Eagle skull

Extinct birds

58 losses since human arrival
Birds of prey

Birds of prey

Falcon, Harrier
Laughing owl
Haast's eagle



Fruit-eating birds

Kereru (pigeon),  & 12 seed dispersers



Takahe  Kiwi
Kakapo  Penguin
Moa  Wren
Blue duck

Native ducks

Blue duck
Grey duck
Paradise shelduck
Shoveler, Scaup


Auckland Is.
Campbell Is.
Brown teal


Four crested
Little blue

Rediscovered birds

The remarkable return of five extinct species


birds list

273 oceanic,
coastal and
terrestrial birds

Parrots & Parakeets

5 parakeets

Critically endangered birds

Nine Red List, 26 nationally critical




The extinct laughing owl Sceloglaux albifacies, also known as whekau to Maori, belonged to the Strigidae family of the Strigiformes order.

The genus Sceloglaux was endemic to New Zealand, and S. albifacies was the only species in it.

Two subspecies are currently recognised [Oliver 1955; Turbott 1990].  The South Island laughing owl Sceloglaux albifacies albifacies was described by G.R. Gray from a specimen collected at Waikouaiti, Otago.

The second subspecies, S. a. rufifacies, was described by Buller in 1904, on the basis of a single female from the Wairarapa in the southern North Island, sent to the Colonial Museum in 1868-69 [Buller 1905].

The specimen had been in the Colonial Museum collections for 35 years before Buller decided to name it as a distinct species Sceloglaux rufifacies, differentiated by slightly smaller size, and more reddish brown colouration.

The basis for distinction of this form is weak, as there is considerable colour variation in existing specimens of laughing owls from the South Island, with many quite pale ones and others that are much more rufous [Worthy 1997], a common variation in owls.

As Buller's description is insufficient to substantiate this form, Worthy agrees with Fuller's (1987) conclusion that S. rufifacies should be considered a synonym of S. albifacies.

The S. a. rufifacies specimen is lost, as is the only other North Island specimen ever collected, and the rest of the collection it was in [Buller 1905].  So modern research cannot be done, and a second species will never really be known.

The laughing owl was one of two native owls and nocturnal birds of prey. The other is the extant morepork.

Whekau were found until the mid-1800s, when it went into decline.  It was considered extinct in 1914 after the last specimen was found dead at Blue Cliffs, South Canterbury.

There have been various claims of sightings, the most recent in the 1940s near Opotiki, but none have been verified.

Whekau had similar red-brown colouring to the morepork which is New Zealand's only remaining native owl, but whekau had a white face.

Laughing owl, or whekau Sceloglaux albifacies.
Image Copyright © 2001 Peter Schouten.

A unique feature of the laughing owl was the coating of feathers on its' long, sturdy legs.  The name "laughing owl" came from its call, made up of a series of loud, repetitious dismal shrieks.

It weighed about 600 grammes and was 36 to 45 cm in length, about twice the size of morepork, and with males smaller than females.

Fossils show that it was found throughout New Zealand, on all three islands.  In the late 19th century, only the two skins were found in the North Island, and there were two sightings near Gisborne and Porirua.

In the eastern South Island laughing owl inhabited open country in Canterbury and Otago, which would have been forested prior to Maori arrival 700-800 years ago, when closed forests covered 85% of New Zealand.

By mid-19th century, grass and shrubs had replaced over 40% of South Island forests, after several high-severity fires within two centuries of Maori settlement.

Laughing owl also occupied Stewart Island, Fiordland, and Nelson region forests, being widely adaptable to locally available prey.  Fossil remains have been found in the Chatham Islands.

Owls nested, and roosted during the day on rock ledges, and in cliff crevices, caves, and tree holes.  Nests were simply made of dried grass laid on the ground.  Only two white eggs, 47x40mm, were laid in September or October, hatching 25 days later.


A rare image of the extinct whekau or laughing owl Sceloglaux albifacies photographed in the Wellington Region sometime between 1889 and 1910.  Photo, Wright, Henry Charles Clarke, 1844-1936. Ref: 1/1-020529 G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22724636.

One of four native bird predators
of native fauna .....

Before human settlement in the 12th century, the laughing owl was a generalist nocturnal hunter, preying upon an assortment of indigenous fauna, including various small to medium-sized birds, gecko, skinks, bats, weta and other insects, and even earthworms.

Most of their hunting was from the forest floor, with the ground feeding poor fliers and flightless birds most vulnerable.

Fossils in caves in northwest Nelson, provide knowledge of their diet.  Avian predators such as owls and falcons cough up partially digested remains of bones and feathers as pellets, and these are frequently deposited at roosts or nests.

Laughing owls preyed on a wide variety of species [Worthy & Holdaway1996), and so their deposits accumulating their prey remains differ greatly from the pitfall trapped faunas more commonly found in caves [Worthy 2001].

The extensive Predator Cave deposit indicates that the laughing owl preferred birds the size of parakeets and bellbirds - 100 to 250g [Holdaway & Worthy 1996].  At Hermit's Cave the commonest prey was fairy prion Pachyptila turtur [Worthy & Holdaway 1994].

At the Gouland Downs owl site, larger animals were restricted to a single moa chick, and kaka and kakapo, though most of the individuals of these were also juvenile and so probably more easily killed [Worthy 2001].

