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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 swamp harrier circles high on thermal currents, looking for prey, and the morepork flies almost silently as it hunts in the night.

Story by Gerard Hutching
Main image: Harrier in flight

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Birds of prey are birds that hunt other birds and animals. New Zealand has three resident native birds of prey: the New Zealand falcon, the swamp 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.

Extinct birds

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 around the time that 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, and they can hear their prey rather than their own wing noise as they close in.

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 (kārearea) 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.

Swamp harrier

The swamp harrier (kāhu) lives in the open country. Also known as the Australasian harrier or harrier hawk, 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 and hunts for birds' nests.

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.

How to cite this page:

Gerard Hutching, 'Birds of prey', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/birds-of-prey (accessed 24 May 2017)

Story by Gerard Hutching, published 24 Sep 2007, reviewed & revised 17 Feb 2015