bird of the month: tūī

Tūī (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae) are an important bird in Aotearoa New Zealand. They are endemic (not found anywhere else in the world) and can be seen all over the country. Tūī are unique birds that capture the ears and eyes of anyone in their presence and are an amazing icon for the country.

What are tūī?

Tūī are a beautiful endemic bird found around almost all of Aotearoa New Zealand. They are very distinctive, with iridescent body feathers and a tuft of white feathers on their neck (known as a poi), not to mention their very distinctive songs and calls! Adult tūī are around 90-120 grams and can be up to 30cm tall. Tūī are also known for being found in urban areas and many suburban gardens. While tūī are considered not threatened, there is an endangered subspecies from the Chatham Islands, and these tūī are usually bigger and heavier than tūī from the mainland.

What do tūī eat?

Tūī shift their diet based on availability and season, mostly eating nectar from native flowers like pūriri, kōwhai, rewarewa, and pōhutukawa. Sugar-water feeders can be used to help supplement their need for sugary nectar. Tūī also eat fruit from trees like makomako, rimu, kahikatea, and many more. They will catch large insects when they need extra food. Because they feed on flowers and eat fruits, tūī are massively important pollinators and seed dispersers for native trees. Tūī are also known to be aggressive towards other birds to keep them out of their feeding territory.

How do tūī sing?

Tūī have amazing and distinct vocalisations that make it easy to identify from their calls and songs. Tūī can make complex songs like other songbirds, and they also have a dual voice box which means they can make two sounds at once! Tūī songs switch between tuneful parts and coughing, wheezing, and grunting sounds. Their songs can sound similar to that of korimako (bellbird), but the loud coughs and grunts in tūī songs set them apart. Tūī are even able to mimic sounds and speech!

What is the history of tūī?

Tūī were historically an important food source for Māori and were also eaten by early settlers. Though not considered threatened, tūī have seemed to decline with the loss of native habitat and the introduction of predators. However, in recent times, restoration projects that plant native trees and pest control of mammals seem to be helping to improve tūī populations. These days, tūī are an iconic bird often used in brand imagery and as a symbol of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Tūī, like our other native birds, are affected by habitat loss and introduced mammalian predators. However, there is still plenty you can do to help! Taking part in restoration projects can be hugely helpful for native birds like tūī. If you want to attract tūī to your garden, plant flowering native trees like kōwhai, or set up a sugar-water feeder. DOC has some great tips for how you can help out tūī here.