New Zealand falcon

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New Zealand falcon
NZ Falcon - Karearea 02.JPG
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Falconidae
Subfamily: Falconinae
Genus: Falco
Linnaeus, 1758
F. novaeseelandiae
Binomial name
Falco novaeseelandiae
Gmelin, 1788

The New Zealand falcon or kārearea in Māori (Falco novaeseelandiae) is New Zealand's only falcon. Other common names for the bird are bush hawk and sparrow hawk. It is frequently mistaken for the larger and more common swamp harrier. It is the country's most threatened bird of prey, with only around 3000–5000 breeding pairs remaining.[2][3]

New Zealand falcon from Buller's Birds of New Zealand, 1888


Ornithologists variously described the New Zealand falcon as an aberrant hobby or as allied to three South American species (F. deiroleucus, F. rufigularis, and F. femoralis); however molecular phylogenetic studies show that it is most closely related to the South American Aplomado falcon[4] Two forms are apparent from their significantly different sizes with the larger race in the South Island and the smaller in the North Island. Although neutral genetic markers show a recent history of these two forms, the substantial size difference is likely to be driven by ecological adaptation. Conservation management had already avoided mixing of the North Island (Falco novaeseelandiae ferox) and South Island (Falco novaeseelandiae novaeseelandiae) populations.[5]


With a wingspan between 63 cm (25 in) and 98 cm (39 in)[2] and weight rarely exceeding 450 g (16 oz), the New Zealand falcon is slightly over half the size of the swamp harrier, which it usually attacks on sight. The male is about two-thirds the weight of the female.[6]

It differs from the much larger swamp harrier or kāhu, common throughout New Zealand, in that it catches other birds in flight and rarely eats carrion.

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The New Zealand falcon is mainly found in heavy bush and the steep high country in the South Island, and is rarely seen north of a line through the central area of the North Island. A small population also breeds on the Auckland Islands; the species is known from the Chatham Islands from fossil remains.


An aggressive bird that displays great violence when defending its territory, the New Zealand falcon has been reported to attack dogs, as well as people.


Image of Falco novaeseelandiae egg in the collection of Auckland Museum
Falco novaeseelandiae eggs in the collection of Auckland Museum

The New Zealand falcon nests in a scrape in grassy soil or humus in various locations: under a rock on a steep slope or on a rock ledge, among epiphytic plants on a tree branch, or under a log or branch on the ground,[7][8]or on bare ground,[9] making the two or three eggs that they lay vulnerable to predators such as stray cats, stoats, weasels, possums, and wild dogs.

Relationship with humans[edit]

Although protected since 1970, the kārearea is a threatened species, with fewer than 8000 birds remaining. They continue to be persecuted by farmers and pigeon-owners: up to three-quarters of falcons die in their first year, mostly as a result of human actions.[10]

Falcons for Grapes programme[edit]

In 2005, funding was given by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry towards a programme that uses the falcons to control birds that damage grapes and act as pests in vineyards as well as monitoring the birds and establishing a breeding population in the vicinity of the Marlborough wine region.[11] Initially, four falcons were relocated to the vineyards from the surrounding hills. After the release of a further 15 birds breeding began to occur – the first time it is thought to have happened since land clearance 150 years ago.

Electrocution Threat[edit]

A major ongoing threat to the birds is electrocution.[12][13] Both a five-year radio tracking study [14] of released birds in Marlborough and an observational study in Glenorchy[15] have attributed nearly half of the bird deaths to electrocution on 11,000 volt distribution transformers and structures.

Electrocuted New Zealand falcon found at Glenorchy

Cultural references[edit]

The New Zealand falcon features on the reverse of the New Zealand $20 note and has twice been used on New Zealand stamps. It was also featured on a collectable $5 coin in 2006.[16]

The Royal New Zealand Air Force's aerobatic team is called the Black Falcons.[17]

The proverb "Me te kopae kārearea" or "like the nest of kārearea" means 'rarely seen.' [18]

New Zealand falcon shown in various phases of flight


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Falco novaeseelandiae". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
  2. ^ a b "Douglas, Barea, Waite, Hankin - How Good Design Can Protect the kārearea (New Zealand Falcon) and Improve Network Safety" (PDF). 20 June 2017.
  3. ^ "New Zealand falcon/kārearea - Department of Conservation". 26 June 2017.
  4. ^ Fuchs, J., Johnson, J.A. & Mindell, D.P. 2015. Rapid diversification of falcons (Aves: Falconidae) due to expansion of open habitats in the Late Miocene. Mol. Phylogenet. Evol. 82: 166–182.
  5. ^ Trewick SA, Olley L. 2016. Spatial size dimorphism in New Zealand’s last endemic raptor, the Kārearea Falco novaeseelandiae, coincides with a narrow sea strait. IBIS 158: 747–761
  6. ^ Heather, Barrier; Robertson, Hugh (2005). The Field Guide of the Birds of New Zealand (Revised ed.). North Shore, New Zealand: Penguin Books. pp. 277–278. ISBN 978-0-14-302040-0.
  7. ^ Marchant, S.; Higgins, P.J., eds. (1993). Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Volume 2: Raptors to Lapwings. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. p. 287. ISBN 0-19-553069-1.
  8. ^ Robertson, C.J.R., ed. (1985). Reader's Digest Complete Book of New Zealand Birds. Surry Hills, NSW: Reader's Digest. pp. 154–155. ISBN 0-949819-97-2.
  9. ^ Moon, Geoff. (2010). New Zealand forest birds and their world. Auckland, N.Z.: New Holland. p. 37. ISBN 9781869661960. OCLC 314752354.
  10. ^ Yarwood, Vaughan (July–August 2018). "The hunters". New Zealand Geographic. 152: 104–105.
  11. ^ "SFF Project Summary". Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Archived from the original on 22 May 2010. Retrieved 25 February 2010. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  12. ^ "Falcons Return to Wairau Plain". Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (press release). 13 December 2007. Archived from the original on 23 May 2010. Retrieved 25 February 2010. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  13. ^ "Protection sought for vineyard falcons". Radio New Zealand. 25 February 2010. Retrieved 25 February 2010.
  14. ^ Fox; Wynn (2010). "The impact of electrocution on the New Zealand falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae)". Notornis. 57 (2): 71–74.
  15. ^ Waite, Ed (2017). "Causes of mortality for kārearea / New Zealand falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae) in the Whakatipu district". Notornis. 64: 21–23.
  16. ^ 2006 New Zealand Falcon coin sets Archived 13 May 2006 at the Wayback Machine. Accessed 6 April 2006.
  17. ^ "New air force planes 'a huge step up'".
  18. ^ Murdoch, Riley (2001). Maori Bird Lore. Viking Sevenseas NZ. p. 72. ISBN 0854671005.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]