Bird of the Week: The Fernbird

Lifestyle contrasts: pukeko and fernbirds

By Cushla McGaughey

Gregarious birds!

Pukeko can fly strongly enough to have introduced themselves to New Zealand from Australia hundreds of years ago.

Their cooperative social behaviour, predator awareness, varied diet and ability to adapt to different habitats combine to make the pukeko one of our most successful native birds.


Contrast this with the life and prospects of our unique fernbirds. They live a secret life under cover of wetland vegetation, hunting for insects and spiders and raising their chicks.

The quiet life of the fernbirds

Fernbirds pairs usually remain together all year round, near their breeding territory. Male and female look alike, but he has a greater range of sharp, metallic-sounding calls. They keep in contact with a duet, his “u” so closely answered by her “tick” as to sound like a single bird call.

Their fern-like tail feathers, which have unconnected barbs, help to balance the birds as they slip through the thick undergrowth. Strong legs and feet enable them to fossick among dense leaf litter, climb tall vegetation and easily perch astride pliant stems. But the sturdy little birds are reluctant to fly.

Their small weak wings allow them to flutter only a short distance before they flop down again. Consequently, they are at great risk from introduced predators and cannot escape if their habitat is destroyed by fire or development.

Fernbirds were thought to be extinct in this area. The exciting discovery of a small breeding population in the Waikanae Estuary Reserve was a great reward for all the protection and restoration efforts there.