What makes NZ birds so precious?
It’s no exaggeration when we call New Zealand a twitcher’s paradise. We are known as the seabird capital of the world, and are one of the few places with so many flightless birds, too.
There are roughly 200 bird species in the country, of which 90 or so are endemic. This high number of birds that you won’t find anywhere else in the world is due to a very special set of circumstances throughout the entire course of New Zealand’s history.
Before humans came to New Zealand
An estimated 80 million years ago, continental drift saw New Zealand move away from Gondwanaland, and effectively set itself up as an isolated breeding ground for new and exciting species.
For some reason that scientists are still struggling to explain, no mammals (apart from three bat species) ever managed to evolve here. This means that there were no possums, cats, stoats, or larger mammals to threaten birds and insects.
Emerging bird species were therefore allowed to thrive and grow. The country was something of a sanctuary where there we no predators, and therefore normally ‘weaker’ species such as flightless birds were able to survive. On top of this, the natural flora allowed plentiful food sources close to, or on the ground, offering flightless birds an array of dining options within easy reach.
What happened once humans arrived
Humans arrived in New Zealand roughly 800 years ago, and sadly, this caused a major disruption to the native birdlife.
Since then, approximately 50 bird species have become extinct, such as the striking moa, which was a relation to Australia’s emu. According to the Department of Conservation, the extinction rate of endemic land birds in the country is 34 per cent, which is extremely high.
While some of this loss is attributed to deforestation and even hunting, the majority of the threat comes from the introduction of predators. Early settlers introduced possums to diversify the fauna and create a fur trade, while cats, stoats, and rabbits were all also brought to the country.
With this, the thus-far unthreatened birdlife of New Zealand saw a surge in hungry, powerful pests that decimated populations by preying on eggs and nests. As they had evolved without any defences against such attacks, there was little they could do to survive.
New Zealand birds today
Today, more than a third of our bird species are considered threatened, but the efforts towards conservation and awareness have been exponentially improved.
The last time a bird became extinct was back in 1907 when the world said goodbye to its very last huia.
Despite the losses, New Zealand is still home to an incredible array of birds that you won’t find anywhere else. Our national icon, the flightless kiwi, has more than 90 groups dedicated to its conservation, and there are now approximately 68,000 kiwis left in the country – we usually see one during our Tawharanui night-time tours from Auckland roughly 70 per cent of the time.
Other species, such as the takahe (once thought to be extinct), the stitch bird, the black stilt, the kokako, and the pateke, are all the focus of major conservation programmes designed to rehabilitate these populations so that twitchers can enjoy this natural paradise for years to come.
Tristan Cullen - Passionate Conservationist