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New Zealand has the most species of flightless birds of any country in the world.
There are 16 birds with useless wings, but this number was double before many became extinct.
New Zealand’s location and isolation from the rest of the world for more than 60 million years has created a unique ecosystem, where these fantastic flightless birds thrived.
New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (along with community groups) spends millions of dollars to create pest-free sanctuaries and predator-free islands.
Ongoing research and breeding programs are key to their success to date.
Why does New Zealand have so many flightless birds?
About 85 million years ago, New Zealand separated from Gondwanaland.
Gondwanaland was a giant continent that included Antarctica, Australia, Africa, parts of Asia, and South America.
This was before the evolution of mammals (but not before dinosaurs became extinct).
Because of this long period of geographic isolation from other landmasses, there is only one mammal in New Zealand, a tiny bat the size of my thumb.
With no predators, birds didn’t need to fly
With no mammals to prey on the abundant birdlife, the various species of birds evolved to live and nest on the ground.
As a result, some New Zealand birds lost the use of their wings. With some becoming very large flightless birds (such as the moa).
Flightless birds in New Zealand have taken up the niches occupied by mammals in other countries.
Other flightless birds
Other ex-Gondwanaland landmasses have flightless species.
Africa has ostriches, South America has rheas, and Australia has emus and cassowaries.
There is an extinct elephant bird in Madagascar and multiple species of penguins in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic Islands.
But New Zealand has the most flightless bird species. And other species of bird that are poor fliers (such as the kōkako and saddleback).
How did the flightless birds evolve to lose their wings?
Evidence shows that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs, and they all possessed the ability to fly.
This means all flightless bird species used to fly, but evolved to become flightless.
However, these birds used their wings less and less over a long time due to the lowered danger from mammalian predators.
Also, if food is plentiful, there is no need to fly to forage for the next meal.
We all know that flying is a great way to escape being cat food, as long as you’re quicker than the cat.
In fact, there are conservation efforts here in New Zealand to ban the ownership of cats to protect our bird life.
But birds that fly use large amounts of energy. Maximum energy utility requires a lighter bodyweight and appropriately large wingspan.
Many flightless bird species have vestigial wings, usually invisible, that could never lift their body weight.
Because these flightless birds don’t need so much energy, some are large birds.
Think of the ostrich with its powerful legs, which grow up to 9 feet tall (2.7 meters). Or the New Zealand Takahē which weighs in between 5 – 8 ½ lbs (2.3 – 3.8 kg).
Other adaptations evolved over millions of years to include solid bones and fluffy feathers.
Unlike flighted birds’ feathers which are strong and connected by hooks or barbs so they lock together, the kiwi birds’ feathers are fur-like, warm, and shaggy.
Fun fact: There are 18 recognized species of penguins, almost exclusively living in the southern hemisphere. These flightless birds are highly adapted to the marine environment, using their wings to 'fly' underwater.
New Zealand’s Flightless Birds
5 Species of Kiwi
- Kiwi is the only bird to have nostrils at the end of their long beaks, and whiskers.
- Kiwi lay massive eggs, about 20% of the mother’s size.
- Kiwis are nocturnal birds. They spend the day sleeping and feed at night.
- You can get your dog kiwi aversion training, so they learn to leave kiwis alone.
- One hundred years ago, kiwi numbered in the millions.
Here are some interesting facts on each of the five species of Kiwi.
North Island Brown Kiwi
Location: Lowland and coastal native forest and subalpine areas in the North Island
Status: At-risk – Declining
Size: Length 16 in (40 cm). Weight about 6.2 lb (2.8 kg). Males about 4.9 lb (2.2 kg).
- Fastest breeding. Usually lays two eggs per clutch, and one to two clutches per year.
- Shortest lived: Other kiwi live to be 40–65 years old, but the brown kiwi averages only 14 years.
- Will build their nest in native forest and dense shrubland, but also in plantation forest, rough pasture, around wetlands, and in shrubland with lots of gorse or blackberry.
