New Zealand pipits or pīhoihoi (Anthus novaeseelandiae) are lively insect-eating birds that live in open country throughout New Zealand. Similar in appearance to introduced skylarks, they can be distinguished by their constant bobbing action as they run or stand, flicking their long tails. The name pīhoihoi refers to this rapidly repeated movement.
Pipits are a greyer brown than skylarks, and have prominent white eyebrows. They weigh 40 grams and are 19 centimetres long.
Mimicking a pipit's movements, Māori warriors sometimes used a tactic known as manukāwhaki (decoy bird). They would pretend to retreat, and lure the enemy into an ambush.
Pipits live near beaches, in rough grasslands, on verges of unsealed roads, on open river beds, and in high-country tussock grasslands. Some fly to lower country for winter, while others maintain their breeding territory year round.
They mainly eat invertebrates, especially beetles, wasps, flies, spiders, crickets, grubs and other larvae. Beaches are a source of sandhoppers, and seeds form a minor part of their diet.
The female pipit builds the nest, a bulky cup made of grass, tucked amongst tall clumps of grass, bracken or scrub. She lays about four eggs – cream, blotched with brown. Chicks are fed by both parents, who raise up to three clutches between August and February.
The habitat for pipits would have increased considerably as forest was cleared, allowing the population to grow. However, their numbers declined in the 20th century, as once-rough pasture became more intensively managed, leaving little cover for nests. Meanwhile, increased use of agricultural insecticides reduced their food supply. Pipits are vulnerable to rats and other predators, especially while nesting. Their numbers increased enormously on subantarctic Campbell Island following rat eradication.
Once thought to be the same species as Richard’s pipit in Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia, the New Zealand pipit is now considered a distinct endemic New Zealand species. There are four subspecies, one in each of the following regions:
- North, South and Stewart islands, and nearshore islands
- Chatham Islands
- Auckland and Campbell Islands
- Antipodes Islands.