Birds of Aotearoa

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Aotearoa has a wide range of native birds and some of these are found nowhere else in the world.

Biodiversity

Aotearoa/New Zealand has a high level of biodiversity, meaning there are lots of different plants and animals that live here.

A wide range of species have evolved over millions of years as New Zealand is a long way from other landmasses. Birds like the kōkako are ancient and unique. Aotearoa has many plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world. These species are called endemic. Some endemic species such as the moa became extinct after people arrived in Aotearoa, cleared forest and hunted birds.

Before people arrived, Aotearoa was a land of birds. The only land mammals were the native short and long-tailed bats. Then predators such as rats and stoats were introduced.

What makes a bird a bird?

Birds are a group of animals which have the following features:

  • backbones
  • feathers
  • toothless beaked jaws
  • lay hard shelled eggs
  • a lightweight but strong skeleton
  • high metabolic rate
  • a four-chambered heart.

Birds are the only group of dinosaurs that survived the global mass extinction event 65 million years ago.

Types of birds found in Aotearoa

Aotearoa/New Zealand is known as the seabird capital of the world and is also home to a number of forest birds that live nowhere else on Earth.

Aotearoa’s birds can be grouped according to where they live: 

  • forest and mountain birds
  • sea and shore birds
  • wetland and river birds

Forest and mountain birds

Known for its dawn chorus, Aotearoa’s forests were once full of the sound of native birds. When Captain James Cook arrived in the 1770s he noted that the bird song was deafening.

Forest and mountain areas are home to some unusual endemic birds such as the kākāpō, takahē, and kiwi to name just a few. These birds have evolved to become flightless as there were no land predators before people introduced animals such as stoats.

The kea is the world’s only mountain parrot and is known as one of the most intelligent birds in the world.

How many native forest and mountain birds can you name?

Sea and shore birds

Aotearoa is famous for its land birds like the kiwi, kākāpō and kōkako. But just as remarkable and unique are the seabirds. More than a third of the 80 or so species of seabirds that breed in Aotearoa are endemic or found nowhere else.

Penguins are also birds. Penguins are a group of flightless seabirds that are at home on land and in the sea. New Zealand has more penguin species than any other country.

Which sea and shore birds have you seen recently?

Wetland and river birds

Many New Zealand bird species live around our wetlands and rivers. These areas are a rich source of food but like many forest areas have been changed by people. Over 90 percent of our wetlands have been drained.

Birds living in these areas often have interesting, visible adaptations that have evolved over time to help them survive, such as the wrybill with its beak bent to the right. It is thought that this helps the wrybill to get food from under river stones.

What other adaptations can you think of that wetland and river birds have?

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You could find out more about the native birds that live in your local area.

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Many of the birds found in Aotearoa are ancient and unique like the kōkako. Image: Matt Binns.

Many of the forest birds of Aotearoa such as the kākāpō are flightless or poor fliers because they evolved in a land without ground-based predators. Image: LEARNZ.

Kea are the only mountain parrot in the world. Image: LEARNZ.

New Zealand is the sea bird capital of the world. Do you know what this bird is called? Image: LEARNZ.

There are many New Zealand bird species that live around our wetlands and rivers, such as this a wrybill. What other wetland or river birds do you know of? Image: LEARNZ.