Great spotted kiwi (Roroa)
Location: Subalpine zones of Nelson, the Paparoa Range, and Arthur’s Pass
Status: Threatened–Nationally Vulnerable
Size: Length 18 in (45 cm). Weight about 6.6 lb (3.0 kg). Males about 5 lb (2.3 kg)
- The largest kiwi species, who live largely at higher altitudes in some South Island national parks.
- Breed from July to February by nesting in natural hollows or burrows among roots, in hollow logs or dense vegetation
- Average egg size 4.8 in (12.4 cm) by 3 in (7.7 cm). Incubation period is 70-80 days.
Little Spotted Kiwi (Kiwi Pukupuku)
Location: Kapiti Island and other remote predator-free islands and sanctuaries
Status: At-risk – Recovering
Size: Length 12 in (30 cm). Weight about 4.2 lb (1.9 kg). Males about 2.0 lb (0.9 kg).
- Chicks leave home to feed themselves when just 5-7 days old. But their parents stay around.
- The nest is in a short burow, hollow log, or on the ground under dense vegetation.
- Eat mostly small invertebrates, especially earthworms; larvae of beetles, cicadas, flies and moths; spiders, adult beetles and some small fallen fruit and leaves.
Okarito Brown Kiwi (Rowi)
Location: Found in a restricted area of the Ōkārito forest on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island with a population of about only 600 birds
Size: Length 16 in (40 cm). Weight about 6.2 lb (2.8 kg). Males about 4.2 lb (1.9 kg)
- Eggs at risk of predation are removed, the chicks hatched in captivity, raised in a natural predator-free environment until old enough to fend for themselves, and then returned to the wild.
- The female can lay up to three eggs, each in a different nest. Both the male and the female incubate the eggs.
- Birds feed by walking along slowly tapping the ground until they detect prey, they will probe their bill into the ground.
Southern Brown Kiwi (Tokoeka)
Location: Three subspecies – Haast range, Fiordland, Stewart Island (Rakiura)
Size: Length up to 18 in (45 cm). Weight about 6.8 lb (3.1 kg). Males about 5.3 lb (2.4 kg)
- Rakiura (Stewart Island) tokoeka are unique because they live in large family groups, with an alpha male and female.
- As with other kiwi species, all usually have just one mate, and mate for life. If its partner dies a bird will re-mate.
- Tokoeka – means literally ‘weka with a walking stick’. (The weka is another New Zealand flightless bird.)
Location: Managed populations exist only on Codfish Island (Whenua Hou) and three other remote islands
Status: Nationally Critical
Size: Length up to 23 in (64 cm). Weight of males is up to 6.6 lbs (2 – 4 kg). Females up to 5.5 lbs. (2.5 kg)
- Possibly the longest-lived bird, the kakapo breed may reach 95 years of age.
- The world’s heaviest parrot, which also happens to be nocturnal. Sometimes known as the Owl Parrot
- The total population of about 200 birds was transferred to Whenua Hou/Codfish Island off the coast of Stewart Island, and two other islands in the 1980-90s.
- In recent times, one famous kakapo names Sirocco, tried to mate with a scientist on camera. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Opv8vZ6RvB0
- The upper feather of this flightless parrot are moss green mottled with yellow and black above, and similar but more yellow below.
Location: Seven islands and several mainland sanctuaries
Status: Nationally vulnerable
Size: Length 20 ins (50 cm). Weight 4.4 – 7.7 lbs (2 – 3.5 kg)
- Thought an extinct species, the takahe were famously rediscovered in the Murchison Mountains in the South Island in 1948.
- This is the world’s largest (flightless) rail species. (Rails are a family of small to medium-sized, ground-living birds.)
- The North Island takahe population is extinct. South Island takahē originally occurred throughout the South Island but are still very endangered birds and limited to conservation areas.
Location: Weka occur in a wide variety of habitats, from the coastline to above the tree-line, including wetlands, rough pasture, shrubland, and native and plantation forests
Status: Not threatened
Size: Length 19-23 inc. (50 – 60 cm). 1 – 3 lbs ( .43 to 1.4 kg)
- Wekas spread the seeds from many plants through their digestive system.
