Tuesday, June 1, 2021

For the birds

The kea, the world's only alpine parrot, apparently adapted and 'headed to the hills' to avoid humans. Photo: Tess Brunton/Radio NZ

Craig every second Tuesday.

Kia ora and gidday everyone.

Yesterday I was browsing social media when I came across Tasmania-based crime writer Alan Carter sharing a story about how a university study has found that the New Zealand kea, the world's only mountain parrot, adapted over time so that it could steer clear of people. Which is kind of interesting for us Kiwis (referring to the nickname for us New Zealanders, not the birds themselves), given that kea are notorious in my homeland for being very unafraid of people, often hanging out at ski field car parks and other such places, pecking away at the rubber around windscreens and windows. Among other hijinks. 

They're known as a 'cheeky' bird with quite a lot of personality. 

Mulling on Alan's post ("I know how they feel", he said) and the Radio New Zealand story that accompanied it, it also got me reflecting on all the weird and wonderful bird life of Aotearoa.

The African elephant is the largest land mammal in the world (up to 7 tonnes); comparatively, New Zealand's only native land mammals are bats. 

Growing up in New Zealand as a curious wee kid interested in lots of things about the wider world, I (foolishly) thought we were a bit hard-done-by on the local fauna front. We didn't have any of the 'big' animals you read about in various stories, whether the lions, elephants, rhino, giraffe, zebra, cheetah, etc of Africa, the tigers, Pandas, and elephants of Asia, or the bears, mountain lions, wolves, and moose of North America. We didn't have the jaguars and monkeys of Latin America, or the polar bears of the Artic. 

We didn't even have the woodland animals of Great Britain that I read about in stories like The Wind in the Willows, various Roald Dahl tales, and Duncton Wood. No squirrels, foxes, badgers, or moles. 

Scene from Kenneth Grahame's classic The Wind in the Willows

But what we do have in New Zealand is a wondrous array of unusual and rare birds. In fact, my home country is home to more than 200 native bird species, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth. 

Back in 2005, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand (aka "Forest and Bird") established an annual 'Bird of the Year' competition where the public got to vote for their favourite native New Zealand bird. It's grown into quite something since, with plenty of media coverage, celebrities endorsing and even campaigning for their favourites, allegations of vote rigging, and more. 

The 'defending champ' is my all-time favourite native New Zealand bird, the kākāpō. It's a really unique bird: a nocturnal, flightless parrot (the heaviest parrot in the world) that can't fly but is really good at climbing trees. While they can live for up to 100 years, that extended lifespan hasn't stopped their population from dwindling, terribly. Centuries ago they were widespread throughout our country, but the beauty of their feathers and the ease of catching them, plus the introduction of predator animals thanks to British colonisation (rats, ferrets, stoats etc), nearly wiped them out completely. 

The endangered kākāpō is the world's heaviest parrot 

Nowadays there are 204 living kākāpō in known existence. For some comparison, there are about 900 mountain gorillas left; one of the more world-famous endangered species. But while that 204 number may seem dire, it's actually quite a remarkable success story on the recovery front. 

When I chose to research and write about kākāpō for a school project as a wee kid in the early 1990s, there were 42 left. So the implementation of the Kakapo Recovery Programme in 1995 has made a big difference, quintupling the population over the past 25 years. 

You can read more about this fascinating bird and the recovery programme here. And while we're at it, here's a wee sampling of a few of the many other weird and wonderful native birds of Aotearoa. 

The tūī is a large, boisterous member of the honeyeater family with a distinctive white tuft akin to a priest's collar that saw European settlers call it a parson bird.

The whio (blue duck) is my daughter's favourite bird. Considered a taonga (treasure) by Māori; it's presence indicates a healthy river and it appears on the NZ $10 note  

The world's largest rail, the takahē is a flightless bird that was presumed extinct for fifty years, until rediscovered in a South Island valley in 1948. 

The North Island kōkako, a striking bird with a haunting song, is recovering from near-extinction. It's orange-wattled South Island relative is presumed extinct. 

Thanks for reading. Until next time. Ka kite anō.

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 
Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I'll be ending my fortnightly posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life.

Poipoia te kākano kia puawai

(Nurture the seed and it will blossom.)


  1. Thanks, Craig. Glad you're a bird lover! The kea is one of my favourite birds too - attractive, intelligent, and with a wonderful sense of humour.
    On my last trip to NZ we stopped to admire the view and watch them irritating a tour bus driver by attacking his vehicle, much to the enjoyment of his passengers. When he drove off, they turned their attention to us.
    One had a chicken-leg bone, old and dry. The bird juggled it, twisting it in its bill, tossing and catching it. We were fascinated. And while our attention was distracted by the performance, the rest of the flock was working on the rubber seal on the windscreen of our rental car!

  2. On a far more mundane level of birdwatching, robins nested in a large rhododendron immediately adjacent to our screened in front porch, in a spot hidden from hawks and eagles. discouraging to four-footed critters, and hopefully unnoticed by tree-climbing blacksnakes.

    Barbara has lovingly followed them since the day the first twig was set in place for the nest. Then came the classic blue eggs, followed by three little hatchlings who, despite storms and frigid cold snaps, have grown quite large, thanks to mom and dad's never-ending food runs to the local worm emporium. Now they're flexing their wings, readying to fly off, and Barbara is gripped by empty nest syndrome.

    She had to leave the farm for a few days and when she called me this morning, her first words were, "How are the kids? Have the left yet? I don't want them to leave without saying goodbye."

    Understanding as I am, I told her I'd tell them to write. I shall not share her response, except to say it wasn't a chirp.