The 80 million year long separation from the Godwana continent led to the evolution of unique animals. For example, 25% of birds and 90% of insects are endemic, which means they appear nowhere else. The absence of land mammals meant that birds could occuppy their niche, roaming on the forest floor for food, unafraid of predators. Some nest on the floor or even lost the ability to fly, with devastating effects once mammals like Polynesian rats, dogs, possums, stoats were introduced. The normal proceedings of evolution plus 800 years of human co-existence (0.0001% of this period) were enough to extinct half of all bird species, while over 70% of all land bird species are currently threatened. Also many species of fish, bats, frogs, insects, marine mammals and reptiles are endangered. New Zealanders work hard towards conservation of these animals, sadly most numbers show a further decline. Also you as a visitor can help by volunteering in a conservation project during your stay.
Conservation programmes in predator-free reserves and wildlife centres help to keep numbers up, best achieved on offshore islands. Meanwhile also some real „Mainland Islands“ have been established, areas well protected against new intruders.
- Haast‘s Eagle: The Haast Eagle was the largest bird of prey ever known, it was up to 15 kg heavy with a 3 metre wingspan. Being even a threat to humans - especially children - it was probably hunted by Maori. Because at the same time Moa were running out as a food source, they became extinct around 1400.
Moa: The Giant Moa was an amazing 250 kg and over 3,5 metres tall, the tallest bird ever! There were 9 more species all the way down to Turkey size. Early Maori settlers concentrated on hunting Moa, understandable as it was easy to catch and one drum stick fed many people, but within 100 years the bird was extinct.
Huia: A beautiful bird with an arched beak, its sacred feathers were worn by Maori chiefs only and during fight. It belonged to an ancient bird family that has no relatives anywhere, but has not been seen since 100 years ago.
- Giant Penguins: Extinct millions of years ago like at least 13 other New Zealand penguin species, these scary penguins were up to 1,7 m tall and weighed up to 100 kg, the tallest penguins ever.
- Kiwi: Truly unique birds, with their cute whiskers who help them find their way at night, long beaks with great smelling sense, beautiful feathers who were treasured by Maori, laying gigantic eggs compared to body size, living in burrows, with tiny wings who can’t fly and no tail. The only bird in the world with the nostrils at the tip of the beak, ideal for smelling underground worms and insects. Once grown up, it can defend itself with strong legs and claws against stoats and possums. They face their biggest threats before that though, epecially stray dogs and cars diminish adult numbers. Kiwi sanctuaries and programmes around the country try to turn around the negative population trend.
Kakapo: The largest and only flightless parrot in the world is also one of the rarest birds of New Zealand, less than 100 surviving only on southern offshore islands. They are nocturnal (kaka = parrot, po = night), vegetarians with a good sense of smell and live over 70 years. Males compete for females in an arena by performing against others with thousands of deep booming calls and lots of wing-spreading. Unused to predators other than Haast’s Eagle and even well sheltered from them by the canopy, their motivation to defend themselves is very low, they just freeze and try not to be seen.
Kea: The only mountain parrot in the world has grown extremely intelligent in finding food, thanks to its tough environment. They are cheeky and playful and quite the opposite of the clumsy Kakapo, sliding down roofs, making somersaults and de-constructing anything from shoes to cars, some tests claim them more intelligent than dolphins. Because Kea attacked and wounded sheep (to them a sort of replacement for the Moa), at least 150‘000 were killed until 1970. Now less than 5‘000 are left.
Kaka: A specialised forest parrot similar to the Kea and similarly playful, they are skilled in harvesting anything from grubs to nectar. They recover very well on offshore islands, in any forest whithout stoats there is a good chance of survival.
Kokako: One of the birds that contributed to the once magical New Zealand dawn chorus, sounding something like a jazz flute. It was once down to 350 pairs only and now slowly recovers thanks to conservation efforts. This beautiful and large bird doesn’t fly much but rather hops around the forest.
New Zealand Falcon: A small but acrobatic and fearless hunter, with 230km/h said to be the world’s fastest bird! His habit of sometimes nesting on the ground is partly responsible for declining numbers.
- Takahe: The biggest rail bird in the world was once thought to be extinct, now less than 200 survive in special reserves. While the related Pukeko arrived in New Zealand only a few hundred years ago, the Takahe has become totally flightless since its arrival. It actually looks like a Pukeko on steroids, with a much larger beak, body and sturdy legs.
- White Heron: Also called Great Egret and Kotuku, this beautiful bird was already extremely rare in old Maori times, their feathers adorned the heads of chiefs and early settler women’s hats. Now less than 150 birds survive in New Zealand (once down to 4 nests!), most in South Westland. But not being endemic, they are quite common elsewhere.