- The male does most of the incubation, and most of the parental care.
- Wekas are curious and love to steal things, especially shiny items.
For more great information on New Zealand and its natural history, please nout the informative National museum of New Zealand, "Te Papa" (which you can visit virtually).
Two species of teal
Auckland Island teal
Location: Home is the subantarctic Auckland Island group, located about 500 km south of New Zealand.
Status: Nationally Vulnerable
Size: Length 18 ins (45 cm). Weight: Up to 1.2 lbs (5.5 kg).
- Related to the flighted brown teal, which lives on the mainland.
- They have large eggs, about 15% of the females body-weight.
- Predominantly carnivorous, feeding on small marine invertebrates, crabs and molluscs, and terrestrial arthropods and their larvae.
Campbell Island teal
Location: Campbell Island
Status: Nationally Vulnerable
Size: Length 19 ins (43 cm) Up to 0.9 lb (450 gms)
- Previously, the existence of Campbell Island Teal was in dispute until a tiny population was discovered on Dent Island, a 23 ha islet off Campbell Island, in 1973. .
- Campbell Island teal are endemic to Campbell Island which is 600 kms south of New Zealand and is only 45 square miles (113 sq kms).
- Survived extinction, with a tiny remnant population surviving on Dent Island after Norway rats wiped out the main population on 11,000 ha Campbell Island.
Five species of penguin
New Zealand has more species of penguins than any other country in the world.
Little Blue Penguin (Korora)
Location: Little penguins are widely distributed along the coastlines of New Zealand and on offshore islands
Status: At Risk–Declining
Size: About 10 ins (25 cm)
- They may waddle up to 1.5 km from the sea, and climb 300 m to find the perfect nest site.
- Little blue penguins are known as ‘’fairy penguins in Australia, where they are found on the southern coast.
- They often build smelly nests under buildings, and are also known to make lots of noise at night.
Location: The remote Bounty and Antipodes Islands
Size: Length 26 ins (65 cm). Weight 9 lbs (4 kgs)
- Two eggs are laid, with the second being about 80% larger than the first (which usually doesn’t survive).
- Erect-crested penguins only come to land to breed and moult.
- Nests are a shallow muddy scrape lined with stones or bones.
Fiordland Crested Penguin (Tawaki)
Location: New Zealand’s South Island and Stewart Island
Status: Threatened – Nationally Vulnerable
Size: Length 24 ins (60 cm). Weight 9 lbs (4 kgs)
- Often breed in the winter in the rainforests in hollows built fallen trees or roots in the rain forest or dense coastal shrub, or in sea caves and in crevices under rock boulders.
- Calls include loud braying or trumpeting, high pitched contact calls, and low-pitched hissing and growling.
- Both sexes share incubation duties for 5-10 days, after which first the female then the male leave the colony for a 10-14 day foraging trip.
Eastern Rockhopper Penguin
Location: Subantarctic islands of New Zealand.
Status: Nationally vulnerable
Size: Length 18 – 22 ins (45-55 cm). Weight 4.5 – 9 lbs (2 – 4 kgs)
- Can dive up to 330 feet (100 m) for many minutes at a time while hunting for food.
- Have red eyes, orange beak, pink webbed feet, with yellow and black spiky feathers on their head.
- Because of the rocky environment where they live, they cannot slide on their bellies like many penguins, so have to hop. Hence their name.
Snares Crested Penguin
Location: Snares Island (Tini Heke), about 200 km south of the South Island.
Status: Naturally Uncommon
Size: Length 24 ins (60 cm). Weight 6.7 lb (3 kgs)
- On the Snares Islands, the penguins walk up to half a mile (900 metres) inland to their nests in up to 150 separate colonies in the forest.
- Age of first breeding is 6 years, and they live to about 22 years old.
- When one of the parents returns to the nest after gathering food, the pair engages in a display of bowing and trumpeting, which further strengthens their bond.
