New Zealand is home to a wide variety of water fowl. Water fowl is the common name for the Anatidae, the family of birds that includes ducks, geese and swans. Most of the Anatidae in New Zealand are endemic, but a few have become naturalised here and several have been deliberately introduced. Many of our native ducks became extinct even before Europeans arrived in New Zealand. There are currently nine species of native ducks in New Zealand, and several of these are endangered.
Different New Zealand duck species have become adapted to particular habitats in New Zealand and have co-existed by taking advantage of different ecological niches. Each species has unique adaptations and characteristics that are summarised below.
The mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) is the most common duck in New Zealand. They are an introduced species found in wetlands all over New Zealand. They are dabbling ducks that congregate in groups or flocks of varying sizes, eating water plants and small invertebrates. They have bright orange legs and feet, orange and brown bills and a blue speculum edged with white at both the front and back. The males and females have very different plumage. Drakes have a glossy green head and are grey on their wings and belly, and hens are mainly brown speckled.
They are so well established in New Zealand that they are now considered an invasive pest. Mallards are game birds and are the main species shot during duck-shooting season. They are considered to be the main ancestor of most breeds of domesticated ducks.
The Muscovy duck (Cairina moschata) is another introduced species of duck that lives in swamps, bodies of freshwater and on adjacent pastures. They eat plant material and small aquatic organisms obtained by grazing or dabbling in shallow water. They are territorial and competitive regarding food sources. Wild Muscovy ducks in New Zealand have orange legs and a red-wattled face around a pale brown beak. They are mostly white, although there are some that have black markings. They have not yet established significant wild populations in New Zealand, and it is suspected that the ones seen in the wild have originally escaped from domesticity. They are not a protected species.
New Zealand scaup/pāpango
New Zealand scaup/pāpango (Aythya novaeseelandiae) are the only true diving duck in New Zealand. They are endemic and live in lakes and rivers throughout mainland New Zealand. They are most common on large, deep, freshwater lakes but are seen in increasing numbers on more shallow lowland lakes, slow-flowing rivers and saltwater. They often congregate in sheltered areas, obtaining most of their food by diving. They eat snails, caddisfly larvae, other aquatic invertebrates and plant material. Scaup/pāpango are also known also as black teal, matapōuri, tītīpōrangi or raipo. They are not threatened but are protected. Both sexes are a dark brown/black colour, but males have yellow eyes and a greenish head whereas females don’t have yellow eyes and have a white-patched face during breeding season. A white wing bar can be seen in both sexes while they are flying.
Grey teal/tētē (Anas gracilis) originally came from Australia in the mid-19th century. As they are now naturalised here, they are considered to be native ducks and can be distinguished from the original New Zealand teal species by the lack of a white eye-ring. They are now more widespread throughout New Zealand than the other three teal species.
They inhabit low-lying freshwater lakes and swamps with extensive marginal cover. At times, they can also be seen on salty or brackish water. They are normally nocturnal feeders but can be seen at dawn and dusk feeding on small aquatic invertebrates and the seeds of swamp plants. They are not threatened but are protected from hunting. Grey teal/tētē are mostly grey-brown, with pale cheeks, chins and throats, a dark grey bill and bright crimson eyes (especially in adult males). They are smaller than mallards and grey ducks.
The paradise shelduck/pūtangitangi (Tadorna variegata) is endemic to New Zealand. They are large goose-like ducks, also called pūtakitaki or paradise ducks. Both the male and female have striking plumage with green, chestnut and white wings, but the males have a black head and body and the females have a white head with a chestnut body. They usually live as pairs and inhabit a wide range of habitat in New Zealand. Unlike many other native ducks, they have benefited from human modification of the landscapes throughout the country, grazing on grass and weeds in pasture, tussocklands and wetlands. They are not threatened and are prized game birds. They are even considered pests in some places due to their habit of raiding agricultural crops.
