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Bellbirds

photo of bellbirds
Photo: Ben Paris
photo of bellbird
Photo: Karori Sancturay Trust

>> Click here to report a bellbird sighting

Bellbirds are endemic to New Zealand (only found in New Zealand), and until recently had not been seen in Hamilton for more than a century. The bellbird is known in Maori as the korimako, makomako, or rearea.

Bellbirds are approximately 20cm long. The male bird is olive green in colour with a yellow-green belly while the female bellbird is brown with a thin white stripe running from the bill across the cheek.

The bellbird breeding season is approximately September through to February. Bellbirds tend to nest fairly high up in trees, and prefer trees with dense foliage for cover. A good range of food sources is required in the near vicinity, with flowering/fruiting times spread throughout the breeding season. Bellbirds are strongly territorial during the breeding season.

A pair of bellbirds maintain the same breeding territory year after year. The female makes the nest and lays three to five eggs. Both parents feed the chicks, which fledge at about 14 days old. A pair can raise two broods in a season. The oldest bellbird recorded lived to over 8 years.

Bellbirds collect nectar and fruit from a variety of native plant species. Bellbirds feed on nectar, fruit and insects, with insects being particularly important to females and chicks during the breeding season. They often feed high up in tree canopies but do come down to flax and native fuchsia. In 2010 bellbirds were released into the Hamilton Gardens with the aim of re-establishing them in the city. Report a bellbird sighting here.

Bellbird songbook

Bellbird song varies enormously from one place to another and also varies according to season/behaviour and the sex of the bird. Bellbird song comprises three distinct sounds resembling the chiming of bells. They sing throughout the day, but more so in the morning and evening. The alarm call is a series of loud, rapidly repeated, harsh staccato notes. Listen below.

Bellbird alarm call
(293 kb, 41 seconds to download, 56k modem)

Bellbird repetitive call
(649 kb, 92 seconds to download, 56k modem)

Bellbird song courtesy of Department of Conservation.

Bringing bellbirds back to Hamilton

Before human arrival the bellbird was found throughout New Zealand but had either disappeared or drastically declined by the mid-late 19th Century.

In 2009 a multi-agency programme led by Landcare Research and the University of Waikato, released bellbirds from Auckland’s Tiritiri Matangi and Tawharanui bird sanctuaries into the Hamilton Gardens, with the aim of building up a breeding population in the city.

Preparatory work for the release involved pest control at the Hammond Park bush area upstream of the gardens. Supplementary feeders were used at the Hamilton Gardens to help the birds adjust to their new surroundings. 'Acoustic anchoring' was also used at bush sites near the gardens to help stop them flying away from the central city – this involved playing recorded song from the bellbirds’ home dialect for 10 days.

To monitor how many bellbirds stayed around after the release, about 20 birds had radio transmitters attached, with a two-week battery supply. The Ornithological Society’s Waikato branch was also invited to monitor birds at the feeders in the gardens by recording leg bands.

Find out more about the project and watch some stunning footage from the bellbird release in the video below (thanks to Salina Ghazally for this clip):

Why were bellbirds released in Hamilton?

It’s all part of the bigger picture of urban restoration ecology. Bellbirds are good pollinators and are an important part of an urban eco-system. The return of birds like tui and bellbird to Hamilton will complement other biodiversity restoration initiatives such as the Waiwhakareke Natural Heritage Park, and gully restoration projects occurring in Hamilton.

Why are some bellbirds wearing leg bands?

Leg bands were attached to a group of bellbirds that were moved from Tiritiri Matangi and Tawharanui to their new home in Hamilton. The leg bands are used to help monitor bellbird sightings and track their movement.

How do you read leg bands?

Leg bands are read from top to bottom and left to right. Birds may have more than one coloured band on each leg, it is important to note the colour and order of each band so that we can identify the bird from our database.