Tūī belong to the honeyeater family (Meliphagidae) and have a long brush-tipped tongue which makes it an excellent tool for lapping up nectar from flowers. They are one of New Zealand’s most prolific pollinators, and can often be seen feeding from kowhai, fuchsia, flax, and pohutukawa when in flower. They are extremely territorial and will vigorously chase away other birds from their feeding territories.
Tūī were once known to European settlers as the parson bird, referring to its black colouring except for the white bib of feathers at its throat. However, up close, especially in bright sunlight, the tūī is much more colourful with iridescent green, bluish-purple, and bronze colouration.
The tūī is well known for its complex and varied song. A Maori proverb describes great orators or singers as ‘me he korokoro tūī’ – 'he has the throat of a tūī'. Their impressive range of sound is due in part to their many muscles that control their “double voice-box”. Each individual bird develops its own repertoire of sounds that can include bell-like tones similar to the bellbird, plus clicks, cackles, creaks , organ-like wheezing and long, raspy, resonant notes. The tūī also produces sounds that are inaudible to the human ear. Singing birds are regularly seen with mouth wide open and throat pulsating but we can hear no sound emerging.
They are also great mimics, copying other birds or in urban settings often accurately repeating the ringtones of phones and door chimes. This talent for mimicry made them a popular cage bird for Maori and early settlers where they were taught to talk or whistle particular tunes. Maori stories tell of tūī trained so well they could welcome people to a marae. Some of these birds became so famous they were fought over.
Here at Zealandia, tūī were once so rare that special troughs of sugar water were installed so that they could be more easily seen by visitors. However, since the successful eradication of mammalian pests here, tūī have become very common. Thanks to city-wide pest eradication efforts, tūī have made a dramatic comeback throughout Wellington are now reported in parts of the city they hadn’t been seen in for decades.