Most New Zealanders can easily recognise the bellbird by its song, which Captain Cook described as sounding ‘like small bells exquisitely tuned’. They have three distinct sounds, and songs vary enormously from one place to another. For example, a study in Christchurch found that birds in three patches of bush on the Port Hills all had different songs.
When Europeans arrived in New Zealand, bellbirds were common throughout the North and South Islands. Their numbers declined sharply during the 1860s in the North Island and 1880s in the South Island, about the time that ship rats and stoats arrived.
For a time it was thought they might vanish from the mainland. Their numbers recovered somewhat from about 1940 onwards. They are almost completely absent on the mainland north of Hamilton, and are still rare in parts of Wellington, Wairarapa, and much of inland Canterbury and Otago.
They are recovering in Wellington, parts of Christchurch, and in other places with regular pest control. A translocation to Hamilton was unsuccessful.
Bellbirds live in native forest (including mixed podocarp-hardwood and beech forest) and regenerating forest, especially where there is diverse or dense vegetation. They can be found close to the coast or in vegetation up to about 1200 metres.
In the South Island they have been found inhabiting plantations of eucalypts, pines or willows. They can be spotted in urban areas, especially if there is bush nearby.
Typically they require forest and scrub habitats, reasonable cover and good local food sources during the breeding season, since they do not travel far from the nest. However, outside the breeding season they may travel many kilometres to feed, especially males.
Although bellbirds are still widespread on the New Zealand mainland, research has shown that mammalian predators, such as rats and stoats, keep their numbers low.
Where bellbirds persist on the mainland, numbers are usually lower than on islands where predators are absent. While possums have not been proven to kill bellbirds, they do compete with bellbirds for food.
In 2010 the bellbird was rediscovered on Motutapu Island, after an absence of more than 100 years. This follows one of New Zealand’s largest ever island pest eradication programmes on Motutapu and Rangitoto Islands in 2009.
Bellbirds are among the species that benefit from DOC's pest control work.
You can help
Help protect our native birds
When visiting parks, beaches, rivers, and lakes
- Only take dogs to areas that allow them, and keep them under control.
- Check for pests when visiting pest-free islands.
- Leave nesting birds alone.
- Use available access ways to get to the beach.
- Avoid leaving old fishing lines on beaches or in the sea.
- Follow the water care code and local navigation bylaws.
- Don't drive on riverbeds, or keep to formed tracks if you have to.
Other ways to help
- Get your dog trained in avian awareness.
- Volunteer to control predators and restore bird habitats.
- Set predator traps on your property.
- Put a bell on your cat's collar and feed it well.