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Chatham Island pigeon

Home > New Zealand ecology > Fruit-eating birds > Chatham Island pigeon       




The Chatham Island pigeon Hemiphaga chathamensis, also known to Maori as parea, found only in forest remnants and the Tuku Nature Reserve on the Chatham Islands, belongs to the Columbidae family of the Columbiformes order.

The parea is critically endangered, listed as 'nationally critical' in the 2012 New Zealand Threat Classification System, and 'endangered' in the 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. A CD IE OL

The total population got as low as 40 birds in 1986.  Parea have made quite a remarkable recovery, mainly because of strict predator and hunting control.  By 1996 there were about 200 birds, and today there are thought to be 500.

H. chathamensis is one of two species of native pigeon, after being given full species status in 2001.  It was previously described as a subspecies of the mainland New Zealand pigeon (kereru) H. novaeseelandiae.

It is distinguished by its larger body size, shorter wings and tail, and other appearance and structural differences from H. novaeseelandiae which is more prevalent throughout New Zealand and is listed in 'gradual decline'.

The parea is less colourful than kereru, with upper breast plumage that is more purple and pearl-grey.  It is one of the world's largest pigeon species, 20 percent heavier than kereru.

disperser of the seeds of cabbage tree, taraire, tawa, karaka, kahikatea, miro, Lauraceae and Arecaceae

Above: Parea Hemiphaga chathamensis, Chatham Islands, 1994.  Photo Ian Flux, Crown Copyright © Department of Conservation.
View slideshow of larger pigeon images

Kereru Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae is listed in the theatened category of 'gradual decline' in the New Zealand Threat Classification System, while its Chatham Island relative, parea Hemiphaga chathamensis is endangered with a listing of 'nationally critical'.

Kereru was upgraded in 2007 from 'least concern' to 'near threatened', and parea is 'endangered' in the 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

An extremely healthy looking Chatham Island pigeon, Chatham Islands.  Photo Ian Flux, Crown Copyright © 1994 Department of Conservation.
View slideshow of larger pigeon images

Hear the sound of Chatham Island pigeon
    while feeding
   MP3  1,278K  1 min 21 sec.
    Crown Copyright © Department of Conservation

A most important seed disperser of native plants ......

The parea is a fruit-eating bird that provides an essential function in the ecological sustainability, and restoration, of lowland forests by dispersing seeds.

The New Zealand pigeon plays an important seed dispersal role, consuming fruits of at least 70 plant species and defecating the seeds intact [McEwen 1978; Clout & Hay 1989; Kelly et al. 2006].

About 70 percent of New Zealand's forest bird species, including most small insectivores, eat fruits. Most New Zealand fruits are clearly adapted for bird dispersal. Proceedings of the New Zealand Ecological Society 11: 48-55. Buller, W.L. 1888. A History of the Birds of

Nine large native forest trees providing fruit for tui include karaka, tawa, puriri, miro, titoki, pigeonwood, black maire, matai and kohekohe.

Kereru were previously thought to be the only seed disperser of the large 19.6mm diameter fruit of taraire Beilschmiedia tarairi, but kokako have more recently been seen eating the fruit.  However, kereru remain the only reliable disperser because of the very limited range of kokako.

tawa Beilschmiedia tawa, tawapou Planchonella costata, karaka corynocarpus laevigatus. and puriri Vitex lucens miro Prumnopitys ferruginea, fivefinger Pseudopanax arboreus, and kahikatea Dacrycarpus dacrydioides

Habitat destruction, introduced predators and over-harvesting have caused koura populations to decline (Department of Conservation)

The subantarctic teals are two of the world's few remaining flightless ducks.  Others include two species of flightless steamer duck, Tachyeres pteneres from Tierra del Fuego, Chile at the bottom of South America, and Tachyeres brachypterus which is endemic to the Falkland Islands.

A long history of human consumption of kereru

Restrictions on shooting pigeon were first enacted in 1864, and total protection has been in place since 1921.  There have been recent prosecutions for shooting pigeon, which presently has total protection under the Wildlife Act 1953.

Nevertheless, protective legislation did not stop human consumption of pigeon, the largest of the flighted forest birds which get plump and sumptuous when food is available.  Some Maori make the claim that killing pigeon for food is a traditional right.

As primarily frugivorous, kereru must eat large quantities of fruit to obtain sufficient nutrition.  They gorge on a large variety of native fruit as it is in season, and during a particular fruiting period, their flesh takes on the taste of that fruit.

In A history of the birds of New Zealand, published in 1888, Sir Walter Buller wrote "in the spring and early summer it is generally very lean and unfit for the table; but as autumn advances and its favourite berries ripen, it rapidly improves in condition, till it becomes extremely fat.

It is esteemed most by epicures when feeding on the mast of the miro, which imparts a peculiar richness to the flesh.

Kereru were speared and snared in great numbers by Maori, sometimes taking as many as sixty in one day.

In January the berries of the kohutuhutu, poroporo, kaiwiria, puriri, mangiao, and tupakihi constitute its ordinary bill of fare.  From February to April their place is supplied by those of the tawa, matai, kahikatea, mapau, titoki, and maire.

It is worth remarking that in localities where it happens to be feeding exclusively on the pulpy fruit of the kahikatea, it is not only in very poor condition, but acquires a disagreeable flavour from the turpentine contained in the seeds.

Towards the close of this period also, the ti-palm, which comes into full bearing only at intervals of three or four years, occasionally supplies this bird with an abundant feast. These tropical-looking palms often form extensive groves in the open country or in swampy situations; and when the pigeons resort to them they are speared and snared in great numbers by the Maoris, an expert hand sometimes taking as many as sixty in a single day.

In May and June it feeds chiefly on the miro and pate, when it reaches its prime and is much sought after. From July to September it lives almost entirely on taraire in the north, and on hinau, koeka, ramarama, and other smaller berries in the south.

During the months of October, November, and December it is compelled to subsist in a great measure upon the green leaves of the kowhai Sophora tetraptera, whauhi, and of several creeping plants. It also feeds on the tender shoots of the puwha, a kind of sow-thistle; and the flesh then partakes of the bitterness of that plant.

When the bird is feeding wholly on the dark berries of the whao the colour of its flesh is said to become affected by that of the food."


Buller WL, A History of the birds of New Zealand, Sir Walter Lawry Buller, London 1888, The New Zealand Electronic Text Centre (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand Licence).

Clout MN, Hay JR, The importance of birds as browsers, pollinators and seed dispersers in New Zealand forests, New Zealand Journal of Ecology, Vol 12 (supplement) 1989.

Kelly D, Ladley JJ, Robertson AW, Anderson SH, Wotton DM, Wiser SK, Mutalisms with the wreckage of an avifauna: The status of bird pollination and fruit-dispersal in New Zealand, New Zealand Journal of Ecology, (2010) 34(1): pp 66-85.

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