Aside from the kiwi, the tūī would have to be one of our most iconic New Zealand birds. Not shy and quite happy living in close proximity to humans and within our ‘modified’ environments, they are stunningly beautiful in appearance and possess a truly wonderful voice.
I found this quote from Captain Cook’s journal during his second voyage to New Zealand: “Under its throat hang two little tufts of snow-white feathers called pois (which being the Tahitian word for earrings, occasioned our giving that name to the bird); which is not more remarkable for the beauty of its plumage than the sweetness of its note. The flesh is also most delicious and was the greatest luxury the wood afforded us.” That last sentence, of course, not very applicable to today’s society and outlooks!
About the tūī
Tūī are very widespread living on all three main islands as well as many offshore islands. The only area where they are not as prevalent is in the drier, largely open country east of the Southern Alps. They occur in a variety of habitats from native forest and scrub (sometimes in exotic forests) to rural gardens, stands of flowering kōwhai and gums, and in suburban parks and gardens – a very adaptable bird. Despite the loss of the vast majority of lowland forest in New Zealand, tūī have benefited from the introduction to New Zealand of a variety of flowering and fruiting plants and hence their ‘liking’ to many man-altered environments. These new species, as well as sugar-water feeders, which are quite popular in gardens, now provide tūī with a reliable year-round supply of nectar and fruit.
From a distance a tūī will look black, but with a closer look, especially in good light, they have a blue, green and bronze iridescent sheen. The back and sides of the neck have beautiful filamentous white feathers almost like a ‘veil’ of fine lacework. (This shows up well in the image on the opposite page). Of course the tūī’s most distinguishing feature and the one for which it is best known is the tuft (poi) of white, curled feathers on the throat. Also white are the small shoulder patches on their wings, which are only visible when in flight. Their physical size is around 30cm long with a weight of an adult male being 125 grams and a female lighter at about 90 grams.
Other than the size, there is no visual difference between a male and female. In scientific terms, this is referred to as monomorphic. Juveniles, on the other hand, are comparatively bland compared to the adults. Their feathers are more of a brown colour and lack the sheen of the older birds. The white throat tufts are completely absent until they mature.
I think the tūī’s call is maybe one of the most iconic ‘Kiwi’ sounds. They are usually very vocal with a loud and complicated mix of tuneful notes. I love this description I found... “combined bellbird-like notes with added clicks, cackles, timber-like creaks, groans and wheezing sounds”.
Some of the wide range of tūī sounds are beyond the human register. Next time you see a tūī singing, stop and watch it. You will probably notice breaks in the sound yet the beak is still agape and the throat tufts throbbing or pulsating.
Each individual will have its own distinct sound or notes depending on the following (or all) factors – geography, locality, season or gender.
Behaviour, Ecology & Breeding
The tūī breeding season runs from September to February. This is also the time you will see their incredible display flights involving flying upwards, high above the bush and then making a noisy, speedy, near-vertical dive back into the canopy. Quite amazing to watch.
Nest building, incubation and brooding are all chores carried out by the female. The male will only jump in and lend a hand once the chicks are born and need feeding. The nest is a rough bulky structure of twigs and sticks, lined with fine grasses placed high in the canopy and will usually contain two to four white or pale-pink eggs, that are marked with reddish-brown spots and blotches. Incubation and fledging are relatively fast being 14 days and 23 days respectively.
The tūī’s diet can vary greatly depending on seasonal availability of nectar and fruits (their much preferred foods), though they are not adverse to supplementing that diet with large invertebrates, such as cicadas and stick insects, during the breeding season. Examples of the seasonal variation are over autumn when medium-sized fruit such as wineberry, māhoe, ngaio and rimu or kahikatea make up much of the diet and in winter when they may turn to flowering gums, varieties of banksias and tree lucerne along with sugar-water feeders in gardens.
Tūī in your garden
With tūī being predominantly nectar feeders like the bellbird, last issue’s advice can apply to the tūī.
The same sugar-water solution at a feeder is still a great idea, however, I would add that instead of a ratio of 1:5, I suggest a weaker mix of perhaps 1:8 (or about 140 grams per litre of water). The reason for this is to help dissuade the bees and wasps. If the bees and wasps do happen to find the solution, try simply moving it half a metre or so. The birds will have no problem finding it again, but the wasps and bees are not quite as smart and may take a week or two. (They may never find it again but if they do, it’s an easy task to just move it back again).
As always, it is crucial to wash the container out every few days (daily if possible) and r eplace with a fresh mix to prevent mould and bacteria forming, which can make birds very sick.