Wings but can't fly?!?
There are many reasons why the birdlife of New Zealand is remarkable and special, and even subject to lots of attention from the rest of the world. A lot of it has to do with the lack of that power that makes a bird a bird – the ability to fly!
Flying uses a lot of energy, but most birds do it, and it increases the types of food they can eat, as well as enabling them to access insects and fruit at the tops of trees. It also helps them to escape from predators, and this is the key to why so many birds in New Zealand evolved to either lose the ability to fly, or not do it very well. Because there were no mammals present in New Zealand able to eat a bird or an egg, and with plenty of good food on or near the ground; many species gradually lost the power of flight.
Our rarest birds
Flightlessness is only one characteristic contributing to the uniqueness of our bird fauna. Many New Zealand birds are also very long-lived, and have slow breeding rates, as well as small clutch sizes and large eggs. Several species are nocturnal, and others have a large body size. All these features have contributed to their extinction or decline.
Moa, adzebills, giant eagle and tiny wrens are all gone forever. Extinction rates for birds in New Zealand are high - 34% of endemic land and freshwater birds and 5% of sea birds. Birds that had evolved to live on the ground had no defences against the ravages of predators, nor habitat loss. Even now, 37% of our bird species are considered threatened. The most recent extinction was the huia in 1907; the takahē was thought to be extinct until small numbers were rediscovered in the Murchison Mountains of Fiordland in 1948; and the kāki/black stilt, with around 100 adults remaining, is on the edge.
Chatham Island snipe and pigeon, black robin, and fairy tern are in the top 10 list of New Zealand's rarest birds - no population exceeds 150 individuals. The key significance is the high number of endemic species in New Zealand. Endemic means that they breed nowhere else in the world, only in NZ, therefore if they are at risk, they are gone forever.
Department of Conservation (DOC) staff are involved in intensive and complex work: to intervene with different species to ensure their survival. Birds like hihi/stitchbird are transferred to various offshore islands to build up new populations in predator-free habitats; others like the kakī/black stilt and takahē are reared in captivity and then released into managed environments.
We are involved in on-site breeding and manipulation programmes for many species, like pateke and kākāpō; and there is a huge effort associated with eradication of predators in many areas to protect many species, such as kokako, mohua and kiwi.
Our hard work is reaping rewards. Some species are still only just managing to hold their own, but others have thrived.
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.