New Zealand shoveler/kuruwhengi
The New Zealand shoveler/kuruwhengi (Anas rhynchotis variegata) is a subspecies of the Australasian shoveler and is endemic to New Zealand. They mainly occur on large freshwater wetlands but can also be found in estuaries, brackish lakes and sewage ponds throughout mainland New Zealand and Stewart Island. They are filter feeders, eating small plankton, invertebrates and fine seeds sifted through their bill. The bill is spoon shaped in both males and females, and this is the easiest way to distinguish them from other species. Both sexes have very different plumage. The males have variegated, colourful plumage with a blue-grey head and neck, black bill, yellow eye, bright orange legs and a brown chest that turns white after breeding and during moulting. Females are mottled light brown with dull brown bills and eyes and brown-orange legs. They are not threatened nor protected, and they are classed as a game bird.
Blue duck/whio (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) are endemic to New Zealand and are one of only a few species of torrent ducks in the world. Torrent ducks inhabit clean, fast-flowing, rocky-bottomed rivers and streams, and in New Zealand, these are now mainly found in mountainous areas. The blue duck/whio eats mainly invertebrate larvae that they scrape off the surface of the rocks with their specially adapted soft bill. They are a small, blue-grey duck with a slightly brown chest and yellow eyes. They have several specialised adaptations for fast water, including the soft rubbery white bill that has black ‘flaps’ on either side, webbed feet that fold backwards to allow better streamlining in the water and extremely good camouflage. Both sexes are very similar, and the main way they can be distinguished is through their different calls. They are a nationally vulnerable species and are protected, with significant efforts currently being made to improve their conservation status. They are pictured on the $10 note.
Grey duck/pārera (Anas superciliosa superciliosa) are sometimes incorrectly called the Pacific black duck. The New Zealand subspecies is endemic, but it has very close relatives in the Pacific and Australia. They inhabit wetlands, streams and sometimes estuaries and like to have some plant cover. They eat mostly plant material, including seeds, and like the soft tips of aquatic plants. Invertebrates such as insect larvae, snails and worms make up a small proportion of their diet. They have extensively hybridised with introduced mallards and so numbers of purebred grey ducks are thought to be very low. Pure grey ducks tend to be found well away from human activity.
As it is very hard to distinguish them from both the mallards and hybrids, grey ducks are not protected, and despite the fact that they are our most endangered duck and classed as nationally critical, they are on the game bird list.
The two main identifying features that set them apart from the mallards are subtle. The speculums of the grey ducks are green rather than blue, and they have brown legs rather than the bright orange of the mallard.
Brown teal/pāteke (Anas chlorotis) are dabbling ducks endemic to New Zealand. They were once common in kahikatea forest swamps and a range of other aquatic habitats. They are omnivorous, with a diverse diet that includes terrestrial, freshwater and marine invertebrates and vegetation such as seeds and leaves of both land and water plants. There were two subspecies of pāteke, but the South Island subspecies is now extinct. The North Island subspecies has the lowest numbers of any duck on the mainland and is considered to be at risk – recovering, with concerted conservation efforts currently in place.
They have an obvious white eye-ring and dark brown eyes, as do all teal species that are endemic to New Zealand. This distinguishes them from the other species of teal that have originated overseas, such as the grey teal. They are darkish brown with bars of colour on their wings, green speculums and dark grey legs and bills. Breeding males have a greenish colouring on their heads and a chestnut chest. There are two other critically endangered teal species living on the Subantarctic Islands.
Nature of science
Identification of species relies on students developing their investigative skills, part of the ‘Investigating in science’ strand of the nature of science. Students are encouraged to work like scientists, using their observational evidence to make decisions. This fosters the development of science capabilities such as ‘Gather and interpret data’.
Examples of related articles on the Science Learning Hub include Who’s who in the duck world?, Introducing New Zealand ducks, Fantastic whio feathers, Conserving native birds – introduction and Conserving native birds – writer’s insight. There are also several teacher PLD sessions related to this topic: Diving into inquiry with whio, Why learn about whio?, Inquiry outside the classroom, Taking action for conservation, Bird conservation and literacy and SLH and conservation.
Some activities on the Science Learning Hub related to whio and other New Zealand ducks that you may wish to explore include Ethics in bird conservation, Eliciting prior knowledge, Whio feathers – what are they for?, Which duck is which?, Mixing and matching ducks, Duck dominoes and Ethics in conservation science.