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Background of the Kereru

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Kereru or (kukupa, kuku or native woodpigeon) is New Zealand’s only endemic pigeon. Kereru is also the only surviving bird since moa and huia capable of ingesting the large fruit and berries of the native trees of New Zealand and dispersing their seed. Trees such as miro, puriri, tawa and tairare are especially reliant on Kereru to disperse their seed so that they may naturally regenerate.

Both the male and female Kereru are similar in looks. The head, throat and chest of Kereru are a beautiful metallic, green and bronze iridescence. The breast and belly of the bird are white. The eyes, eye rings, beak and feet are a dark crimson.

Kereru is found in most lowland native forests of the North and South Islands , Stewart Island and many of its neighbouring islands. There are two sub-species of native pigeon, the New Zealand pigeon (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) known to the Maori as Kereru, or in Northland as kuku or kukupa, and the Chatham Island pigeon (Hemiphaga n. chathamensis) or parea. Since the arrival of Maori and Europeans to New Zealand Kereru has experienced a steady decline in numbers due to issues of habitat loss, introduced browsing and predatory mammals and hunting with guns.

This decline was acknowledged with the introduction of the Wild Birds Protection Act 1864. Section III of the act states “no wild duck, paradise duck or pigeon indigenous to the colony shall be taken, hunted or killed except during the months of April, May, June and July of any year.

Further restrictions were introduced in 1908 with the Animal Protection Act and the seasons were shortened from May to July and every third season there were complete bans. It wasn’t until 1921 that absolute protection was administered under the Animal Protection and Game Act.

Unfortunately this legislation has not reversed the decline of Kereru and in some pockets of New Zealand numbers have decreased by as much as 50% in as many years. Continued threats from predating and browsing species such as possum, stoat, rat and weasel, continued poaching of Kereru as a food source and loss of habitat are taking its toll on the species and if change does not take place we may see the eventual extinction of one of New Zealand’s most beautiful endemic bird species.

Kereru nest in late spring and early summer. Kereru indulge in aerial displays, perch, stall and diving to attract a mate. Pairs of Kereru can be seen prior to nesting. A single egg is laid and incubated between 28 and 30 days by the hen at night and the cock during the day. The nests of Kereru are an interesting, platform feature of twigs and the contents of the nest can be seen from the ground below. New chicks “squabs” require feeding at least 2-3 times a day. The parents will feed their young crop milk, which is regurgitated food. The chicks will fledge from the nest anywhere between 30 and 45 days.

Kereru can usually be seen in or near any reasonably large area of forest, and is a common species in many indigenous forests. It is also attracted to suburban gardens by such exotic species as tree Lucerne (Cytisus prolikrous), guavas (Psidium cattleyanum), plums (Prunus spp.) and other fruit trees.

(Photos courtesy of DOC)

A large proportion of New Zealand forest and shrub species (including the dominant Podocarpaceae) have fleshy fruits which are attractive to native birds and introduced birds alike. The Kereru is nowadays the only bird species capable of dispersing the large seeds of New Zealand’s native trees such as tawa (Beilschmiedia tawa), taraire (B. taraire), karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus), puriri (Vitex lucens) and no other bird species is as important in the dispersal of miro (Prumnopitys ferrugineus).

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The most perceived threat to Kereru would have to be predation of introduced browsing and predatory mammals. Kereru is vulnerable to predators when feeding at or near the ground particularly by stoats and cats, and its eggs and nestlings by rats, possums, mustelid (stoats, weasels, ferrets), cats and magpie. This predation is the most common cause of nest failure. In addition to these predators other bird species have also contributed and have been known to harass Kereru to varying degrees. The main culprits have been identified as mynas, harrier hawk and magpie.

(Photos courtesy of DOC)

Loss of habitat has also seen the displacement of Kereru and the reduction of food sources as trees have been felled for wood supply or housing. This has been exacerbated by the increased competition from possum and rats which deplete native fruit and flower supply. Food shortages lead to poor nutrition in Kereru and the subsequent longer nesting periods which leave Kereru open to predation. Long term degradation of Kereru habitats by browsing predators and ungulates eventually end up changing the forest composition and reducing the relative abundance of important food species.

Kereru have been fully protected since 1921. This has not, however stopped incidences of illegal hunting. In areas where there is known hunting of Kereru declines of populations numbers appear more pronounced. This has been noted in areas such as the Hunua Ranges near Auckland and in Puketi, Russell, Raetea and Omahuta forests in Northland.

Other incidences of Kereru fatality have occurred due to collisions with motor vehicles and windows.

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