The Complete Guide to New Zealand's Birds and Wildlife

green and purple bird flying with outstretched wings

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Despite its proximity to Australia, New Zealand's native birds and wildlife are vastly different from its neighbor's. As well as not having kangaroos, koalas, or cockatoos, there are no snakes in New Zealand, and only one kind of native mammal: a small, ground-dwelling bat.

What New Zealand lacks in mammalian wildlife it makes up for in birds, and bird-loving travelers especially will enjoy New Zealand. Here are some important things to know about New Zealand's native birds and animals.

Why Are New Zealand's Birds and Animals Unique?

The islands that comprise present-day New Zealand have been isolated from other land masses for a very, very long time. Despite Australia being New Zealand's closest neighbor, scientists believe that the two countries haven't been connected by land for around 80 million years.

All this means that New Zealand's flora and fauna developed in isolation, differing from those of other places. The country is now home to about 85 endemic birds; according to the New Zealand Department of Conservation, only remote islands such as Hawaii have similarly high numbers of endemic land bird species.

Until humans settled New Zealand (Pacific island voyagers from the 14th century, and Europeans from the 17th century), the country's native creatures encountered few predators and no threatening mammals. It was reported that when Captain James Cook was first traveling around the top of what is now the South Island in the late 18th century, the birdsong in the native forest was so loud, he had to sail his ship far from land in order to hold a conversation on board. However, humans brought a number of destructive mammals with them: stoats, possums, dogs, cats, and rats. These have had a devastating impact on New Zealand's native wildlife, and the country now has one of the highest rates of threatened species of anywhere in the world. The volume of birds that Captain Cook heard centuries ago cannot be heard today.

green bird with hooked beak sitting on a fence with mist and forest in background
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Popular New Zealand Birds

With around 85 endemic bird species in New Zealand, bird watchers are in luck. Here are just a few of the gorgeous birds that can be seen.

  • Kiwi: This is perhaps New Zealand's most famous bird species, but they're actually very difficult to see in the wild. They're nocturnal, endangered, and rather shy. Most travelers have better luck spotting them at dedicated conservation centers. If you're really keen to see them in the wild, Rakiura Stewart Island is a good option.
  • Penguins: In New Zealand territory, 13 different species of penguin have been recorded, but only three are usually found on the mainland: Yellow-eyed penguins, Little Blue penguins, and Fiordland Crested penguins. As penguins prefer colder waters, most New Zealand penguins can be seen in the South Island.
  • Albatross: Within the city limits of southern Dunedin, the Otago Peninsula is a windswept finger of land where sea lions, penguins, and albatross can be seen. In fact, it's the only mainland breeding colony of Northern Royal Albatross anywhere in the world. The amazing birds can have a full wingspan of 10 feet.
  • Kakapo: These yellow-green birds, sometimes called owl-parrots, are extremely endangered; barely more than 200 birds remain today. Like many other native New Zealand birds, they're ground-dwelling, flightless, and nocturnal. They can live up to 95 years. It's almost impossible to see them because they only live on a handful of isolated predator-free islands, but the Auckland Zoo does a lot of Kakapo conservation work and sometimes hand-rears chicks.
  • Kea: These green-brown parrots live in alpine areas of the South Island and are notorious for their inquisitiveness as well as occasional aggression. They're highly intelligent, and are known to turn water taps on and off and to pick fixtures off unattended cars! Several thousand exist, but they are endangered.
  • Tui: Related to honeyeaters, the lovely Tui bird is known for its melodic song. They're found throughout the country, and although you're more likely to hear a Tui before you see them, they can be identified by their dark blue-green feathers and the white puff at their throat.
  • Kereru: Otherwise known as wood pigeons, Kereru are a far cry from the scrawny, dirty pigeons you'll often see in cities! Larger than common pigeons, their feathers an iridescent green-pink and white. They're found throughout New Zealand, in gardens as well as forested areas, and aren't endangered.
  • Pukeko and Takahe: Although these two birds look quite similar, the Pukeko is ubiquitous and can easily be seen throughout New Zealand, whereas the Takahe is threatened, and only found in the South Island. Pukeko are a type of Australasian swamphen, and tend to hang out around waterways. Both birds are dark blue and black, with red beaks. Pukekos have longer legs, while Takahe have more shimmery green feathers.
  • Weka: Sometimes mistaken for Kiwis by newly arrived tourists, Weka are much more common and not at all shy, so you're likely to see them in many forested places. With much shorter beaks than Kiwis, they are also flightless, about the size of a chicken, and have brown feathers.
  • Morepork: These dark brown owls are so named because of their distinctive cries, which sound like "more-pork." They're quite common throughout New Zealand, but like other owls are mostly active at night. Moreporks are considered to represent a protection of a warning by Maori people. Some believe that their regular presence around a home foreshadows death.
  • Fantails: New Zealand Fantails (Piwakawaka) are beloved birds because they seem to have no fear. Whether you spot them in a remote forest or a suburban garden, they will flit very close to your body and even follow you around.
Pair of Hector's dolphins swimming in the sea
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Marine Animals

Many species of dolphins can be found in the waters around New Zealand, including the critically endangered Hector's dolphins and its subspecies, the Maui dolphin. Other dolphin species found here include common, bottlenose, and dusky dolphins, as well as Orcas and pilot whales (which many people don't realize are actually dolphin species).

While you can go on dedicated dolphin and whale-watching cruises (particularly in the Bay of Islands and the Marlborough Sounds), it's not uncommon to see dolphins from New Zealand's beaches, if you keep your eyes open.

For a better chance at spotting whales, head to the small town of Kaikoura, in northern Canterbury in the upper South Island. It's famous for its whale watching opportunities, as sperm whales can be seen practically year-round. The town is located between the snow-capped Kaikoura Range and the Pacific Ocean. The deep offshore trench and the meeting of warm and cold ocean currents draw marine life throughout the year.

Tuatara , primitive endemic reptile; Stephens Island, New Zealand Only member of the order RHYNCHOCEPHALIA, very similar to species known from 200 million years ago
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Although practically impossible to see in the wild because these days they only live on offshore islands, all visitors to New Zealand should know about the incredible Tuataras. They're nicknamed "living fossils" because they belong to a species that existed at the same time as dinosaurs. They're New Zealand's largest reptile, and can be as long as 1.5 feet and as heavy as 3.3 pounds. They're very slow growing, and can live up to 100 years.

Other reptiles native to New Zealand include small frogs, geckos, and skinks.

Top Wildlife Reserves

Many birds and animals are easy to spot in and around New Zealand's national parks, at the beaches, or just on a casual nature walk. But, to learn more about the country's nature, support conservation work, and see birds that are more difficult to spot in non-protected areas, head to a wildlife reserve. These run the gamut from more zoo-like spaces where the birds are easy to see, to very natural places that have been designed to replicate or rejuvenate virgin forest, to Department of Conservation-administered reserves.

Standout examples of wildlife reserves include ZEALANDIA in Wellington, Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari near Hamilton, and the Brook Waimarama Sanctuary in Nelson.