Everything you need to know about our amazing New Zealand Tui
By Joyce Elwood-Smith
The Tui has always held a fascination for me, coming from Christchurch where they no longer like to live they also disappeared from Banks Peninsula about 20years ago. However in 2007 a group began reintroducing them to the Hinewai reserve. Some are also to be found in native bush near Oxford in the Canterbury foot hills. They are prevalent on the West Coast, Marlborough and Nelson regions and the North Island. In fact they can be found in about 60% of New Zealand in Native bush areas as well as cosmopolitan cities. They are hardy and adaptable and in Wellington have been aided by the Karori Bird Reserve (now called Zealandia) which provides safe breeding enabling them to roam widely around the city. Hamilton’s Bushy Park is well known as a popular place for Tui when the Rata is in flower and they are seen and heard in the Orakanui reserve in Dunedin.
The Tui: Known as the chatterboxes of New Zealand birds they are friendly, inquisitive, full of life and sometimes confrontational.
They are first in the dawn chorus, last at dusk, often singing during the day while other birds are silent. A female will sing while she is nesting and her mate in a nearby tree will sing back to her. They have even been heard singing at night around the time of a full moon! They are naturally protective of their nests as they can also be of their food sources, discouraging other birds accordingly. If threatened they have been known to band together and mob magpies and harrier hawks.
Their botanical name is ´Prosthemdera Novae Seelandiae′, called ‘Poe’ or ‘Koko’ by early Maori, and Mocking bird or ‘Parson bird’ by New Zealand’s early settlers because of the white tuft under the chin bright against the shining feathers which although actually an iridescent blue green can look black at first glance, they reminded the English of a clergyman dressed in black cape and breeches with a knotted white scarf tied around his neck. Students of Jane Austin would also know that a Parson was purported to have a beady watchful eye!
Living in Wellington at present I am enjoying the antics of these amusing birds. As I walked up a short track through a patch of bush one day I was fascinated to hear what I was pretty sure must be a parrot. I crept quietly along the path hoping to see perhaps a Kaka, a bird I have only seen in captivity and had no idea if they lived around Wellington. As the chattering grew louder, changing pitch and intonation I became more curious and was convinced this ‘parrot’ was practicing some speech. I looked up and there it was, a Tui going all out in a conversation with itself.
Not long after hearing this Tui I heard a report on National radio that Tui have been recorded and observed copying both voices and sounds. They are known for their loud and unusual call unique and different for each individual bird. They are considered to be as intelligent as Parrots and can and do imitate human speech and other sounds such as a cell phone.
Studies have found that Tui from one area will have a different dialect to Tui from another and their song changes from season to season.
The Tui apparently has a double voice box that enables its vast range of vocalization, sounds that are often beyond the human register. Early Maori trained them to replicate complex speech. Talking Tui were much prized in fact they were taught speeches to welcome visitors to the Marae such as the speech of welcome given by a Tui to Sir George Grey, third Governor of New Zealand who later published it in his book the ‘Sir George Grey book of Poetry’.
There is a small waterfall in Waikato not far from the Mercer railway station called Te Ako-o-te-tui-a-Tamaoho (the teaching of Tamaoho’s Tui Bird). It is to this place Tamaoho took his pet Tui and where amidst the noise of the waterfall creating a sound barrier, so the bird was not distracted with other noises, the bird focussed only on its master’s voice and learned to imitate the long speeches and the karakia of the Marae.
Imagine the perseverance and patience of Tamaoho as he took his bird there day after day, after day.
A tribe called Ngai-Tauira also owned a very remarkable Tui named Tane-mitirangi which was said to possess more than human intelligence. It had learned to repeat the
most powerful karakia and they believed that it also could ‘bewitch’ to order. This greatly prized bird was coveted and eventually stolen by another tribe. Discovering their loss the Ngai-Tauira pursued the offenders who attacked them and many were slain. The few survivors fled to Hawkes Bay.
Visiting Wellington Zoo on a public holiday earlier this year with family we were impressed to see that staff had come in especially to feed birds in the hospital care unit.
Adult and baby birds found hurt in gardens, on roadsides and public spaces brought in by members of the public to be nursed and nurtured back to health. Nearly all of them were Tui. I hope that as a nation we are treating these birds as the unique treasures they are.
They have many predators not the least the domestic cat. The opossum, stoat, ferret, rat and feral cat all introduced to New Zealand on purpose or by accident are deadly enemies preying on baby birds and devouring eggs. They are not on the endangered species list yet! However a look at this list is sobering when you see just how depleted and low the numbers of endangered birds were allowed to sink. In the 1880’s a law was passed banning the hunting of the Tui. They were eaten by Maori and early Europeans who liked them in a ‘pie’ and used their skin to line ladies hats!
We need to encourage these amazing birds.
They are nectar feeders and a lot of us will already have the plants they love such as Flax, Kowhai. Their beak is perfectly curved to slip into the long narrow throated flowers and their thin tongue designed to brush up the sweet substance. Watching them feed I have often wondered which was made for which as a dusty coating of rust coloured pollen accumulates over their face and head transferring it from flower to flower. Have you ever observed Tui around flax when the nectar has become fermented? Their inebriated behaviour is very comical. They love seeds and small berry fruit which they swallow whole. In winter they are attracted to flowering gum which interestingly is not an indigenous plant.
A way to provide sustenance throughout the cold months is to leave a trough or bowl of sugared water out for them. A feeder can also be made with an upturned bottle working on the same principle as a budgie feeder. You need to provide something for the birds to perch on so their feet do not contaminate the water. It is best to change the solution every day … never leave it longer than two to three days before changing and if you are away wash the container and leave it empty. Always clean thoroughly (without chemicals) before refilling and make sure the family cat cannot get to it!
A simple weak solution of sugar and water is best.
1 tablespoon of white sugar to 1 cup of water or 1 cup of sugar to 2 litres of water. Do not use brown sugar and never use honey … even though we refer to the Tui as
a honeyeater! Sugar water is more like natural nectar than honey which can become contaminated very quickly producing a microorganism that can be extremely dangerous to birds.
Of course there will be those who will complain about the ‘racket’ Tui can make on an early summer’s morning but if they really can’t sleep they can always plug into their IPod and miss out on the Tui’s joyous welcome to the day with some raucous music of their own choosing!