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  • It is estimated there are currently 209 breeding bird species in Aotearoa New Zealand. How can we tell what bird species we are observing? All living and non-living things have features that set them apart from each other. These features allow us to identify and classify everything around us. Some of these features are obvious such as beak shape and size, colouration and the overall size of the bird. Some may not be as obvious such as the bird’s song, egg size and colour and the differences between the female and male of the same species.

    Rights: Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research

    Bird guide

    A guide to birds you might see in your backyard in New Zealand.

    Download a PDF version here.

    What makes a bird a bird?

    Birds, classified under the class of Aves, are considered living dinosaurs due to their special features. All birds have feathers, an internal skeleton, two legs and two wings, breathe air, are warm blooded and lay eggs. Birds also have differences – a kiwi is very different to a sparrow or a kākā. Each has special adaptations or features that allow them to survive in the habitat they live in.

    Rights: Roy E. Plotnick, Jessica M. Theodor & Thomas R. Holtz Jr. CC BY 4.0

    The origin of birds

    A phylogenetic tree is a diagram that shows the lines of evolutionary descent of different species from a common ancestor. This is a simplified diagram showing the evolutionary path of birds.

    Special adaptations

    One adaptation that sets birds apart from other animals is their feathers. Feathers are modifications of the outer skin and are essential to regulate body temperature and flight. There are different types of feathers and each has a different function. Birds are capable of extraordinary navigational and long-distance migrations and manoeuvrability exploits. Of course, some birds – like the kiwi, moa and kākāpō – have adapted to a flightless life.

    The ability to fly is perhaps the most common attribute of birds. Sustained flight is not unique to birds – bats and insects are also capable of flying. Birds that fly have developed a unique, lightweight skeletal system with hollow bones. The purpose of the wishbone (furcula) is to prevent the compression of the chest during the downward stroke of flight.

    Birds have no teeth – they have beaks. The size, shape and colour of beaks vary widely across the different species of birds. What the bird eats and where it lives will determine the uniqueness of its beak.

    Rights: Rob Suisted, Nature’s Pic Images

    Whio lips

    The whio has rubbery soft flaps on the end of its bill to help scrape its food off the surfaces of rocks. Look closely, and you’ll also see the sieve-like structures inside the bill. It uses these to sieve larvae and insects.

    Bird identification

    When we observe birds in the wild, we need to take note of the features that may help us to identify them such as:

    • overall size and shape
    • beak size, colour and shape
    • feet size, colour and shape
    • wing shape and size
    • colours – and if the head is a different colour to the body
    • where they live
    • nesting habits – this may be hard to observe
    • flight habits
    • birdsong.

    Some of the obvious features like size, shape and colour can easily identify commonly known species. Occasionally, if we see a bird we do not know, we will need to take note of as many features of the bird as possible to be able to identify it. Websites such as New Zealand Birds Online, the New Zealand Garden Bird Survey and iNaturalist have a wonderful repository of images, sounds and descriptions of birds.

    There is lots of information on how you can identify birds in the slideshow below. Try them in your classroom!

    Rights: Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research and The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    What do you notice? – bird identification – Slideshow

    We can use our senses to identify birds – there are lots of clues.

    Please check the notes that accompany the slides. They contain activity instructions, prompting questions and teaching suggestions.

    Use the slideshow menu for further options, including view full screen, and go here for the download option.

    Te Tatauranga o ngā Manu Māra o Aotearoa

    This article is part of a suite of resources for kaiako and tauira to immerse themselves in learning, understanding and acknowledging the birdlife in our environment. Other resources include:

    Nature of science

    Observation is such an important science capability to develop in learners. It is something we often do instinctively, but it is also a learned skill. Observation is more than just what you see – it encompasses what you hear, feel and smell (if possible). Science and mātauranga Māori knowledge systems rely on well-developed observational abilities.

    Related content

    The Hub has an extensive range of resources featuring birds:

    Find out more about our native birds such as the kiwi, takahē, kākā, New Zealand ducks, penguins, godwits, ruru and kererū.

    For all of our articles and activities, browse through our birds topic.

    For more on populations, see Population biology.

    We have repurposed the popular Building Science Concepts Book 3 Birds: Structure, Function, and Adaptation with an article and interactive linking this great resource with Hub content.

    Citizen science

    Protecting native birds references the important role of citizen scientists. We feature the New Zealand Garden Bird Survey in our citizen science section. Our context for learning offers ideas for getting started and making the most of the survey.

    Participate in eBird to log bird sighting data year round and compare data from around the world.

    The iNaturalist online citizen science project uses Seek, a species identification app.

    Connected articles

    The Ministry of Education’s Connected series includes the following articles and teacher support material: The takeaway table, What Alice saw, Keep your cat inside and Bringing back the birdsong.

    Activity ideas

    Birds in my backyard is a ready-to-use cross-curricular teaching resource.

    Classifying bird adaptations uses cards and literacy techniques to explore key science concepts.

    Useful links

    Other resources you may find useful:


    This resource has been produced in collaboration with Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research and the New Zealand Garden Bird Survey.

    Rights: Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research

    Manaaki Whenua and New Zealand Garden Bird Survey

    Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research is a Crown research institute. Its core purpose is to drive innovation in the management of terrestrial biodiversity and land resources. One of the national projects it runs is the annual survey of garden birds Te Tatauranga o ngā Manu Māra o Aotearoa | New Zealand Garden Bird Survey. The data collected from citizen scientists helps researchers and practitioners understand how birds are coping with environmental challenges.

      Published 17 June 2024 Referencing Hub articles
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