Yellow-eyed Penguin (Hoiho)
Location: South-east South Island and on Banks Peninsula, islands off the South Island
Status: Threatened–Nationally Endangered
Size: Length 26 ins (65 cm). Weight 11 lbs (5 kg)
- A tall, heavy penguin with a distinctive pale yellow uncrested band of feathers passing across the nape and around the eyes.
- Chick rearing has two phases: the guard phase when the chick is constantly brooded, and the post-guard phase when chicks are left alone at the nest during the day.
- There are several locations in New Zealand’s South Island where you can view Yellow-eyed Penguins
The Māori name hoiho means ‘noise shouter,’ referring to their shrill call made at breeding sites.
Go here for full details of the Conservation status of New Zealand plants and animals.
What country has the most flightless birds?
New Zealand boasts the most flightless birds – with 16 out of the 60 species worldwide.
Flightless birds are found throughout the world, though the largest concentration of flightless species is in New Zealand.
We also had the least number of native land mammals. New Zealand has only one land mammal, a tiny species of bat.
Until the arrival of humans to New Zealand roughly 1,000 years ago, there were no large land predators.
The migrating Maori brought rats and dogs, but the European settlers brought the many predators that have decimated New Zealand’s bird life.
How many flightless birds of New Zealand are extinct?
A few hundred years ago, New Zealand had 32 flightless bird species with at least 15 flightless birds now extinct: 11 ratites (Moas), three rails and a wren.
There were nine species of extinct Moa in New Zealand.
These amazing flightless extinct birds did not even possess vestigial wings, unlike the other ratites such as kiwi and weka.
The largest Giant Moa was about 12 feet in height (3.6 meters) with long necks. The smallest was about the size of a turkey.
They lived a carefree life roaming the forests and grasslands until the arrival of the first human inhabitants of New Zealand in 1300 AD.
Before that, their only predator was the Haast’s Eagle, the world’s largest eagle.
The extinct Haast’s Eagle had a wingspan of up to 10 feet (3 meters) and weighed 28 lbs (13 kgs).
Why Moa and other birds became extinct
The ancestors of the Māori were the first people to arrive in New Zealand, migrating across the Pacific Ocean in large ocean-going canoes around 1200 to 1300 AD.
Having arrived here to find only birds to hunt on land, you can easily imagine why the moa species was a prime food source for Maori.
Sadly, the disappearance of the moa occurred within 100 years of human settlement due to over-hunting.
Last year, I visited an area of the South Island of New Zealand where large populations of a number of moa species were very common. There I saw wonderful cave drawings of moa. Thinking about the artists who made these drawings about 500 years ago made the very conscious of their extinction.
So with no other large mammals to hunt, Maori had to rely on birds such as wood pigeon (kererū) and seafood and shellfish (kai moana) as their primary source of protein.
European settlers started arriving in New Zealand in the late 1700s.
Many came to hunt the multitude of whales and seals in these oceanic islands. The British made New Zealand a colony in the 1830s.
The European settlers brought many of the new species of pests that have since decimated the bird populations.
They brought animals from their home countries, including goats, pigs, horses, cats, dogs, etc.
However, the arrival of the stoat (mustela), possums from Australia, and the Norwegian rat were the leading cause of the extinction of endemic bird species.
This included the huia, which had prized white-tipped tail feathers and orange wattles.
Wondering when is the best time to visit New Zealand? Check out my article on Summer in New Zealand.
What is the name of New Zealand’s most famous flightless bird?
This is not the fruit, which is also commonly grown in New Zealand. Both have brown furry skins.
Kiwi birds live on the forest floor, foraging the leaf litter and building their nests in burrows.
Kiwis, of which there are five species, vary in size, but they are about the size of a chicken or bantam hen.
New Zealanders are also commonly known as ‘Kiwis’.
Like many nicknames, the exact origin is unknown, so we could put it down to luck. The name was elevated by cartoons until a kiwi image appeared on the New Zealand Army uniform in the 1960s.
My father, a WWII veteran, talked about being called a Kiwi when fighting with the allied forces in Italy.
Today we call the Australians, ‘Ozzies”, and native New Zealanders, ‘Kiwis’.
It’s strange to be named after a brown nocturnal, small flightless bird. What do you think?