Pellets at Gouland Downs showed a prey species diversity of 28 species of bird, a tuatara, 3 frogs, at least 4 geckos, 1 skink, 2 bats, and 2 fish.  The fauna includes the first inland fossil record of New Zealand dotterel Charadrius obscurus [Worthy 2001].

It is a complex and twisted fate that the laughing owl became extinct, after first adapting to the loss of native prey with predation of the Pacific rat (kiore), which was introduced by Maori settlers in the 13th century, and which itself became extinct.

Following the introduction and rapid expansion of shiprats and mice with European settlement in the early to mid-19th century, when the laughing owl was rare in the North Island but still relatively common in the South Island, it may have been able to make up for some of its lost Pacific rat and native prey.  However, this apparently was not enough to prevent its decline and ultimate extinction in 1914.

Whekau were formidable hunters, with their 40 cm tall body, long, stout legs, and large talons, so large rats and rabbits were easy prey.  Unfortunately though, they could not kill the introduced stoats and feral cats that were eating their eggs, and killing their chicks and native prey.

Could laughing owl populations have been greatly increased by a breeding program, to control the rabbit plague of the late 19th century, instead of the disastrous introduction of stoats and ferrets?  But then, what would have happened if the rabbits were brought under control by the owls?

Would another ecological imbalance have occurred, or could owl populations been sustained, by the owl adapting back to a greater kill of already reduced native fauna prey, and a rapidly growing shiprat population?  Interference with nature is a very tricky business.

The animal world lost a great mysterious bird of prey, with a contrary gentle temperament. The laughing owl was so unafraid to be handled by humans, it could have been a most suitable pet, maybe a substitute to the cat as a rat catcher.


Bartle J.A., Tennyson, A.J.D., 2009. History of Walter Buller’s collections of New Zealand birds, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Tuhinga 20: 81–136.

Buller, W.L., 1905. Supplement to "A history of the birds of New Zealand". London. Published by the author.

Buller, W.L., 1904. On a new species of owl from New Zealand. Ibis 8: 639.

Buller W.L., 1893. Further notes on the birds of New Zealand. Trans. Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 25: 63-88.

Worthy T.H., 2001. A fossil vertebrate fauna accumulated by laughing owls (Sceloglaux albfacies) on the Gouland Downs, northwest Nelson, South Island. Notornis 48(4): 225-233.

Worthy T.H.,1997. A survey of historical laughing owl (Sceloglaux albifacies) specimens in museum collections, Notornis 44. 241-252 (1997), Ornithological Society of New Zealand.

Conflict of collection & sale of specimens on the verge of extinction

Walter Buller (1838–1906) was a well known 19th century ornithologist, best known as the author of A history of the birds of New Zealand (1872-73).

His work is believed to have enhanced the knowledge of New Zealand birds and conservation issues.

Buller's observations on the effects of introduced mammals and of habitat destruction, and his promotion of island reserves, along with early support for the legal protection of birds, raised the profile of both ornithology and conservation in New Zealand. [Bartle & Tennyson 2009]

However, Buller is criticised as a collector and dealer of hundreds of bird specimens, which was in conflict with his support for bird protection and reserves. His sale of two live laughing owls he held in captivity, shows his support of conservation to be insincere.

Buller discussed the laughing owl before the Wellington Philosophical Society on 18 January 1893. [Buller 1893]

In his talk he stated "This owl is now on the verge of extinction", and that in the last 3 years he had only managed to procure a single live pair.

Of the pair, the bird Buller assumed to be the male (photo above) when taken from its cage to be photographed by Henry Wright, "manifested so persistent a desire to get away from the light, and to hide itself in the shade of the ferns among which I had placed it, that it was very difficult to obtain a momentary shot in focus, although in the end the result was a highly satisfactory one." [Worthy 1997]

In this same address Buller stated that they had been sent alive to Lord Rothschild where they "will be kept in an aviary specially prepared for them". [Buller 1893]

Buller's commentary shows that the pair sent alive to Rothschild were collected by W.W. Smith at Albury in South Canterbury, some time between 1890 and 1893, and so probably were not accessioned in any collection before late 1892 or 1893. [Worthy 1997]

There was considerable concern in the early 1890s, for the decline and extinction of native birds, in particular indiscriminate destruction of the huia.

In February 1892, provisions of the Wild Birds Protection Act were extended to include huia, following a letter from the Earl of Onslow, Governor-General from 1889 to 1891, to Prime Minister John Ballance.

The Earl of Onslow also promoted the establishment of bird sanctuaries.  New Zealand's first sanctuary, Resolution Island in Fiordland, was established by gazette notice on 6 August 1891.

Three more island sanctuaries followed, Little Barrier Island on 26 September 1895, Kapiti Island on 31 May 1900, and Motu Ngaro Island in the Marlborough Sounds on 24 October 1901.

When commenting on sanctuary protection [Trans, N.Z. Inst, Vol. XXV p55 1893], Buller felt huia, along with other New Zealand birds, would be adaptable enough to thrive well anywhere.

During this period of extinction concern, and establishment of sanctuaries, Buller shipped a live male and female laughing owl to Lord Rothschild's private museum in England. Why were these birds not sent to a sanctuary?

Buller was aware of the potential to captive breed laughing owl. In 1882, W.W. Smith, who provided Buller with specimens, live owls and eggs, also gave him a written account of his experience with breeding laughing owl in captivity.

Captive owls were kept in New Zealand and Britain.  It is incomprehensible that there was no attempt to breed laughing owl when it was known to be on the verge of extinction.

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