morepork and laughing owl

Like most New Zealanders I am well familiar with the distinctive call of the little native owl, Ruru, which floats out of the darkness at night demanding a second serving of the Sunday roast like the ghost of a hungry child. However, it was only a few years ago I got a really good look at the bird, known more commonly as the morepork, which is responsible for the sound.

At the time of our close encounter, I was helping to release grey–faced petrel back into the wild. I had just launched one of the sea birds into the night sky when out of the corner of my eye I saw a small missile flying through the air and the very next moment the petrel was knocked to the ground.

Although the morepork was only half the size of the petrel, I think she would have tried to make a meal of the larger sea bird if we had not been standing around. But instead she glowered at us from the nearest tree with her huge yellow eyes allowing us plenty of time to examine her as she scrutinised us back.

While grey-faced petrel are not a normal part of a morepork diet, the small owls do occasionally eat larger animals which are torn apart with their small but razor-sharp hooked beak. The morepork menu more usually includes moths and beetles caught on the wing as well as small animals such as mice, baby rats, lizards and birds usually no larger than themselves. This type of prey is commonly eaten whole with indigestible bits like the bones and feathers being regurgitated in a sausage shaped pellet from the mouth.

All owls have been designed by nature as superb hunting machines with the particular intention of operating at night. The plumage of an owl is exceptionally soft with softened feather edges which enable the birds to fly silently through the air so that they can approach their prey without warning. Owls have excellent hearing with their disc–shaped faces designed to direct the slightest sound to the large ear openings. In addition, owls have very flexible necks which can rotate 270 degrees to look for prey from every possible angle and large shining eyes designed for optimum binocular vision in low intensity light.

Talking of large shining eyes, Ruru is an important part of Maori mythology and tradition. For example, many of the carved figures seen on Maori meeting houses have had their eyes modeled on Ruru and when performing the war dances of the haka and the pukana the glaring looks from the Maori warriors are also imitating the fiery little owl.

It is hardly surprising that, in Maori mythology, Ruru which hunts by night on silent wings and has a melancholy hooting call, is associated with the spirit world. In fact the special ancestral spirit of a family group is thought to take the form of Ruru. Known as Hine–ruru, the “owl woman”, Maori traditionally believed that these owl guardians had the power to, protect, warn and advise. According to such beliefs, the presence of a morepork sitting in a conspicuous place nearby, knocking on a window or even entering the house signifies a death the family while the high piercing call of the morepork is thought to herald bad news and the ordinary call to indicate good news on the way.

There is a lot of good news going on around New Zealand today as Ruru is widespread. The morepork call is said to be the most common native animal sound heard at night.

While archeological evidence suggests that the now common morepork was scarce before the time of human occupation in Aotearoa, elsewhere in its natural distribution range it is not faring so well. A bird known as the boobook, Ninox boobook, which lives in Australia was originally thought to be the same species as the New Zealand morepork but recent research has suggests this species is actually slightly larger than the New Zealand version.

The boobook on Norfolk Island, N. undulata, which is also known as the morepork is one of three sub species of the Australian bird. In 1987 the sub species was down to only one female but with the help of two New Zealand morepork males the population is now well into the double figures. N. albaria of Lord Howe Island is extinct.

morepork and laughing owl
Sub Species:
novaeseelandiae, undulata, albaria.

Song:  — 

 Viking Sevenseas

This section should be replaced with an audio player, if not, please select the link below:

»»»  Song of the morepork

Other common names:  — 


Description:  — 

Native bird

29 cm., 175 g., dark brown, spotted and barred with buff colour, yellow eyes, larger head and longer tail than little owl.

Where to find:  — 

Widespread and not uncommon.

Youtube video  — 

»»»  Morepork

Poetry:  — 

Etia ano aku mata me te mata-a-ruru e tiwai ana
Me te mata kahu e paro noa ra kai te tahora!

My eyes are like morepork eyes turning from side to side,
Like the eyes of a hawk who soars over the plain!

Credit for the photograph: — 


Rosemary Tully

Illustration description: — 


Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1888.

Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1873.

Reference(s): — 


Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.

Oliver, W.R.B. New Zealand Birds, 1955.

This article is copyright to the author Alex Eagles:
[email protected]

Page date & version: — 


Tuesday, 3 June 2014; ver2009v1


©  2005    Narena Olliver,    new zealand birds limited,     Greytown, New Zealand.