Written by Mark Parker (Lincoln University)
Edited by Mike Hudson and Mark Parker, Lincoln University, February 2006
- Scientific name: Falco novaeseelandiae (Gmelin, 1788)
- Popular common names: New Zealand Falcon, Karearea
- Other common names: Eastern falcon, Bush Falcon, Southern Falcon, Sparrow Hawk, Quail Hawk, Bush Hawk.
- New Zealand Status: native (endemic)
- Taxonomy sources: Fox (1988), Checklist Committee of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand (1990), Moon (1992).
The New Zealand Falcon/ Karearea is classed as a single variable species divided into three forms, as described by Fox (1977). These are:
- The Bush Falcon from the forests of the North Island and north-west South Island. This is a true forest dweller living and breeding within the forest. It is a dark coloured bird with faint white barring on the breast and wings and is a smaller bird than the other two forms, with shorter wing’s more suited to flying through the forest.
- The Eastern Falcon of the South Island, is the largest of the three forms and a paler colour with prominent barring, this is the most common of the three.
- The Southern Falcon of Fiordland, Stewart Island and the Auckland Islands is intermediate between the Eastern and Bush Falcon in both size and plumage colouration, but more like the Bush form in it’s preference of habitat.
All three forms have similar plumage, predominantly dark brown body and wings with white barring on the throat and under the tail, yellow ceres, legs and feet, dark eyes with black claws and beak (Fox, 1977). The female of all forms is larger than the male (Moon, 1992).
The New Zealand Falcon/ Karearea’s dark eyes, long tail and rapid flight make it unlikely to be confused with either New Zealand’s other common raptor, the Australasian Harrier/ Kahu (Circus approximans) which is much larger and paler with a more leisurely flight, or the Australian vagrant, the Nankeen Kestrel (Falco cenchroides) which is much smaller with a pale breast (Kelly, 1986). See fig 1 for differences between the Karearea and the Kahu.
Australasian Harrier/ Kahu New Zealand Falcon/ Karearea fig 1 Differences between the Karearea and the Kahu.
New Zealand range
The New Zealand Falcon/ Karearea are a seldom seen species, preferring habitats undisturbed by human interference. The New Zealand Falcon/ Karearea is endemic to New Zealand with the ‘Bush’ form mainly in the ranges between Taranaki and the East Coast of the North Island, and around the forests of northwest Nelson and Westland. The ‘Eastern’ variety occupies the South Island high country east of the main divide. And the ‘Southern’ race is present in Fiordland, Stewart Island and the sub Antarctic islands (Bull et al., 1985).
The ‘Eastern’ form of the New Zealand Falcon/ Karearea is the most common of the species. Only present in Canterbury, this bird lives and feeds in the open high country east of the Southern Alps (Heather & Robertson, 1996), with the occasional bird sighting on the Port Hills and Bank’s Peninsula (Crossland, 1996).
Natural History in Canterbury
Restricted mainly to the mountainous interior of Canterbury, the removal of forest and wetlands in the Canterbury environment does not greatly affect the hunting habits of the Eastern form but seems to have adverse affects on their nesting requirements (Lawrence 2002).
The preferred habitat of the New Zealand Falcon/ Karearea in Canterbury is the tussock high country of the eastern Southern Alps. Hunting range can encompass all areas of the Canterbury landscape from the mountains to the river valleys, wetlands or ocean coastline. Unlike their forest dwelling relatives the Eastern form will comfortably venture out over farmland and open country in search of food.
Breeding season for the ‘Eastern’ Falcon is from the end of September to mid November (Fox, 1977). The Eastern Falcon uses no nesting material; instead eggs are laid either in a hollow patch of ground on a steep hillside, under rocks (see fig. 2), logs or on a rocky ledge. The Eastern form fledges an average of 2.2 juveniles (Lawrence, 2002). Both partners take part in the care of the young. The male provides food for the female so she can feed herself and the young. The female will return to the hunt again after the chicks can thermo-regulate, this is usually from 11 days old (Fox, 1977). Eastern Falcons are sedentary birds with most established pairs occupying their territory year round. Some roosting sites are used continuously for 30 years (Fox, 1978).
fig 2 New Zealand Falcon nesting under rocks.
Fox (1977) found that Eastern Falcons were generalist predators that will feed mainly on birds (native or exotic) from the small Grey Warbler/ Riroriro (Gerygone igata) up to the large New Zealand Pigeon/Kereru (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae). But the Eastern Falcon will also prey on invertebrates, skinks or small introduced mammals (Wilson, 2004). Lawrence’s (2002) breeding survey found the following native and introduced birds and mammals from seven New Zealand Falcon nest sites (see Table 1).
|Chaffinch (Fringilla coelabs)||Bellbird (Anthornis melanura)|
|Song Thrush (Thurdus philomelos)||Tomtit (Petroica macrocephala)|
|Blackbird (Turdus merula)||Morepork (Ninox novaeseelandiae)|
|House sparrow (Paser domesticus)|
|Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)|
|Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)|
|Mouse (Mus musculus)|
|Rat (Rattus spp.)|
The New Zealand Falcon is a very territorial bird that is known to swoop and call at intruders, human or animal (personal observation). If intruders are persistent both partners will attack to defend the young (personal observation). In flight talon grappling with the Australasian Harrier has also been reported (Fox, 1977).
