The first settlers, arriving by canoe from Polynesia around 1250–1300 AD, found a land teeming with birds. They studied the birds, their habits and habitats closely, in order to hunt or trap them for food. Birds held a central place in Māori culture, and many species were thought to foretell the future, or signal changes in the weather.
First European observations
From 1769, naturalists came on voyages of exploration from Britain, France and America, recording their studies of birds. The birds they collected or described were later given scientific names by European taxonomists such as Johann Gmelin, who did not visit New Zealand in person.
Nineteenth-century explorers and surveyors described birdlife in the hinterland. The diaries of West Coast explorer Charlie Douglas contain fascinating descriptions of bird behaviour, and note the decline of birds as introduced predators spread. Douglas relied on birds for food as he travelled, and his accounts recommend ways to catch and cook different species.
Others saw an economic opportunity in hunting birds for overseas collectors – the rarest species fetched the highest prices. Naturalists Walter Buller and Andreas Reischek collected and exported large numbers of rare birds, believing them doomed to extinction anyway. Both contributed to the knowledge of New Zealand birds through papers in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, and Buller published two editions of A history of the birds of New Zealand.
Today, most native birds are protected by law.
Ornithologist Richard Henry, alarmed by declining bird numbers in the 1890s, moved hundreds of kākāpō and kiwi to inshore Fiordland islands – but he was thwarted by stoats, which could swim across the short gaps. However, the strategy of moving birds to predator-free islands has since saved several endangered species.
New Zealand museums
The first museums offered new professional positions that included ornithology (the study of birds). Museum directors Julius Haast, Frederick Hutton, James Hector and W. R. B. Oliver advanced the understanding of extinct species and the evolution of birds.
Key contributions to understanding New Zealand birds were made between the 1850s and 1950s by Thomas Potts, Herbert Guthrie-Smith, Edgar Stead and Pérrine Moncrieff. All had private means and leisure time to pursue their passion for birds, making detailed observations of the feeding and nesting habits of mainland and island populations. They studied migratory species and noted the impact of deforestation and predation. They helped change attitudes to native birds, highlighting the need to conserve habitats.
Teaching and broadcasting
In the 1930s nature study educator Lance Richdale was known by thousands of Otago’s city and rural children as Mr Rich, the Nature Study Man. Robert Falla’s regular radio broadcasts, in the 1940s, enthused thousands of young New Zealanders. And from the 1940s to the 1960s, classics teacher Richard Sibson held school field trips that inspired many students to make a lifelong study of birds.
In New Zealand, birding or birdwatching is not so much a matter of ticking off a list of species, but more a way to learn about different birds and their quirky behaviour. Interest often starts with noticing birds while tramping, sailing or doing other outdoor activities. Iconic birds such as the kea, bellbird, albatross, kiwi or godwit often generate the initial spark of interest. People may seek to expand their own knowledge, and later contribute to research or conservation projects. Joining a local Forest and Bird or Ornithological Society (Birds New Zealand) group is a good way to take part.
Birders contribute sightings of visiting waders to a migration study coordinated by the Ornithological Society (Birds New Zealand). The society’s bird atlas scheme, mapping the presence of species over all New Zealand, was completed in 2004 and involved over 1,000 observers. It has been replaced by the ongoing eBird mapping scheme, to which anyone can contribute. Thousands of people are also involved in planting, pest control, fencing and fundraising to improve local habitats for kiwi, kōkako and other endangered birds.
A growing industry caters for international visitors interested in learning about New Zealand birds – on land and at sea. Courses are offered for international student groups to study the birds and their environment.