Home > New Zealand ecology > Flightless birds   


Eagle skull

Extinct birds

58 losses since human arrival

Living fossils

Leiopelma frogs
Land snails


Gigantism in insects



Greater & Lesser
short-tailed bats,

Long-tailed bat

Fruit-eating birds

Kereru (pigeon)  & 12 seed dispersers

Rediscovered birds

The remarkable return of five extinct species


Four crested
Little blue

Critically endangered birds

Nine Red List, 26 nationally critical

birds list

273 oceanic,
coastal and
terrestrial birds


Auckland Is.
Campbell Is.
Brown teal
Blue duck

Native ducks

Blue duck
Grey duck
Paradise shelduck
Shoveler, Scaup

Parrots & Parakeets

5 parakeets
Birds of prey

Birds of prey

Falcon, Harrier
Haast's eagle
Laughing owl



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Flightless birds are a principal feature of New Zealand's 'edge ecology'. There are 16 extant flightless birds, more than any other region in the world, including 2 rails, 5 ratites, 2 teal, one parrot, and 6 penguin.  Another 16 flightless species - 3 rails, 3 wren, and 11 ratites are extinct.  In an island environment isolated from the rest of the world for 80 million years, and free of mammalian predators for 20 million years, these birds developed flightlessness and eccentric habits.  Each of them filled different ecological functions; moa and kakapo as forest browsers, takahe as grass eaters, and kiwi and wrens as ground insect eaters - roles of mammals in other ecosystems.

Takahe  Porphyrio mantelli

The takahe is the largest living member of the rail family, found throughout the Southern Oceanic islands.  Takahe were hunted until they were rarely found in the 19th century. None were seen after 1900 and it was declared extinct, but amazingly, 200 pairs were found in a remote region of Fiordland in 1948.  The North Island takahe is extinct, but about 220 of the South Island species continue their brink of extinction existence.
Photo Crown Copyright © Department of Conservation.  See more
Hear the sound of takahe MP3 627K 40 sec.


Kiwi  Apteryx spp

Apteryx is the only genus in Apterygidae, which is the only family in the Apterygiformes order, which is endemic to New Zealand. Four kiwi species and 3 subspecies of another species are some of the world's rarest and oddest birds.  They have many characteristics that are more typical of a mammal than a bird.  It is the only bird with nostrils at the end of its bill.  Kiwi have been in rapid decline since human introduction of mammals, and may only exist in pest-controlled sanctuaries in 75 years. Image John Gerard Keulemans Permission of Alexander Turnbull Library.  See more

Little spotted kiwi, John Gerrard Kuelemans

Penguin  Eudyptes, Megadyptes
& Eudyptula

Six of the 17 penguin species of the world breed in New Zealand, the most diverse population.  Four species are endemic.  A group of yellow-eyed penguin, the world's rarest, coming ashore on a surf beach, and walking through forested trails is indeed an unexpected sight.  Penguin once inhabited much of the New Zealand mainland coast, but only three species remain in a few isolated locations, since the loss of shaded forest nesting habitat.  Four species are on five subantarctic islands.  Photo T.Marshall Copyright © Wildfocus.  See more
Hear yellow-eyed penguin MP3 2417K 2:34 min.

Yellow-eyed penguin

Moa  Anomalopteryx, Dinornis,
Euryapteryx, Emeus, Megalapteryx
& Pachyornis
spp (Extinct)

Second only in weight to the extinct elephant bird of Madagascar, the largest moa was the tallest bird on earth, with the top of its' back 6 feet above the ground.  Moa were dominant herbivores in an environment dominated by birds. Its only predator was the extinct Haast's eagle, the largest eagle ever known with a wing span of ten feet. Eleven species of moa were hunted to extinction over a period of 100 years during the 13th and 14th centuries, immediately after the first human settlement of New Zealand.  This was the fastest known extermination in the world of a whole fauna of large animals.  Moa were in decline when human hunting started, with only 159,000 birds - a severe reduction from 3 to 12 million thousands of years before the arrival of humans. Image: Frederick William Frohawk 1861-1942 Permission of Alexander Turnbull Library.  See more


Kakapo  Strigops habroptilus

The kakapo is one of the world's most critically endangered birds, living dangerously close to extinction for more than half a century.  It is the world's heaviest parrot, and the only flightless and nocturnal parrot.  After years of holding on with just a few females in New Zealand's most extensive breeding/management program, the future looked better for kakapo when 22 chicks hatched in 2002, bringing the total to 84 birds. In 2009 there were 103 and in 2012 127. Photo Crown Copyright © Dept. of Conservation.  See more
Hear kakapo booming  MP3 2102K 2:14 min.


Auckland Island teal  Anas aucklandica
Campbell Island teal  Anas nesiotis

There are even flightless ducks in New Zealand. Auckland Island teal, and Campbell Island teal which is critically endangered and the world's rarest duck, are flightless and endemic to their respective subantarctic islands. When declared extinct, 20 Campbell Island teal were found on Dent Island in 1975. Captive bred birds are back on the island and are breeding. Photo Rod Morris Crown Copyright © Department of Conservation.  See more
Hear Auckland Island teal MP3 492K 31 sec.

Flightless teal

Wren  Xenicus & Acanthisitta spp

The tiny Stephens Island wren was the only flightless and the smallest songbird in the world.  In 1894 it became the third extinct New Zealand wren after only a few birds were found on the small island by the lighthouse keeper's cat.  The ground dwelling bush wren, and Stead's bush wren which were weak fliers have not been seen since the 1960-70s.  Only the related rifleman and the South Island rock wren which do fly remain.
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Stephen's Island wren

Weka  Gallirallus australis

The weka is another endemic flightless rail that was abundant until the 1980s, but has since been in rapid decline.  Surveys in 1991 and 1995 of the main population in the Gisborne region show only 1500 birds. It is New Zealand's odd bird out since it is a predator of the eggs of other birds.
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Chatham rail  Gallirallus modestus
Gallirallus dieffenbachii

About 26 specimens of the "modest" rail remain in museums, collected from the time of its discovery in 1871 to extinction in 1900. Gallirallus modestus and G. dieffenbachii co-existed on at least three islands in the Chatham group, descending from G. philippensis which had dispersed throughout the Pacific. The two diverged from their volant ancestor, becoming flightless but with G. dieffenbachii growing larger, and G. modestus smaller to about the size of a blackbird, with a long specialised feeding bill. Image Copyright © Peter Schouten.
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