- Blue Duck: A duck without any close relatives, it is a very old species and only around 2‘500 survive along the rivers of New Zealand. They are not good flyers but fast on water, being a water expert even for rapids, competing for insect larvae with introduced trout, while stoats eat their ducklings.
- Penguins: There are more penguin species in New Zealand than in any other country, the following three of them breed on the mainland. The Little Blue Penguin is the world’s smallest penguin who returns back to shore at night. The Yellow-eyed Penguin is one of the world's rarest penguins, with less than 4’000 birds, it also happens to be the most antisocial of all, nesting very far apart from each other. The beautiful Fiordland Crested Penguin survives with 3’000 breeding pairs, strangely it lays two eggs, but only one of them will ever survive.
Tui: An iconic New Zealand bird and a real character, the nectar-eating Tui defend their Pohutukawa, Kowhai and Flax territories well and loud. Their beautiful voice ranges from magical bells to gaming machine noise, from alien high-pitched mutterings to throat clearing, some of their song is even outside our hearing frequency! They can learn to talk with human voice, mimic other birds, have a funny bundle of white feathers on their chest and seem constantly nervous even when they fly.
- Bellbird: Related to the Tui the Bellbird is also famous for its clear bell-like voice, one of the birds that constituted the legendary dawn chorus of old times. They learn their song and develop regional dialects.
Pukeko: A bird that enjoys farmland and wetland more than forest, it likes to search for food along the roads and is infamous for looting trash bags.
Fantail: These lovely little birds with their upright tail feathers are zooming around the bush in incredible turns, always on the hunt for insects and never resting, they constantly waggle about in curious observation. You’ll have to make up your own mind if they accompany hikers because of the disturbed insects they want to catch or because they are simply very friendly and trusting.
New Zealand Pigeon: Also called Wood Pigeon or Kereru, they are very important to disperse the seeds of the native bush, being the only ones big enough to eat certain tree fruit. They are so big and heavy that you can hear them fly above, nonetheless they are masters at acrobatic stalls and dives (be it whether they are drunk from fermented fruit or trying to impress their mates).
- Morepork: The last native owl in New Zealand is relatively common and can often be heard at night. Contrary to the New Zealand Pigeon, the flight of the Morepork is absolutely quiet, a perfect hunter of the night.
- Albatross: With half of all species present, New Zealand is like a center for Albatross, with Otago peninsula having the only mainland colony in the world. The world's largest seabird has also the widest wingspan of all birds, up to 3.70 metres. They spend most of their time at sea, mainly fishing for squid, but during a storm many can get caught on the shore, too weak to take off again.
- Weka: Another flightless endemic bird, these are good swimmers and distant walkers. They are very curious and like being fed by campers, in earlier times they were in turn used as a sort of bush chicken by settlers and Maori.
Oystercatcher: Not on the beach for relaxing, they are constantly busy looking for mussels, molluscs or crabs. Running down the beach when the waves retreat, running up again with the next wave. And so on.
Shag: Typically seen drying their wings after underwater plunging and chasing for their catch, due to their light weight and less oily feathers who accelerate their dive, they need to warm up afterwards. They can catch their breath for up to 3 minutes. There are eight endemic and four native species, among them the Great Cormorant.
New Zealand Kingfisher: They can be seen in all habitats, breeding in 20 cm long tunnels in steep banks, eating everything from insects to mice to diving for fish. Often they are seen on telephone lines in residential areas, waiting for some prey to show up.
Californian Quail: Introduced as a game bird, they are thriving well in New Zealand, wandering around in small flocks, mostly looking scared. A very funny sight with their topknot feathers hanging towards the front.
- Mynah: You’ll see them feed on dead insects along the roads, showing their skill at avoiding cars, they’re even clever enough to learn to talk. They go through life as couples but love to congregate in huge numbers for the night, for example in little bamboo forests. Their bad side shows when they evict smaller birds for their nest. Introduced from India to control insect pests, many New Zealanders would say they are now one of their own.
Weta: An ancient insect with 190 mio year old fossils, they look scary and are good fighters, but are not dangerous to humans and themselves in danger of extinction. The Giant Weta is officially the heaviest insect on earth, one was caught at 71 g, much heavier than a sparrow. The New Zealand Alpine Weta is the biggest insect that can freeze and thaw out again. Cave Weta can be 45cm long, mostly legs. Similar to grasshoppers but unique in many ways, flightless and nocturnal, they live in niches otherwise occupied by rats.
- Stick Insect: In New Zealand neither of the 16 species can fly, the longest females are 20 cm. They are easiest to spot on wooden steps and bridges, but extremely fragile to handle. Probably unable to spot themeselvey, they use pheromones to find mates.
- Praying Mantis: One native and a South African species compete for their habitat, the native with the disadvantage that it doesn’t survive the winter. Fascinating to watch and seemingly intelligent, they can eat 25 flies a day and are used to control pests in gardens (but also like their Monarch Butterflies for lunch).
