The Tui is the one endemic bird to have survived and even thrived in the presence of humans on these islands. They have entered our national consciousness like no other New Zealand bird, not even the Kiwi whom we rarely see or even hear these days. The Tui has become very much an intimate part of our daily lives, whereas so many other birds have languished and died out or stayed away in the deep bush and shunned our presence.
Walking back from the beach this morning with my dog, a Tui rudely and noisily swooped down in front of me out of a Norfolk pine, buzzing me like any magpie before landing on a low limb across the road. He perched there peering at me intently through the shrubbery while I wondered whether he and his mate had a nest in the pine or whether he was just being his usual pugnacious, obnoxious, joyous, jubilant self.
I am sure it is the same bird I have been observing all spring and which seems to have staked out a territory nearby. He no doubt has a mate somewhere nesting but I have not yet quite worked out where. Earlier this morning and many other mornings I have watched this Tui of mine, for we do get quite proprietary about them, fly high up in the sky and then take a straight dive down, its wings close to its body as if diving into water. It is such an expression of joy, the bird full of nectar from the banksii or the tiny flowers of the Karo, full of the joys of life.
How we all love these birds. We plant our gardens for them, with flax and kowhai and puriri and the Australian flowering shrubs to entice them which is as well for we have turned almost all of the lowland forest into pasture and cropping land and so deprived our birds of their essential winter feeding grounds.
They are such noisy birds, always looking for attention it seems, always “carrying on”, chortling and chuckling, before bursting into marvellous song. It is all too easy to wax lyrical about them for they are indeed the nightingales of New Zealand. The ornithologist Guthrie–Smith maintained that “much of the Tui’s singing we cannot hear, the notes too high, I suppose, for our human ears, for I have often watched the bird’s throat from but a few yards distance swelling with song entirely inaudible.”
In colour, the Tui is a shining metallic green with bluish purple reflections on the shoulders, upper tail coverts and lower breast, the hind neck ornamented with filamentous plumes. Captain Cook while at Dusky Sound in 1773 on his second voyage, wrote thus of the Tui. “Under its throat hang two little tufts of snow–white feathers, called poies, which being the Otaheitean word for ear–rings, occasioned our giving that name to the bird; which is not more remarkable for the beauty of its plumage than the sweetness of its note. The flesh is also most delicious and was the greatest luxury the wood afforded us”.
They are the dominant honey eaters, aggressive and pugnacious, and will chase other Tuis and other birds, especially Korimako, the bellbird, from their feeding territory. They fly at great speeds, the wings whirring characteristically, the loud and noisy flying caused by a notch in the eighth primary that makes the wing tips flutter.
The ornithologist Oliver has also commented on their pugnacity and courage and has wondered if perhaps this character has been the cause of their being attacked and sometimes killed by companies of blackbirds and starlings. However, the Tui has also been known to kill the birds it pursues.
The books say that Tuis are usually solitary. Its station in the forest is among the treetops where the flowers and fruit are borne. When journeying from place to place it usually flies at some height and descends suddenly to its destinations.
Even though several Tuis may feed in the same tree they have clearly defined territories. Outside of the breeding season they become partially nomadic and travel to towns and rural gardens and forest patches in search of good sources of nectar and fruit. Some birds regularly occupy each year summer breeding and winter feeding territories that are 20 plus kilometers apart.
Although the primary food source is nectar, they will hawk large insects. I have seen them jump around and beat the bush to disturb stick insects and cicadas.
The bird, called by many names other than Tui or Koko, was of great importance to Maori and there are many stories about the relationship in the literature. Apart from potted Tui being a favourite food, they were very often kept in cages and trained to speak and even welcome people to a marae. Many of these birds were famous and even fought over.
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»»» Song of Tui
Other common names: —
Parson bird, poe bee-eater, New Zealand creeper, koko, mocking bird.
30 cm., male, 120 g., female, 90 g., looks black but in the light has green, bluish-purple and bronze colouring, lacy collar of white filaments and white throat tufts, black legs and curved black bill, white wing bar, sexes alike, juvenile dull slate black with glossy wings and tail, greyish-white throat, lacks white throat tufts or pois.
Where to find: —
Common throughout New Zealand but scarce east of the Alps in the South Island.
Youtube video —
Suppose, sweet eyes, you went into a distant country
Where these young islands are nothing but a word;
Suppose you never came back again by Terawhiti:
Would you remember and be faithful to your bird?
And when they boasted there of thrushes, larks and linnets,
Would you hold up a stubborn little hand,
And say: “Not so! I know a sweeter singer
Than any bird that cries across your land!”
Would you, remembering, tell them of the Tui?
Wild, wild and blinding in its wildest note.
They - they never heard him, swinging on a flax–flower,
Mad with the honey and the noon in his throat.
They say that in the old days stately rangatiras
Slit his tongue, and made him speak instead of sing;
We would rather see him shining and gold–dusted,
From a morning kowhai flinging wide the spring.
So, my little sweet eyes, if you go a–sailing
Out beyond Pencarrow, and come not again,
Hold unto the southlands in the pure October,
When the Tui’s sweetness ripples through the rain.
— Eileen Duggan
»»» Listen to Eileen Duggan's “Tui”
read by Narena Olliver
Illustration description: —
Buller, A History of the Birds of New Zealand, 1888.
Peter Brown, New Illustrations of Zoology, 1766.
Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.
Oliver, W.R.B. New Zealand Birds, 1955.
Page date & version: —
Thursday, 5 June 2014; ver2009v1