Few New Zealanders are aware how many bird species have been lost since people first reached New Zealand less than 800 years ago. The number of named extinct species continues to increase, largely due to careful examination of bones from Chatham Island dunes and caves, but is currently 53 species – an appalling indictment of the impacts of humans on New Zealand’s biota. Few New Zealanders know many species we have lost, and even fewer are able to name more than a handful of species. How many can you name?
About 15 species have become extinct since 1850 and so can be seen and illustrated by skins preserved in museums. Three species (laughing owl, bush wren and South Island snipe) were even photographed in life before they became extinct. The remaining species are mainly known from bones found in caves, dunelands, swamps and archaeological sites. The best known of these are the enormous moa (nine species, from three different families) and the giant Haast’s eagle, but that barely scratches the surface of the diversity of species that we have lost.
Te Papa has initiated a project to create and publish images of all these species on Collections Online and New Zealand Birds Online – or at least those species for which we hold suitable specimens. This series of blogs showcases some of the spectacular images produced, and provides a taste of the diversity of species lost since humans set foot on these islands. Hunting was the main cause of extinction for larger species, while predation by introduced predators was the main reason we have lost so many smaller species.
One of my favourite images is of the impossibly fragile skull of an owlet-nightjar, found on a ledge in a cave near Nelson. This kingfisher-sized nightbird probably preyed on insects on the forest floor.
Perhaps the most mysterious of our extinct birds, the two species of adzebill (Aptornis) left no near-relatives to gives us a clue to their behaviour, appearance and ecology. They were large birds, equal in size to the smaller moa species, and are likely to have been predators and scavengers.
The three remaining species illustrated in this blog were all closely related to living species, though not all of the living relatives are familiar species. We have lost three species of snipe in the last 500 years, including the South Island snipe in 1964 (when ship rats invaded Big South Cape Island, south-west of Stewart Island) and the North Island snipe soon after 1870. The three living species of New Zealand snipes are confined to remote islands that do not have introduced predators, including on the Chatham Islands, Snares Islands, and other subantarctic islands. Forbes’ snipe is known only from bones from the Chatham Islands. It was larger and had a much longer bill than the Chatham Island snipe that it lived alongside, and which still survives on a few small islands in the group.
Eyles’ harrier was much larger than the familiar swamp harrier (kahu, Australasian harrier) that we often see flying over farmland or feeding on roadkill. The swamp harrier is a recent arrival in New Zealand, probably becoming established after the Eyles’ harrier became extinct, leaving the harrier foraging niche vacant.
Described and named in 2014, the Chatham Island kaka was similar in size to a mainland kaka, but had a longer bill and more robust legs and a broader pelvis, suggesting that it spent more time on the ground.
Subsequent extinct bird blogs
For more information, check out these bird groups on New Zealand Birds Online:
or visit the Blood Earth Fire | Whāngai Whenua Ahi Kā exhibition at Te Papa
Recently extinct New Zealand birds other than songbirds, waterfowl, rails and moa: New Zealand quail, Waitaha penguin, Scarlett’s shearwater, New Zealand little bittern, Eyles’ harrier, Haast’s eagle, North Island adzebill, South Island adzebill, North Island snipe, South Island snipe, Forbes’ snipe, Chatham Island kaka, laughing owl, New Zealand owlet-nightjar. At least two further species (a shelduck and a gadfly petrel from the Chatham Islands) have yet to be described and named.