Kereru (New Zealand Pigeon, Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) feeding on spring blossoms of Montpellier broom (Teline monspessulana)
Photographed at Zealandia, Karori Sanctuary.
New Zealand Pigeon (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) is a bird endemic to New Zealand. Māori call it Kererū in most of the country but kūkupa and kūkū in some parts of the North Island, particularly in Northland. New Zealand pigeons are commonly called wood pigeons but are not the same as the Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus) which is a member of a different genus.
The kererū belongs to the family Columbidae, and the subfamily Treroninae, which is found throughout Southeast Asia, Malaya, Africa and New Zealand. The members of this subfamily feed largely on fruits, mainly drupes. New Zealand Pigeons are members of the pigeon genus Hemiphaga (Bonaparte, 1854), which is endemic to the New Zealand archipelago and Norfolk Island. However recently a Hemiphaga bone was found on Raoul Island. The Parea or Chatham Island Pigeon (Hemiphaga chathamensis) is traditionally considered a subspecies of the Kererū, but is here treated as a separate species.
The New Zealand Pigeon is a large (550 to 850 g) arboreal fruit-pigeon found in forests from Northland to Stewart Island/Rakiura, ranging in habitats from coastal to montane. The general morphology is that of a typical pigeon, in that it has a relatively small head, a straight soft-based bill and loosely attached feathers. It also displays typical pigeon behaviour, which includes drinking by suction, a wing-threat display, hitting with the wing when threatened, a diving display flight, a ‘bowing’ display, ritualised preening and ‘billing’ during courtship. New Zealand Pigeons build flimsy, shallow, twiggy nests and feed crop milk to hatchlings.
The New Zealand Pigeon grows to some 51 cm (20 inches) in length and 650 g in weight. The head, throat and wings are generally a shiny green-purple colour, but with a bronze tinge to the feathers. The breast is typically white and the bill red with an orange-ish tip. The feet and eyes are red. Juveniles have a similar colouration but are generally paler with dull colours for the beak, eyes and feet and a shorter tail.
The New Zealand Pigeons make occasional soft coo sounds (hence the onomatopoeic names), and their wings make a very distinctive "whooshing" sound as they fly. The bird's flight is also very distinctive. Birds will often ascend slowly before making impressively steep parabolic dives; it is thought that this behaviour is often associated with nesting, or nest failure
The New Zealand Pigeons are commonly regarded as frugivorous, primarily eating fruits from native trees. They play an important ecological role, as they are the only birds capable of eating the largest native fruits and drupes (those with smallest diameter greater than 1 cm), such as those of the taraire, and thus spreading the seeds intact. While fruit comprises the major part of their diets, the New Zealand Pigeon also browses on leaves and buds, especially nitrogen rich foliage during breeding. One of their favorite leaves to eat is from an introduced plant, the common plum tree. The diet changes seasonally as the availability of fruit changes, and leaves can comprise the major part of the diet at certain times of the year, such as when there is little fruit around.
Breeding generally depends on the occurrence of ripe fruit, which varies seasonally, annually (good years and bad years), and by location. New Zealand Pigeons, like other frugivorous pigeons, feed on many species with tropical affinities, including the Lauraceae and Arecaceae but live in the temperate forest of New Zealand and also feed on podocarp species, thought to be elements of Gondwana, such as miro (Prumnopitys ferruginea) and Kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides). The more tropical tree species are restricted to the warmer northern half of the North Island, and in these regions pigeons can nest all year round, except when moulting between March and May, provided enough fruit is available. Further south many tropical tree species are missing and in these areas breeding usually occurs between October (early spring) and April (late summer/early autumn), again depending on fruit availability.
New Zealand Pigeons nest in trees, laying a single egg, in a flimsy nest constructed of a few twigs thrown together. The egg is incubated for 28 days. The young bird then takes another 36 days to fledge. In seasons of plentiful fruit the pigeons can successfully nest up to four times.
The population of the New Zealand Pigeon declined considerably after the arrival of humans in New Zealand, and this trend continues, especially in the North Island, but is still relatively common in the west of the South Island and in coastal Otago. They are commonly found in native forests (lowlands in particular), scrub, rural and city gardens and parks.
The introduced Australian common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) and introduced species of rats — mainly the ship or black rat (Rattus rattus) but also the kiore or Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans) and brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) — have significantly reduced the amount of fruit available for pigeons and other native birds and also prey on eggs and nestlings.
Pigeon populations are under also threat from hunting, habitat degradation and poor reproductive success. Pigeons were very numerous until about the 1860s and large flocks used to congregate in fruiting trees to feed. Restrictions on the shooting of pigeons were enacted as early as 1864, with total protection since 1921, although the enforcement against hunting was not consistent. Some Māori protested, claiming a traditional right to hunt the pigeon.