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The Birds of New Zealand Are Awesome

New Zealand has so many cool birds, and it's time we talked about it.

By: Lucas Boland + Save to a List

The biggest, baddest, scariest native land mammal to New Zealand, oftentimes found lurking in tree tops or raiding flora for insects to devour, is the peka-peka-tou-roa: the long-tailed bat. And that's why talking about the predators of New Zealand is, quite frankly, boring.

This lack of intimidating food-chain toppers also happens to be the reason why the birds of this exotic country are worth taking a look at.


I had just visited a wildlife sanctuary near Te Anau that has all sorts of cool birds, like the morepork (an owl whose call sounds like it's yelling out "more-pork"), and I got to thinking about the poster-birds of the country: the kiwi, the kakapo, penguins... and I noticed that so many of the birds in New Zealand are flightless. So I wondered, “What’s the deal with all the flightless birds? That's kind of odd." And it wasn't until my biology degree friend reminded me that New Zealand has literally no native, formidable land predators that it made sense. New Zealand has so many flightless birds because they never needed to evolve wings to escape things that eat them.


I found it pretty entertaining that New Zealand is such a perfectly pleasant country that even the birds live happy lives without fear for their survival. The place really is incredible.

I thought it appropriate to run through a couple of my favorites and least favorites, flightless or otherwise, just to give you a taste for our avian friends down south. Because many of them can't fly, a lot of the photos I took are of them simply creeping about the bush.

Favorite Bird

The Kea. The world's only alpine parrot. These birds that actually can fly are everywhere in the mountains of New Zealand. Some of the best spots to view them are in Arthur's Pass National Park or Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park. They are beautiful, green feathered, and quite noisy. I will admit, they look hilariously out of place soaring past the huge glaciers of the Southern Alps.

Least Favorite Bird/Greatest Enemy

Weka. These are kind of like seagulls when you're at the beach in California and they slowly creep closer and try to steal your bag of chips - they are an absolute nuisance. The first time I saw one, I almost thought that it was a kiwi (they might look similar to an outsider) - I was supremely disappointed to learn the truth. Watch out when you're camping, because they'll sneak around conducting clandestine raids. One time while backpacking the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, a weka climbed up on our picnic table and attacked my Jetboil, and to this day it doesn't twist into the locked position. But, over time, I came to appreciate wekas like any protagonist needs an antihero. Beware of a baby weka's cuteness. 

Most Lethal Hunter

Oystercatcher. They spend their days roaming the tidal flats, using their long, orange beaks to fish up oysters from beneath the sand. Also, fun fact: oystercatchers mate for life.

Most Inspiring Acrobatic Avian

Fantail. If birds had Nerf guns, fantails would dominate the battlefield. Their wide tails allow them to turn on a dime in mid-flight, and make them exceedingly difficult to photograph.

Birds I Didn't See

1. The Kiwi. These famous flightless birds became the symbol of New Zealand. These days they're nearly impossible to spot in the wild without going to Stewart Island with night vision goggles. Some species of kiwi now have critically endangered status because of predation from introduced critters, habitat loss, and human activity. So, it's imperative to obey all rules and signs when visiting areas with kiwi populations, as there is a big push to bring kiwis back to healthy levels.

2. The Moa. They all got eaten when humans arrived to New Zealand 700 or so years ago. RIP.

3. Penguins. Well, I did actually see one, but briefly. There was a penguin wandering in the middle of a forest in the pitch black. It was only my headlight that revealed its clumsy wander down the Abel Tasman track. When we came upon the little guy, it ceased tripping over tree roots and crashing through the leaves to make a brief moment of terrified eye contact with us before it disappeared into the night. Did I know this part of New Zealand was inhabited by penguins? I absolutely did not. Pleasant surprise? Yes indeed.

And that's my spiel about the birds of New Zealand. They're awesome, and I just thought you should know. 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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