New Zealand Giraffe Weevil: The longest weevil in the world, up to 15 cm, is pure fun to watch with its extremely long snout and feelers at the end. It feeds on rotten wood and the population is declining.
Fish: 1‘200 species of marine fishes populate New Zealand waters, from Great White Shark to Sunfish to Manta Ray etc. A warm current from Northern Australia even brings exotic fish larvae to the Poor Knights Islands.
- Hector’s and Maui‘s Dolphin: Both being endangered, the Maui’s Dolphin is a subspecies off the Northland coast, the most endangered marine mammal with less than 100 survivors. They are the smallest dolphins living in the open ocean, recognisable by their round dorsal fin. Half of all marine mammals appear in New Zealand waters, nine species of dolphin, 20 of whale and 4 of seal.
- Longfinned Eel: Swimming around rivers since New Zealand drifted away from Gondwana, they used to grow to amazing sizes: 1.75 m long, 40 kg heavy and 106 years old (historical records). Once ready for their long migration into the Pacific, as far as New Caledonia or Tonga, they release up to 20 mio eggs. As larvae they drift with the current back to the coast, able to climb up high waterfalls. There are another 40 species of freshwater fish in New Zealand.
Colossal Squid: Even bigger than the Giant Squid, the biggest specimen caught in 2007 is 8 m long and 495 kg, it can probably reach 14 m and 750 kg. They have the largest eyes of all animals, the one caught had eyes with a diameter of 27 cm. They can attract prey with bioluminescence, but fall prey themselves to Sperm Whales.
- Sperm Whale: The sperm whale is the largest predator in the world, being the largest toothed whale and animal at the same time. Among other prey they hunt colossal squid at depths of up to 3 kilometers and for up to 2 hours at a time, diving off the coast of New Zealand. They grow to 18 metres length and 50 tons. Sperm whales were unfortunately hunted intensively in New Zealand (the last one in 1964) and even today you can visit some of the sad ruins of over 100 whaling stations.
Tuatara: Being around for 200 mio years, it lost all its relatives 60 mio years ago, they are called living fossils. Hatchlings show a strange sort of third eye on top of the head, they have no external ears and males no penis, and they hunt at night. Up to 75 cm long, they can live over 100 years, but are only found on offshore islands. Almost half of New Zealand's reptiles are threatened or endangered.
- Glowworm: Actually the larvae of the fungus gnat, they emanate a bioluminescence light to catch their prey in up to 70 sticky strings hanging down cave ceilings over overhanging banks. The sight of thousands of lights in a cave is magic, but when disturbed they quickly hide in little crevices. The adult gnat has no mouth to eat and only one goal, to mate and lay eggs.
- Kauri Snail: A scary giant snail with a shell of up to 8 cm, it hunts earthworms at night, and given a chance doesn’t mind some cannibalism. The 1’400 native species of slugs and snails have evolved throughout the existence of New Zealand. This one still lives in the ancient Kauri forests of Northland and can get 20 years old.
- Hamilton’s and Maud Island Frog: New Zealand frogs have not changed much in the last 70 mio years. These two are nearly identic species, but only less than 300 animals are left of the Hamilton Frog. They don’t flick their tongue to catch prey, don’t croak and have hardly any webbing on the feet. After hatching they don’t swim around as tadpoles, but hide on their father’s back for a month.
- New Zealand Bat: This ancient Gondwanaland survivor has always been the only land mammal around. With two species present, the Lesser Short-tailed Bat is the only one left in its family. It feeds at night on the forest floor like a mouse, dispersing tree seeds and lives in hollow trees, for up to 30 years. The males compete for females with their singing performance.
Possum: After early settlement it was probably a good idea to start a fur industry by introducing the biggest species of possums from Australia. Without predators and so much fresh vegetation to eat they have multiplied to a population of 70 mio. Besides leaves and new shoots they eat fruit that other native animals normally eat, also all sorts of eggs and hatchlings and they fight for nesting burrows. With an average consumption of 300 g per night they destroy 21‘000 tons of vegetation per day. Being carriers of bovine tuberculosis they are also a threat for the farming industry.
Sheep: Yes there are sheep in New Zealand, actually they outnumber New Zealanders by over 10:1, but only consist of introduced species. When they go bush they end up like Shrek who became famous in 2004: he produced 27 kg of wool and was again shorn on an iceberg south of Dunedin in 2006.
Special places for animal watching in the North Island:
Special places for animal watching in the South Island:
Books about New Zealand animals (free worldwide delivery):
Other ebooks of interest
Maori language course - short introduction to the amazing and unique animals of New Zealand.
Travel in New Zealand - an introduction for travellers to Aotearoa, 'land of the long white cloud'.