The tui Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae, originally known as the parson bird because of two tufts of white feathers on its' throat, belongs to the Meliphagidae family of honeyeaters, of the Passeriformes order of perching birds.
The only other New Zealand honeyeater and member of the Meliphagidae family, and the tui's closest relative and fellow songster, is the New Zealand bellbird Anthornis melanura. Tui and bellbird are endemic to New Zealand.
Together with kereru and fantail, tui are the most resilient, and most commonly found bird in native lowland forests throughout New Zealand.
Above: Adult (right) and juvenile tui Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae, John Gerrard Keulemans 1842-1912. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
According to Buller, tui reached their lowest number in about 1880. The population increased after legislation prohibiting hunting was passed.
The subspecies Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae novaeseelandiae, which is widespread on the mainland and offshore islands from Raoul Island in the Kermadec Islands in the tropical north, to the subantarctic Auckland Islands, is listed as 'not threatened' on the New Zealand Threat Classification System.
The other subspecies, the Chatham Island tui Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae chathamensis, which is only found in the Chatham Islands, is listed as 'nationally endangered'. It is larger in body size, and the size of its' throat plumes, than the mainland subspecies.
Tui are showing an increasing presence in urban areas. They are seen and always heard in many Auckland parks such as Auckland Domain, One Tree Hill, and Newmarket Park, and visits to residential gardens in suburbs such as New Lynn and Birkenhead are becoming common. A tui has been observed occupying and defending street trees against non-native birds, while they are flowering in a commercial area in Newmarket.
The second-most important seed disperser of native plants ......
About 70 percent of the woody plants in New Zealand forests have fruits suited for vertebrate dispersal and, of these, most are probably dispersed by birds. About 70 percent of New Zealand's forest bird species, including most small insectivores, eat fruits [Clout & Hay 1989].
Across 32 studied species of native fleshy-fruited plants, the majority (84 percent) of fruit dispersal was by four birds - kereru, tui, bellbirds and silvereyes - although another 11 native and 7 introduced bird species took small quantities of fruit [Kelly et al. 2006].
The tui is a fruit-eating and nectar feeding bird that provides an essential function in the ecological sustainability, and restoration, of lowland forests by pollinating flowers and dispersing seeds.
It is a diversified feeder, also eating insects, sometimes in flight, to supplement its' diet during winter when flowers are not flowering and fruit is not available.
Tui provide an essential function in the ecological sustainability and restoration of forests by dispersing seeds and pollinating flowers.
Nine large native forest trees providing fruit for tui include karaka, tawa, puriri, miro, titoki, pigeonwood, black maire, matai and kohekohe.
A whole range of smaller trees, shrubs and vines are also sources of fruit, including supplejack vine, mahoe, and various Coprosma and Pseudopanax species.
The tui's gape, which is the width of the outside of the bill at the base of the upper mandible, is an average of 9.7mm, and a maximum of 11mm. It swallows whole miro and titoki fruit which is 13mm in diameter, larger than the medium-sized gape.
The consumption of karaka fruit, which is one of the largest at 17.5mm in diameter, and tawa (15.5mm) and puriri (15.3mm) fruit is even more exceptional. The other four fruit eaten by tui - pigeonwood, black maire, matai and kohekohe are smaller, ranging from 9mm to 9.7mm in diameter, to fit the size of the gape.
Kokako Callaeas cinerea disperse the seeds of the same trees as tui with the exception of karaka. Kokako also disperse another three, taraire, mangeao, hinau and nikau, however, they are a less effective seed disperser because of their very limited range.
Tui are the second-most important seed disperser to New Zealand pigeon, which distributes the seeds of 15 large tree species, including the same fruits as tui.
Buller WL, A History of the birds of New Zealand, Sir Walter Lawry Buller, London 1888, The New Zealand Electronic Text Centre (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand Licence).
Clout MN, Hay JR, The importance of birds as browsers, pollinators and seed dispersers in New Zealand forests, New Zealand Journal of Ecology, Vol 12 (supplement) 1989.
Kelly D, Ladley JJ, Robertson AW, Anderson SH, Wotton DM, Wiser SK, Mutualisms with the wreckage of an avifauna: The status of bird pollination and fruit-dispersal in New Zealand, New Zealand Journal of Ecology, (2010) 34(1): pp 66-85.
An important pollinator of native plants .....
Native birds have been recorded visiting the flowers of 85 native species, representing 5 percent of the total seed-plant flora, and 30 percent of the tree flora [Kelly et al. 2009].
Birds that visit and pollinate the flowers of forest plants throughout New Zealand are the bellbird, tui, stitchbird, kaka, red-crowned parakeet, yellow-crowned parakeet, saddleback and silvereye.
In most of the mainland forests, the only birds that commonly visit flowers are bellbird, tui and silvereye, since stitchbird and saddleback are extinct on the mainland, and kaka and parakeets only rarely occur in large forest tracts.
Tui are one of the three principal pollinating birds in mainland forests.
The tui is mainly a nectar feeder, having a great time and playing an important role in the pollination of kowhai, pohutukawa, rata, kahikatea, and rewarewa forest trees, and many other native flowering plants.
About half of the plants concerned are clearly adapted to bird pollination [Lloyd, 1985], notably Fuchsia, Sophora and Phormium, which have large tube-like flowers and are commonly visited by nectar-feeding birds such as bellbird and tui [Clout & Hay 1989].
A favourite source of nectar for tui is flax Phormium cookianum and P. tenax. The tui's beak is shaped with the same curvature as the flax flower (shown above), making a perfect fit.
A coat of pollen accumulates over their face and forehead when tui get stuck into their food, from where it is transferred to other flowers.
Tui are aggressive defenders of their food sources, with no hesitation in attacking other birds. They dominate over bellbirds. Battles with groups of introduced blackbirds can be fierce, sometimes to the death on either side.
One of the finest songbirds of the New Zealand forest .....
Tui are the chatterboxes of New Zealand's bird fauna. They are constantly talking.
New Zealander's are more exposed to tui than any other native bird, and consequently have fallen in love with it's friendly, inquisitive, full of life, and even confrontational character.
Tui are one of the finest songbirds with a radically varied repertoire of musical notes, dispersed with all kinds of sounds described as sneezes, coughs, cackles, barks, clicks and gurglings, amongst bell-like notes.
The songs change from season to season, and differ in various districts. Seventy variations of song have been heard. The characteristic bell note is rarely heard from tui on Raoul Island.
They are also a very clever mimic, imitating the song of other birds such as bellbird, and just about every sound they hear. Tui can imitate a squealing pig, or a farmer whistling his dogs.
They are the first in the chorus at dawn and the last at dusk, but also sing throughout the day when most other birds are silent. A female will sometimes sing when she is nesting, while her mate sings lovingly in an adjacent tree.
Wherever you are in the most remote part of the bush, tui will find you, stop to visit for awhile, be curious and have a chat. They could be aggressive if their nest is nearby.
If you stop on a track, expect one or two tui to drop in and start singing or talking. In a few minutes they may be joined by a couple more, and sometimes you may have half a dozen flitting around the branches above, singing the whole time. They may also show off their excellent flying skills, zipping in between the forest trees at great speed like a ski racer on a slalom course.