Are you all ears? How to recognise five common New Zealand bird calls

Are you all ears? How to recognise five common New Zealand bird calls

Can you pick a tūī from a korimako? Would you know a rifleman if you heard one? Here are five commonly-heard songs from native birds you might have encountered out in the bush this summer. 

The riroriro / grey warbler

Is this the Lady Gaga of New Zealand birds? With an unexpectedly loud call coming from such a tiny figure, we reckon so. If you hear a long, fairly persistent trilled song that wavers slightly, you might be hearing a grey warbler. For visual confirmation, check out its eyes – the riroriro’s eyes are a vibrant red. You'll need binoculars to see that close though, as this diminutive character is just 7 - 9 cm long and weighs a tiny 6g. 

The titipounamu/ rifleman

If you’re hearing the smallest, cutest-ever toy rifle sound, it might just be a titipounamu. This is New Zealand’s smallest bird, weighing in at about the same as six paperclips. Their song is a short, truncated single-note “ssip” sound. But when sounding the alarm, it really does sound like a tiny toy rifle firing. You might also hear the characteristic wing-flicking as they flit through the forest on their short wings.


The miromiro / tomtit

Like Woody from Toy Story, this guy’s head is as big as his heart, figuratively speaking. If you’re hearing short “seet”, “zet” and “swee” sounds, about five in quick succession, it could be a miromiro – both males and females make these contact calls. However, the full song of the male tomtit is very distinctive, a “ti-oly-oly-oly-ho” that lasts 2-3 seconds. Te Ara: The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand describes it as sounding “like a squeaky wheelbarrow”

The kererū

These hefty dudes don’t so much make calls as signal their presence – they’re hard to miss if one flys by! In fact, they’re mostly silent except for the occasional ‘oo’. They turn up the volume of the ‘oo’ when alarmed, and longer low volume ‘oooooooo’s with a rising tone at the end (a true Kiwi speech pattern!) are given as contact calls. The sound of its large wings beating as it swoops over head, though, is unmistakable. 

The korimako / bellbird

The korimako is surely the most tuneful of New Zealand birds. In fact, to have your singing or oratory skills compared to a bellbird is one of the greatest compliments for Māori. He rite ki te kōpara e kō nei i te ata – “it is like the bell-bird singing at dawn”. So during those morning moments where everything seems to disappear from the forest, except for the rolling peals of a bell-like song – you can be almost certain that it’s a korimako. 


Keen to brush up on your New Zealand native bird identification skills? We highly recommend this free 10 minute course from the good people at DoC.

New Zealand native bIrds