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New Zealand Birds

Perhaps more than any country in the world, New Zealand was a land of birds.   With no snakes, no large reptiles and no land mammals apart from two small bats, birds filled all of the ecological niches occupied elsewhere by other animals.   For this reason, New Zealand was home of the largest bird which ever lived, the moa, one species of which stood 11 feet tall and weighed up to 450 pounds, as well as the largest eagle to ever live, Haast's eagle.   The moa occupied the same niche as grazing animals like deer and antelopes, and Haast's eagle was the apex predator, the equivalent of the big cats of Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Because of the lack of predators, about a third of New Zealand birds were flightless.  Naturally enough, all eleven species of moa were flightless, but so were many smaller forest birds like kiwis, wekas, takahes and dozens of others.   The long isolation of New Zealand birds from other land masses resulted in many unique forms arising, like the kiwi, the only bird with nostrils at the end of its beak, and the world's largest egg compared to the size of the bird; the wrybill, the only bird whose beak bends sideways; the kea, the world's only alpine parrot, as happy in the snow and ice as in the forest; and the flightless kakapo, which looks like an owl but is actually the world's largest parrot, and has an unearthly deeply resonant booming song which can carry for five kilometers.

Sadly, humans not only destroyed much of the native habitat, they also introduced mammalian predators into this paradise.   The Polynesian voyagers called maori introduced Polynesian rats which preyed on the eggs and chicks of ground nesting birds, and the maori themselves exterminated the moa.   Europeans caused even more devastation, bringing even larger rats and other rodents, grazing animals like deer which completely stripped the forest undergrowth, as well as predators such as cats, stoats and ferrets.   Roughly half of the bird species became extinct, but thankfully there are still a number of common birds which New Zealanders all know and think of as part of their cultural inheritance.

Totally surrounded by oceans, many of New Zealand's native birds are maritime, and the rivers, lakes and swamps provide plenty of habitat for other water birds.  New Zealand is one of the few places in the world where road signs warn of penguins crossing the road, and where you can easily visit an albatross colony near a major city, Dunedin.   It's also possible to visit an Australasian gannet colony near the largest city, Auckland, and get a closeup view of the gannets' behaviour within the colony.   An even more spectacular location near Auckland is the island of Tiritiri Matangi, which is an open sanctuary and home to many of New Zealand's rarest birds, such as takahe, kokako, saddlebacks and kiwis.   The island itself is very scenic, with a beautiful coastline and a lighthouse, and you can walk around the many paths and see the birds, most of which are not scared of people.

www.richard-seaman.com / Birds / New Zealand