New Zealand birds
Explore New Zealand birds and manu Māori. We have resources about birds and bird identification.
New Zealand birds
New Zealand bird resources
Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai. Information about native birds, threatened birds, bird songs, and breeding programmes.
Birds New Zealand / Te Kāhui Mātai Manu o Aotearoa
The website of the Ornithological Society for New Zealand. Information about joining the society, projects, and birding resources.
New Zealand Birds Online
A digital encyclopedia of New Zealand birds.
Ngā manu – birds
Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Story by Kelly Keane-Tuala.
Bird of the Year Te Manu Rongonui o te Tau
Forest and Bird's annual competition.
Te Tatauranga o ngā Manu Māra o Aotearoa – The New Zealand Garden Bird Survey
Annual survey, next on 24 June – 2 July 2023
New Zealand birds
Bird of the Year 2023
Haast's eagle was the largest eagle ever to have lived. If it had been any larger, it would not have been able to fly. It was also unusual because it was the top predator in a unique eco-system or food chain - one which was made up of only birds.
Bones of the eagle have been found in more than 50 places, mostly in the east and south of the South Island. Some are estimated to be only 500 years old, showing that eagles and humans were alive together. Other bones are up to 30,000 years old.
Julius von Haast, first director of the Canterbury Museum, was the first to describe bones found in the Glenmark Swamp in 1871. The most complete eagle skeleton was recovered from a cave on Mount Owen in northwest Nelson in 1990. Because eagle bones were found with moa bones in the Glenmark Swamp, it is believed that the eagle may have preyed on moas which were stuck in the swamp.
Environment and behaviour
Compared to other birds of prey, it had short but powerful wings for the size of its body, with a wingspan of up to 3 metres. This probably meant that it "flapped" rather than "soared". This also fits with the theory that Haast's eagle was a forest bird, used to flying quickly through thick vegetation. The Canterbury Plains were once a combination of forest, scrublands and grasslands, with drier forested areas than on the West Coast.
Females (the larger of the eagle pair) probably weighed about 13 kilograms, and males about 10 kilograms. It also had extremely strong legs, with enormous talons of up to 60 mm long, and a vicious beak it used to tear flesh from its prey. The shape of this beak suggests that, like a vulture, Haast's eagle would feed deep inside the carcass of its prey.
Haast's eagle probably hunted by watching for prey from a high perch and then swooped down onto its victim. It would use its powerful claws to grab the moa's hindquarters and then kill it by crushing the bone and puncturing the internal organs. A number of moa fossils show extensive damage from eagle claws. It is estimated that the combined strength of the legs, feet and claws would have meant that Haast's eagle would been able to kill a moa weighing 200 kilograms.
Other sources of food probably included larger birds, such as duck, rail, weka and pigeon. Moa would have been killed only occasionally, as too much predation would have wiped them out earlier, and it is known that moa and eagle co-existed for at least 120,000 years.
The causes of the eagle's extinction are those of other extinct species - loss of prey and habitat destruction. The coming of the Māori to New Zealand was probably a decisive factor. Once the larger birds, including the moa, were killed off, Haast's eagle would have been unable to find enough large prey to keep it alive. It would have been competing with people for the same food.
By the mid 14th century most of the lowland habitat of Haast's eagle would have been destroyed by fire or hunted out. Haast's eagle was still in existence when Māori came to New Zealand, but it is not certain when it died out, although there are reports of a large bird being seen in the nineteenth century.
- Haast's Eagle from Wingspan: National Bird of Prey Centre
- Giant eagle (Aquila moorei), Haast's Eagle or Pouākai Te Papa Tongarewa
- Haast’s Eagle New Zealand Birds Online
- Gerard Hutching, 'Birds of prey - New Zealand’s birds of prey', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/birds-of-prey/page-1 (accessed 19 October 2022). Story by Gerard Hutching, published 24 Sep 2007, reviewed & revised 17 Feb 2015
- Terror of the forest New Zealand Geographic
- Pouākai - The world’s largest eagle Radio New Zealand
In 1840, Richard Owen (the man who first used the name dinosaur) announced to the world that a bird nearly the size of an ostrich had once lived in New Zealand. He based this on the discovery and examination of a 15 cm long bone found in Poverty Bay. He was proved right as more and more fragments of moa skeleton were found.
Some moa bones have been dated and found to be 2 million years old.
A range of sizes
One of the moa species, Dinornis giganteus, was, at 3 metres, the tallest bird ever to have lived, but only measured its full height when it stretched up to feed off high branches - its normal posture gave its height at 1.8 metres. It would have weighed about the same as a cow.
It is now thought that there were eleven species of moa, ranging in size from the tallest (1.8 metres to the highest point on its back, and 240 kg) to the smallest (0.8 m to the highest point on its back, and 20 kg).
Moa belonged to the family of Ratites, or flightless birds which have no wings, not even small stubs of wings like the kiwi. Moa are unique in that they have no traces of wings or other bones which are necessary for flight. Instead moa had large, powerful legs, with four toes on each foot.
Habitat and diet
Large amounts of moa remains have been found on the East Coast of the South Island, but moa would have lived when these areas were still covered with forest. Preserved stomach contents have shown that the moa ate a diet of twigs, seeds, fruit and leaves, and browsed on shrubs, rather than grazed on grass. Some of the specimens of moa which have been found include pieces of skin and mummified body tissue which have been preserved. Others include feathers up to 18 cm long, with colours white, reddish brown, purplish brown, and black.
With more research on the moa, ideas about the way they stood and moved have changed. Early specimens of moa in museums were constructed so that the neck was at full stretch. In the 1980s this posture was changed so that the neck was held in a lower position. It is now believed that moa walked with the head level with or slightly above the level of the back.
Research suggests that different moa preferred different habitat. Some lived in tall, wet bush, while the other species lived on drier grasslands and less dense forest or in sub-alpine areas up to 1800 metres above sea level. Moa probably produced clutches of only one or two eggs. The size of the egg, compared to the body size of the moa laying it, was larger than other birds in the ratite family. Kiwi eggs are also large for their body size, and their chicks are well-developed when they hatch, and able to feed themselves almost straight away. Moa chicks were probably also well-developed and able to feed on their own soon after hatching.
Predators and extinction
Before the Māori arrived in New Zealand, the moa's main enemy was Haast's eagle, which preyed on adult moa, while chicks and eggs were predated by the now extinct large harrier. The moa was hunted by the Māori using snares, spears, and nooses, or by driving them into pits. Dogs and kiore (Polynesian rat) would also have hunted the moa.
Māori ate the meat, made jewellery from the bones, used the skins for clothing, and made water containers out of the eggs. The extinction of the moa was indirectly hastened by the actions of Māori who robbed the nests of eggs and burnt the forest in which the moa lived. Moa are believed to have died out between 300 and 400 years ago.
Moa bones make a museum
In 1857 North Canterbury landowner George Moore discovered moa bones on his property in Glenmark. In 1866 Sir Julius von Haast successfully made further excavations for bones which Moore then gifted to Canterbury Museum. Von Haast traded many of the bones with museums around the world, significantly growing the museum's collection and status.