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Weka - Galliralus australis australis | by Steve Attwood
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Weka - Galliralus australis australis

This is a western weka, one of four sub-species of weka in New Zealand, the others being the North Island weka (greyi), buff weka (hectori) and Stewart island weka (scotti).

These birds were filmed on the shores of Lake Brunner on the South Island's West Coast.

A flightless bird species of the rail family endemic to New Zealand, weka are sturdy brown birds, about the size of a chicken. As omnivores, they feed mainly on invertebrates and fruit. Weka usually lay eggs between August and January; both sexes help to incubate. Weka are predominantly rich brown mottled with black and grey; the brown shade varies from pale to dark depending on subspecies. At over 50 cm long, the male is about 1 kg and the female is about 700 g. The reddish-brown beak is about 5 cm long, stout and tapered, and used as a weapon. The pointed tail is near-constantly being flicked, a sign of unease characteristic of the rail family. Weka have sturdy legs and reduced wings.

The Western Weka is found mainly in the northern and western regions of the South Island from Nelson to Fiordland. Distinguished by dark red-brown and black streaking on the breast, the Western Weka has two distinct colour phases, that of the southernmost range showing a greater degree of black.

Weka occupy areas such as forests, sub-alpine grassland, sand dunes, rocky shores and modified semi-urban environments. They are omnivorous, with a diet comprising 30% animal foods and 70% plant foods. Animal foods include earthworms, larvae, beetles, weta, ants, grass grubs, slugs, snails, insect eggs, slaters, frogs, spiders, rats, mice, and small birds. Plant foods include leaves, grass, berries and seeds. Weka are important in the bush as seed dispersers, distributing seeds too large for smaller berry-eating birds. Where the Weka is relatively common, their furtive curiosity leads them to search around houses and camps for food scraps, or anything unfamiliar and transportable. The breeding season varies, but when food is plentiful, Weka can raise up to four broods throughout the whole year. Nests are made on the ground under the cover of thick vegetation, and built by making grass (or similar material) into a bowl to hold about four eggs. On average, female Weka lay three creamy or pinkish eggs blotched with brown and mauve. Both sexes incubate. The chicks hatch after a month, and are fed by both parents until fully grown between six and ten weeks.

Weka are classed as a vulnerable species. The Department of Conservation's Weka recovery plan, approved in 1999, aims to improve the conservation status of threatened Weka, clarify the status of data deficient Weka, maintain the non-threatened status of other Weka, and eventually restore all Weka to their traditional ranges as a significant component of the ecosystems.

Weka are problematic in conservation; some subspecies are threatened, but have been a problem to other threatened wildlife on offshore islands, especially when introduced to an island that they would not naturally inhabit. Weka are unable to withstand the current pressures faced in both the North Island and South Island. However, they can be very productive in good conditions and high food availability. Year-round breeding has been recorded at several sites with up to 14 young produced in a year. Weka populations can persist in highly modified habitats, but they have disappeared from huge areas of their former range, suggesting that they can adapt to a wide range of conditions but are particularly vulnerable to threats.

The Department of Conservation identifies eight main threats to Weka. Predation by ferrets, cats and dogs are a threat to adult Weka; stoats, ferrets are a threat to chicks; stoats and rats are a threat to eggs. It faces competition with introduced species for fruits and invertebrates, and suffers from the impact browsers have on forest composition and regeneration. Habitat depletion is caused by the modification and degradation of forests and wetlands. Diseases and parasites have been associated with population declines, although little is known. Drought has been implicated in the disappearance of Weka from some areas. In some regions, motor vehicles cause a significant amount of roadkill death. Pest control operations sometimes kill Weka, as they have ground foraging habits vulnerable to poison baits, and traps are laid in a way that Weka can reach. Genetic diversity can be lost during the transmission of genes through generations, affecting isolated populations. Weka are significant to some Māori iwi who admire their curiosity and feisty, bold personality. These also led to them being relatively easy to catch. Weka were used by the Māori as a source of food, perfume, oil to treat inflammations, feathers in clothing and lures to catch dogs. Early European explorers and settlers frequently encountered and utilised Weka, who gave them the name "bush hen". Tales of Weka stealing shiny items and bags of sugar are part of New Zealand folklore.

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Taken on August 8, 2013