Returning birds back into the Canterbury Plains

The birds of New Zealand and the Canterbury Plains

The disappearance of New Zealand birds from the Canterbury Plains can be attributed to the impact of agriculture, particularly affecting numerous species in Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere. Given the cultural significance and unique biodiversity of these birds in Te Waihora, various measures are being employed to reverse this trend.

Wildlife corridors are being established to create interconnected pathways throughout Canterbury, facilitating the movement of birds. Simultaneously, efforts are underway to clean and restore Te Waihora, providing a habitat for migratory and aquatic birds. Predator-free sanctuaries are being established to allow bird populations to recover without the threat of predators.

Additionally, backyard landscape trends to use native plants provide birds with temporary resting places. Collectively, these strategies aim to reintroduce and revive bird populations in the Canterbury Plains.

The disappearance of New Zealand birds in Canterbury

The introduction of European settlers led to significant changes in the landscape, habitat destruction, and the introduction of invasive species, all of which contributed to the decline and extinction of many native bird species on the Canterbury Plains. Modern (and some not so modern) agricultural practices had a profound impact on the ecosystem, evident in the removal of bush, drainage of wetlands, and the subsequent increase in nutrients and sediment within lakes. The absence of bush means there is no natural filtration system for nutrients and pollutants flowing into the lake. This deficiency in vegetation results in diminished shelter and food for native birds, with mammal pests further exacerbating the destruction of habitats and food sources.

The absence of wetlands compounds the issue, limiting resources for migratory birds to rest and feed. Consequently, birds native to the Canterbury plains are compelled to seek sustenance and shelter in alternative locations. This displacement not only disrupts their natural habitats but also attracts pests that prey on these birds, creating a challenging scenario for tracking and protecting them in unfamiliar environments. The intricate interplay of these ecological factors underscores the complexity of mitigating the adverse effects of agricultural practices on the bird populations in the Canterbury region.

The Birds of the Canterbury plains

kowhai tui

Tūī. Photographer: Steve Attwood

Before European colonization, the Canterbury Plains were home to a diverse range of bird species. Some of the bird species that are now extinct include Moa, Huia and Tīeke. More recently, there have been significant declines in Kākā, Kākāpō, Whio, Tūī, Kererū, and Kākāriki due to habitat destruction. These species prefer forested areas, so remnant bush is their current habitat. In some bush remnants we still see these species and other, braver birds (like Piwakawaka) are still happily present in our suburban and urban settings.

The plains are also home to Te Waihora. a vital haven for biodiversity, boasting approximately 133 native species, with an impressive 37 of them choosing the lake as their breeding ground. This includes a rich assortment of New Zealand birds, comprising both migratory and non-migratory species. The lake holds the distinction of supporting the largest diversity of species in New Zealand.

Te Waihora is exceptional on a global scale. Positioned strategically on the East Asian – Australasian Flyway, an international flight path for migrating bird species, the lake serves as a crucial pitstop for numerous avian travelers. This flyway is a migratory route that extends from the Arctic region to the Southern Hemisphere, making Te Waihora a pivotal resting and refueling point for birds undertaking this extensive journey.

The international acknowledgment of Te Waihora’s ecological importance underscores its role as a key player in the conservation and preservation of migratory bird species. The need to safeguard and maintain the ecological integrity of Te Waihora is paramount not only for New Zealand but for the broader global avian community.

Why do we need birds?

New Zealand birds have a significance in the ecosystem and culture that surrounds of Te Waihora. An increase in biodiversity, through wetland restoration may help to sustain the lake. Birds help to maintain the number of fish and insects that inhabit lakes and wetlands. Preventing overpopulation and maintaining water health.

In the garden, birds control the number of insects, pollinate flowers and have a pleasant presence. Maintaining the number of insects prevents the degradation of the plant life. While the pollination of the flowers help propagate more of the bush.

How can we get these birds back?

Wildlife corridors link that the mountains to the sea, giving habitats for native fauna and increasing the biodiversity overall. Having multiple corridors spanning the Canterbury Plains is crucial. As it gives more area to inhabit, giving safer passage to certain locations.Te Ara Kākāriki have been creating greendots to recreate natural habitats. When put together, they make a wildlife corridor. Our native birds are adapted to native plants so they benefit from this the most. Predator free eco-sanctuaries also provide safe habitats to regenerate bird populations. 

We can also restore and regenerate streams, wetland and lakeshores that lead to Te Waihora. This requires native plantings, as well as removing weeds and willows. Native vegetation provides shelter for the birds while providing protection against pollutants and excess nutrients from entering Te Waihora. Reduce the amount of sediment by re-battering the waterways and monitoring and assessing water quality and nutrients. This allows the water to have a higher quality overall. Reducing the amount of pollutants, toxic algae and disease to the fish and birds.

Copying the varieties of that occur naturally within the bush gives these birds with food and shelter. Growing plants that provide nectar like kowhai and flax or fruit from karamu and korokia. Draws in tūīs, bellbird and Kereru that eat flowers and fruit. Tūīs live up in Kānuka with tangled tops in order to feed on the invertebrates. Mulch or leaf litter, attract insects; which will attract birds like silvereye, grey warbler and fantail.


Kākāriki. photographer: Raewyn Adams


We still have a long way before the birds of the Canterbury plains return. The impact of agriculture and pests have the most impact on the bird’s home in the bush. With many species of bird going to other places that is less hostile to live in, especially from Te Waihora. They still have a significant presence within Māori culture, and in order to get them back into Canterbury. We will need to put a lot of work and time to implement each project. Growing wildlife corridors, cleaning and restoring Te Waihora, implementing predator free sanctuaries and growing native plants in the suburbs.


Amber Allott. (2021, Sep 04, 16:10). environment: How Christchurch lost its tūī, and how to bring them back. Stuff. 

Te Ara Kākāriki Greenway Canterbury Trust (n.d) What We Do: Greendot programme.

Trees For Canterbury The Green Effect Trust (n.d) Attracting native wildlife to your garden.

Te Waihora Co-governance (n.d) Ecology: Birdlife


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