Titipounamu / Rifleman

Meet NZ’s smallest bird!

English name: Rifleman

Māori name: Titipounamu / Tītitipounamu

Scientific name: Acanthisitta chloris granti (North Island), Acanthisitta chloris chloris (South Island)

NZ Status: Endemic (found only in NZ)

Conservation Status (NZTCS): Not Threatened

Found: North and South Island, and some offshore islands​

Threats: Predation, habitat destruction​

Did you know? They keep in contact with a high-pitched buzzing “zipt zipt zipt”, which is the chatter usually heard during calls between mates. Their high-pitched call is at a frequency of 7-10 kilohertz, a note so high it is out of hearing range for some people!​

Photo Credit: Melissa Boardman

The rifleman, or titipounamu, is one of two surviving species within the ancient New Zealand wren family. Māori refer the little birds as messengers to the gods, specifically as one of the messengers of Tāne, god of the forest. Titipounamu is a derivative of two words: “tītiti” which means “a mirage or vision of”, and “pounamu”, which is greenstone, referencing their greenish plumage.

Male titipounamu are smaller than females and have a bright green head and back, whilst females are more subtle in colour with yellow-brown speckles on the head and back. Both sexes have pale grey chests. Their wings are noticeably short and rounded when they fly- as a result, rifleman are relatively poor flyers with limited capability to fly across wide water or open habitats. Being an acrobatic bird, they can hang and hold themselves upside down in precarious angles, clinging onto branches with their strong hooked claws.

Titipounamu are often mistaken with the riroriro/grey warbler, pōpokotea/whitehead, and tauhou/silvereye. However, their short and stubby tail sets them apart from other smaller birds. Their bill is pointed upwards to help them lift lichen and tree bark in their search for invertebrates, which make up around about 90% of their diet. They most often feed high in the canopy, often hopping up and down tree trunks with their wings flicking in quick, repeated movements. Titipounamu are often seen in cooperative groups which raise broods together. Unrelated, unpaired helpers, particularly males, may also assist in caring and breeding for the nestlings, and may have pairing opportunities with them in the future.

60 riflemen were translocated into Zealandia from Wainuiomata Mainland Island in early 2019. In the past, titipounamu were found in abundance in mature North and South Island, beech and podocarp forests. They survive as geographically isolated populations, mainly confined to higher altitude throughout both the North and South Islands. Rifleman were found to be widespread during the time of European settlement, but populations decreased with the loss of lowland forest and are now patchily distributed.

Look for them: Your best chance of encountering them is along the Beech Track, Jim and Eve Lynch Track, and eastern side of the Round the Lake Track. Look out for the pink ribbons: each marks a bird release site. These tags tell the story of which bird was released there, its leg band combination, sex, and when it was first released.