Story: Birds of prey
New Zealand’s three native birds of prey are impressive hunters. The New Zealand falcon seizes other birds in mid-air, at speeds of up to 200 kilometres an hour. The Australasian harrier circles high on thermal currents, looking for prey, and the morepork flies almost silently as it hunts in the night.
Full story by Gerard Hutching
Main image: Harrier in flight
The Short Story
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Birds of prey are birds that hunt other birds and animals. New Zealand has three native birds of prey: the New Zealand falcon, the Australasian harrier and the morepork. All hunt mostly from the air. They catch other birds, small animals, lizards, frogs and insects. They have excellent eyesight to help them.
Another bird of prey is the German or little owl, common in the South Island. It is not native to New Zealand.
Several birds of prey have become extinct.
- Haast’s eagle was the world’s biggest eagle. It had claws like a tiger’s, and hunted 200-kilogram moa (huge flightless birds). It became extinct after the moa did.
- The laughing owl had a call that sounded like shrieks, ‘cooees’, or a dog yelping.
- Eyles’s harrier and the New Zealand owlet nightjar are also extinct.
Morepork: the native owl
The morepork is nocturnal – it hunts at night, and sleeps in the day. Its sad-sounding call is often heard at dusk. The name morepork, and the Māori name, ruru, both come from the sound of its call.
Moreporks catch insects, small birds, rats and mice. They can fly almost silently, so their prey don’t hear them coming.
Moreporks’ eyes don’t move in the sockets. Instead, the bird turns its head rapidly, up to 270 degrees.
Māori believed that the morepork’s usual ‘ruru’ call brought good news, but a high cry meant bad news.
New Zealand falcon
The New Zealand falcon hunts mostly other birds in the air, flying at speeds up to 200 kilometres per hour. This fearless bird can hunt animals much bigger than itself. Nonetheless, falcons are threatened by predators such as stoats, habitat changes, and people who shoot them. Several groups are working to help save the falcon.
The Australasian harrier (kāhu) lives in the open country. It is often seen circling high in the air, looking for prey. The harrier hunts small birds and mammals, lizards, frogs, fish and insects. It also eats dead rabbits or possums on the road.
Between 1860 and 1950, people killed hundreds of thousands of harriers, because they thought they were a threat to game birds like pheasants and quail. Today the harrier is protected by law.