An ode to the humble tui

I have tūī in my back garden. Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae to scientists. There are at least three, possibly more, which live in the area and drop in every so often to snack on harakeke (flax) nectar. They also squabble and sing. Loudly. And all of that that is a great luxury to have in the back yard. New Zealand’s indigenous flora and fauna is unique in the world, and it’s been through some tough times. We were very much the ‘lost world’ of Professor Challenger, a snapshot of how things were in the last age of the dinosaurs. Sort of.

I managed to get this picture of a plump, noisy tūī in the harakeke in my back yard.

I have to say ‘sort of’ because, while a lot of the trees and plants are the ones that flourished in Cretaceous era Gondwanaland, the dinosaurs are what was left after the extinction event some 65 million years ago. Birds. And yes, birds are dinosaurs – that’s their technical classification these days. Specifically, they are a form of coelurosaur. After the K-T extinction event blew a big chunk of animals and plants into extinction, birds remained and spread into many of the ecological niches. Continental drift meant that different regions were isolated from each other and developed differently: the idea that mammals arose world-wide isn’t quite true. Australia was home to marsupials. And New Zealand – ancient Zealandia, which rose and fell above the seas, became a place of birds.

New Zealand bush – temperate jungle that’s changed little since the dinosaur age (which, really, didn’t end here until around the fourteenth century CE).

New Zealand remained a place of birds until the thirteenth century, when humans arrived – Polynesians – whose impact on the ecology was like a tempest. The midden heaps that followed didn’t need archaeologists to find them; they were huge. Archaeological work since has identified ovens, preparation sites and so forth. So began the first wave of extinctions which included Haast’s Eagle – the heaviest eagle in the history of the world – all species of moa, the Stout Legged Wren, Scarlett’s Duck, New Zealand swan, New Zealand raven, Hodgen’s waterhen and others. A second wave followed when British settlers arrived during the nineteenth century and destroyed much of what remained of the indigenous bush in which many of the birds lived. The settlers introduced animals such as cats and opossums which ate the indigenous birds or their eggs; and more rare and unique species were destroyed. They included the huia, which is thought to have reached its end in the early twentieth century.

Latest figures suggest a total of 53 bird species have been destroyed since humans first touched New Zealand. Apart from the huia, recent extinctions include the Laughing Owl (1914), Lyall’s Wren (1894), New Zealand Little Bittern (1890s), New Zealand quail (1875), North Island piopio (1955), North Island snipe (1870), North Island takahē (1894), and South Island snipe (1960s) among others.

On the plus side, extensive work has been done to recover the remaining populations. These include the South Island takahē, which was thought to be extinct but rediscovered in 1948. And some indigenous birds are becoming more common even in urban areas. Including, as I discover, the tūī . But it’s still a luxury to see them around.

What rare or unusual birds do you see in your back garden?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

10 thoughts on “An ode to the humble tui

    1. Yes, NZ was the last large habitable land mass in the world to be reached by humans, who initially arrived from East Polynesia. The first significant settlement was on the Wairau Bar at the north end of the South Island, established around 1300 +/- 30 years (with the usual consensus being likely close to 1300). There was likely a prior discovery arrival, invisible to archaeology, but it may not have been long before.

      A few years ago I wrote an article on it for the New Zealand Listener – it’s online here:


  1. Thanks Matthew, we have visited NZ a couple of times and I really fell in love with the flora and fauna. We are very fortunate in having friends on both islands so got to see the variety. Also doubly fortunate that one of them is a volunteer on Tiritiri Matangi and we have visited there. Wish I had visited there when I was younger!

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    1. Thanks – yes, we have a fantastic array of unique life here! It’s a pity the value wasn’t realised until so much of it had gone, but I guess that’s the way things always go. There has been talk of ‘de-extincting’ the huia – there are preserved samples around – but there’s some doubt as to whether the DNA is still viable.


  2. I’ve spent all of about 4 hours in New Zealand – as a stopover on the way to the US – so I had no idea that NZ is so radically different to Australia. Apologies for that. Very surprised to learn that NZ never had any mammals, marsupial or otherwise.

    Does that mean that NZ separated from Gondwanaland /before/ the precursors of mammals evolved? Or did those precursors die out along with the big dinosaurs? This is fascinating.

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    1. There is an indigenous species of bat, but other than that – no mammals. It seems that Eocene-era Zealandia split away from the mainland before life had really recovered from the K-T event. What with that and various tectonic shifts and erosion – which put the land above and below sea level at various times – it seems that we were mostly repopulated only by whatever could fly here, though the tuatara (sphenodon punctatus) survived throughout, as did many insects including the weta, which occupies the same ecological niche as a rat. Once here, many of the birds lost their need for flight – no predators – and got rather large. All up it’s an astonishing demonstration of how evolution actually works in a practical sense. The problem now is preserving an environment where what’s left of this diverse life can flourish – the Department of Conservation have been focusing on offshore islands that can be isolated and restored to something approaching a pre-settlement state. It’s not easy.

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      1. I see. Kind of makes me think of the Galapagos but more stable. And very, very isolated.
        I hope it’s possible to sustain viable populations on those islands because those plants and birds are living history.

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