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New Zealand’s 10 Coolest Birds

Heading down under? Make sure to check out some of New Zealand’s coolest birds, like the kiwi, pukeko, tui and blue penguin

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New Zealand’s Coolest Birds

As you might expect from a country that nicknames its people after its national bird, Kiwis are proud of their flora and fauna-and for good reason. “New Zealand evolved in isolation,” says Herb Christophers, senior communications advisor for New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) and an avid bird-lover. “Birds filled all the niches that would normally be filled by mammals. You ended up with some weird birds and some didn’t need to fly.” Read on to see some of their coolest birds.

It was only about 700 years ago that competitive species (dogs, rats-and humans) were brought in by migrating Polynesians to add to the country’s only indigenous mammals: two species of bat. Between this development and the subsequent introduction by Europeans of species such as stoats, cats and other predators, much of New Zealand’s endemic bird life, which had evolved to fear only larger birds, faced a deadly threat. “Our birds aren’t adapted to the level of competition and they lose out,” says Christophers. “The gist of it is with the introduction of mammals, New Zealand bird life has declined rapidly over the last 500 years.”

While some species, such as the legendary giant moa, have long been extinct, and others are on the edge, a few, such as the pukeko, are flourishing. Other well-known species, like the kiwi, takahe and kakapo, are benefiting from extensive management, breeding and pest control performed by the DOC and its volunteers.

Visiting New Zealand? Watch for these 10 very cool bird species-and make sure to drop a few coins in the donation box when you’re visiting conservation areas, to help the DOC and other groups continue their vital work.

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Coolest birds #1: Kea

Why they’re one of the coolest birds: Ask any New Zealander what adjective comes to mind when they think of the kea and they’ll inevitably say “cheeky.” These mountain parrots (the only ones in the world, says Christophers) are used to humans and notorious for getting into backpacks and pulling off windshield wipers in ski hill car parks.

Status: “They’re getting hammered by stoats,” says Christophers. Keas are strongly protected but their range is shrinking. DOC work in this area, as with so many New Zealand birds, is focused on pest control.

Where to see them: You’ll find keas looking for food in many mountainous areas of the South Island. Look for them at Mount Cook National Park, where signs in hotel rooms at the famous Hermitage Hotel warn visitors not to feed the birds-and where this writer saw one on her room’s balcony one morning, apparently asking for treats. (Photo by Herb Christophers)

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Coolest birds #2: Royal albatross

Why they’re one of the coolest birds: With a three-metre wingspan, the royal albatross, or toroa, can cruise the globe at speeds beyond 100 kilometres per hour. “They go right around the south pole,” says Christophers.

Status: These birds are listed as “nationally vulnerable” by the DOC due to population decline. They’re slow breeders and, like many sea birds, at risk from climate and habitat change and from some fishing practices.

Where to see them: The Royal Albatross Centre on the Otago Peninsula, near Dunedin on the South Island, is one of only two mainland breeding spots in the world-and an excellent spot to view the species. The whole peninsula is a haven for wildlife including seals, sea lions and two kinds of penguin, so make sure to block off enough time on your travel itinerary to see them all. (Photo by Herb Christophers)

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Coolest birds #3: Blue penguin

Why they’re one of the coolest birds: Of the world’s 18 species of penguin, 13 have been found in the New Zealand region and nine breed there. At just 25 centimetres tall, the “little blue” penguin (known in Australia as the “fairy penguin”) is the smallest of all those species. “We call them our wild city neighbours in Wellington Harbour,” says Christophers. “We have ‘beware penguins crossing’ signs and speed bumps to slow drivers.”

Status: Like many New Zealand birds, blue penguins are under threat from animals such as cats, dogs and stoats, not to mention by humans. But overall, says Christophers, “they seem to do well” when predator control is in place.

Where to see them: There’s a blue penguin nesting site next to the Royal Albatross Centre, so you can combine a trip to see both-just keep in mind that the blue penguins come in at dusk, so bring warm clothes and some patience, especially in summertime when days are long. Otherwise, there are nesting sites in many cities including Oamaru and Akaroa, both near Christchurch. You can join a tour or make your way to a nesting site on your own-but if it’s the latter, be sure not to disturb the penguins with noise, crowds or bright lights.

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Cool birds of NZ #4: Pukeko

Why they’re so cool: Unlike many bird species, the pukeko, or swamp hen, thrives in cohabitation with humans. “They’re quite comical,” says Christophers. “They’ve become a bit of an icon for New Zealand because they have a bit of colour, they get up to silly antics and people like them.” Witness the pukeko in a ponga tree, the substitute for the partridge in the pear tree in the Kiwi version of the classic Christmas song.

Status: “They’re very prolific,” says Christophers, though “they do get hit by cars.”

Where to see them: Pukeko are abundant across the country. We spotted them while taking a walk around the picturesque Waikareao Estuary in Tauranga on the North Island.

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Cool birds of NZ #5: Tui

Why they’re cool: A nectar feeder, the tui makes use of gardens as well as the New Zealand bush for food and shelter. A beautiful singer, the tui imitates other birds for their song. “The more melodious it is, the more attractive to a mate,” says Christophers.

Status: Its song makes the tui a welcome visitor to Kiwi gardens-Christophers puts out nectar to attract them to his home, and says he currently has more than 50 birds in one tree in his backyard. While more adaptable than many species, the tui is still threatened by the common predators, though DOC control methods have resulted in an increase in numbers.

