problem to the Department of Conservation.


Related links

 

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New Zealand Birds Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand birds

Contacts

DOC's 24 hour emergency hotline:

0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468)

Call to report sick or injured wildlife, and whale or dolphin strandings.