In pre-human New Zealand the New Zealand Falcon/ Karearea had no natural predators. There is currently limited information on the affects introduced mammals have had on their population.
The major competitor of the New Zealand Falcon/ Karearea is “man”; we are competing for space to go about our daily lives. The habitat they once enjoyed is being enveloped by the ever land hungry spread of humans.
How to find a NZ Falcon
The best place to find an Eastern Falcon in Canterbury is up in the mountainous area around the Craigeburn Range. The best time is breeding season, they will probably find you first if you get too close to their nesting site, (personal observation). Birds can also be more active just before sundown so this is a good time to be out there looking or listening for the Karearea’s call is which is a rapid “kek-kek-kek”, or for immature birds a high pitched scream.
The New Zealand Falcon/ Karearea also makes regular appearances in most wallets or purses as it is the bird pictured on one side of the New Zealand 20 dollar note.
Abundance and conservation status
- New Zealand: uncommon (vulnerable to endangered)
- Canterbury: gradual decline
The southern form is nationally endangered, the bush form is nationally vulnerable, and the eastern form is in gradual decline (Hitchmough, 2002).
The New Zealand population is basically unknown, probably 3000–4500 pairs (Fox 1977). The current distribution of the New Zealand Falcon/ Karearea in both Canterbury and the rest of New Zealand is strongly affected by direct and indirect human activity.
The Eastern form is the only variation present in Canterbury and is restricted to the hills and high country near the Southern Alps. Juveniles are occasional visitors to Bank’s Peninsula around the Mt Herbert area (Crossland 1996) and there have been unconfirmed reports of a pair breeding in the Okuti valley in 2003 & 2004 (Personal communication with Hugh Wilson). Specialized information about most areas of the New Zealand Falcon’s life cycle is limited. Their population is relatively stable and their habitat isolated. I think these facts have given rise to the idea that they are common enough not to warrant a major study or recovery effort but not common enough to already have their social habits known.
Significance for people
The feathers of the New Zealand Falcon/ Karearea, like the feathers of most New Zealand birds, were used by the Maori for decoration of their cloaks and weavings.
Given the protected nature of the New Zealand Falcon/ Karearea and their restricted range, there are not many modern uses they could be put to, except possibly to remind us of how our actions affect the delicate balance of the natural world around us.
The New Zealand Falcon/ Karearea is an elusive endemic bird that many urban New Zealanders will not be familiar with. It is a bird restricted in number and range mainly because of habitat loss but also by predation of their nests by some introduced mammals. To a certain extent they have been able to cope with the extensive modification of the Canterbury landscape in that they hunt in the open comfortably, and have been able to include some introduced birds and small mammals in their diet.
It is well worth going out into the backcountry or wilderness areas of New Zealand to try and see these spectacular birds.
Bull, P.C.; Gaze, P.D. & Robertson, C. J. D. (1985) The atlas of bird distribution in New Zealand. The Ornithological society of New Zealand, Inc., Wellington, New Zealand.
Checklist Committee of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand (1990) Checklist of the birds of New Zealand (third edition). Random Century in association with the Ornithological society of New Zealand, Inc., Auckland, New Zealand.
Crossland, A. (1996) Port Hills Birdlife. Inventory, analysis & restoration potential. Christchurch City Council. Christchurch, New Zealand.
Fox, N. C. (1977). The Biology of the New Zealand Falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae). PhD Thesis University of Canterbury, Christchurch.
Fox, N. C. (1978). Notornis 25, 203–212.The Ornithological society of New Zealand Inc, Wellington, New Zealand.
Heather, B. & Robertson, H. (1996). The field guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Penguin Books, Auckland, New Zealand.
Hitchmough, R. (compiler) (2002). New Zealand Threat Classification System lists-2002. Threatened species occasional publication 23,210p.
Kelly, C. T. (1986). Collins Hand guide to the birds of New Zealand. Collins, Auckland, New Zealand.
Lawrence, S. (2002); RANZ/DOC New Zealand falcon breeding survey 1994–1998. Doc Science Internal Series 84. Department of Conservation, Wellington. 19p.
Moon, G. (1992) The field guide to New Zealand Birds. Reed Books. Auckland, New Zealand.
Wilson, K-J.(2004) Flight of the Huia. Ecology and conservation of New Zealand’s frogs, reptiles, birds and mammals. University of Canterbury Press, New Zealand.