Where to see them: Watch for tui anywhere there’s nectar to be had, such as near flax or kowhai flowers. The Orokonui Ecosanctuary near Dunedin is another habitat worth exploring for tui and other birds. 

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Coolest birds #6: Kakapo

Why they’re cool: Flightless and nocturnal, the kakapo is the heaviest parrot in the world, with males weighing up to and over two kilograms. It’s good at climbing trees and can range several kilometres in a night. Unfortunately, it’s not as good at evading predators-the kakapo evolved to freeze when under threat (historically from the now-extinct giant eagle), which doesn’t do much to protect it from predators that use smell to find their prey.

Status: Kakapo were virtually wiped out by the 1970s on all three of New Zealand’s main islands. Luckily, a few birds were recovered and there are now about 130 living on Codfish Island, a small island off Stewart Island, which the DOC had cleared of predators. “Nobody’s allowed there unless they have a thorough biosecurity check,” says Christophers. Kakapo are slow breeders, so progress is slow, though the program is considered successful-there were only 50 birds in 2002.

Where to see them: According to the Kakapo Recovery Programme, it’s possible (if unlikely) that a few birds have survived in southern Stewart Island or remote parts of Fiordland on the South Island. They encourage anyone who spots a kakapo to report the sighting. Other than that, there are volunteer opportunities on Codfish Island to help with kakapo recovery. (Pictured: Kakapo Suzanne with chicks, 2002, Codfish Island. Photo by Don Merton)

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Cool birds of NZ #7: Takahe

Why they’re a cool bird: Christophers describes the colourful green and blue takahe as “like a big, fat, flightless pukeko.” At about 50 centimetres high and over three kilograms, they’re the biggest existing member of the rail family.

Status: Takahe were thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered in Fiordland in 1948. They’re classified as an endangered species and the DOC maintains a breeding colony near the town of Te Anau, as well as breeding populations on four small islands. About 130 birds remain in Fiordland, primarily in a 500-square-kilometre protected area within Fiordland National Park.

Where to see them: Takahe can be viewed on Kapiti Island north of Wellington, a nature sanctuary that is home to a number of endangered native bird species, including the kiwi. Be sure to plan ahead as an access permit is required to visit the island.

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Beautiful birds of NZ #8: Whio (blue duck)

Why they’re so cool: Whio live in fast-flowing mountain streams and feed on bottom-dwelling insects with their soft bill. They’re fast swimmers and known for their distinctive whistling sound (hence the Maori name whio, pronounced “fee-oh”). The presence of whio is considered a sign of good river health.

Status: “Where we manage them they’re doing all right,” says Christophers; their official status is “nationally vulnerable.” The DOC estimates a total population of about 2,000 to 3,000 individuals.

Where to see them: Your best chance at spotting whio is in one of eight areas around the country that have been identified as a priority for whio protection and management, including Tongariro Forest near Taupo and the Manganui o te Ao River near Mount Ruapehu. (Photo by Herb Christophers)

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Beautiful birds of NZ #9: Kaka

Why they’re cool: Another of New Zealand’s large parrots, Christophers calls the kaka the “bush equivalent of a kea.” Divided into two species, North Island and South Island, kaka have very strong beaks capable of ripping shrubs to pieces. “They eat a lot of fruit,” says Christophers, as well as nectar, seeds and grubs. “If you’ve got an orchard near the bush the kaka will get the fruit before you do.”

Status: Kaka are reasonably common in some parts of the country, but not nearly as abundant as when Europeans first arrived in New Zealand, primarily due to the loss of forest habitat. Kaka must compete with possums and other introduced species for many food sources. The DOC coordinates a national recovery project for kaka with two main objectives: to control predators in a mainland island reserve on the northern South Island, and to do the same in a forest area of the North Island.

Where to see them: Both Kapiti Island and the Orokonui Ecosanctuary have resident kaka populations. Or visit Zealandia in Wellington, which is home to more than 20 native bird species as well as reptiles, amphibians, insects and abundant plant life. (Photo by Venture Southland, courtesy Tourism New Zealand)

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Cool birds of NZ #10: Kiwi

Why they’re one of the coolest birds: The iconic New Zealand bird has a tough life. Flightless and nocturnal, the five kiwi species are threatened both by predators and by competition for food. Kiwis mate for life and can live for decades-one South Island species, the rowi, is said to be able to live for up to 100 years.

Status: Kiwis are critically threatened. The total number in the country was estimated at about 72,000 in 2008, and only about 350 birds each remain of the two most threatened kiwi species, the rowi and Haast tokoeka. The DOC is working hard to protect wild kiwi populations with methods such as breeding programs, predator control and ongoing research, as well as developing five kiwi sanctuaries to improve numbers in a focused way. “They’re doing well when we do protection, not so well when we don’t,” says Christophers.

Where to see them: Kiwi houses around the country flip day and night so that daytime visitors can watch the nocturnal kiwi rooting for food in an artificial environment. One popular spot is the Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park, conveniently located near popular tourist attraction Waitomo Caves, which also offers nighttime tours to see the birds in a more natural setting. To view kiwi in the wild, Christophers says your best chance is Stewart Island, where the birds come out in the daytime, or Kapiti Island, which runs nighttime kiwi tours. “You’ll get little spotted kiwi coming up to you,” he says.

For more information on New Zealand birds visit the DOC’s website; to chat with Kiwi birding enthusiasts, browse the active Birding NZ forums. (Photo courtesy Tourism New Zealand)