Flying away: New Zealand’s extinct birds

300px-Giant_Haasts_eagle_attacking_New_Zealand_moaIt’s not an insult to say that New Zealand is literally for the birds. 

Birds were the dominant species in New Zealand right up until the first Pacific Islander settlers arrived here a mere 800-900 years ago – a blink of the eye in evolutionary terms. We were the real-life Jurassic Park – an island ecosystem isolated from the rest of the world, busily doing its own thing filled with creatures strange and bold. 

While it’s been knocked about quite a lot by us disruptive humans in the centuries since, if you squint hard sometimes you can still imagine what NZ, this land of birds, once was like. 

I sit out on my deck on a calm evening and can hear the gorgeous hooting black-and-white tui, the massive kerurū pigeon with its distinctive whoosh-whoosh wingbeats, chittering flocks of colourful rosella parakeets originally from Australia, and more. 

New Zealand was a beautiful paradise floating off all by itself in the southern oceans for millions of years, but it didn’t take much for the bird-based ecosystem to be nearly destroyed after humans came along. 

I wish I could have seen some of New Zealand’s extinct giants in the wild – the massive moa, taller than a man, running across the Otago plains, or the Haast’s eagle, the largest eagle in history with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet (3 metres). These were the apex of New Zealand’s pre-mammal ecosystem, and would’ve been something to witness indeed. They were huge, probably terrifying birds, but they didn’t last long after the first people, ancestors of today’s Māori, arrived here. 

Huia_BullerOther species lasted longer. Another long-gone beauty is the huia, a gorgeous little thing that went extinct around 1907. The huia had one of the more striking differences between male and female birds in the world – the male had a standard-issue shortish beak, but the female had a dazzling, bizarre bill that was twice as long as the male’s, arcing downward like a rainbow. The huia were extremely sacred in the Māori culture, with feathers worn at the most sacred occasions. 

Then there’s the sad and wistful story of the Stephens Island wren, which by the time humans took notice of it was only found on one tiny island in the Cook Strait between North and South Island. The story is that the species was entirely wiped out by the local lighthouse keeper’s cat, which isn’t entirely the whole truth, but a good example of how easy it was to knock native NZ species off the map entirely. A few feral cats and an entire species is gone forever.

220px-XenicusInsularisKeulemansLittle battlers like the wren – which was apparently flightless – didn’t stand much of a chance when settlers came knocking with their cats and rats and the like. 

New Zealand still has many of the world’s unique birds – the kiwi, so strange and curious it’s like a living fossil, is our national icon and so famous it’s what most people around the world call us all. It’s nearly become extinct several times in the last few decades, saved only through the hard and innovative work of some very dedicated people.

But sometimes I wish I could still see the ones that aren’t here anymore and the wonders they must have been. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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