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Being an island nation with a history of long isolation and having no land mammals apart from bats, the birds of New Zealand have evolved to include a large number of unique species. Over the 65 million year isolation from any other land mass New Zealand became a land of birds and when Captain James Cook arrived in the 1770s he noted that the bird song was deafening. Māori and European settlement has been the cause of a huge decline in the numbers of birds and the extinction of about one third of the original bird species.
New Zealand birds were, until the arrival of the first humans, an extraordinarily diverse range of specialised birds. In New Zealand, the ecological niches normally occupied by mammals as different as rodents, kangaroos and moles, were filled by reptiles, insects, or birds. The only terrestrial mammals were three species of bat (of which two survive today).
When humans arrived in New Zealand about 700 years ago this unique and unusual ecology became endangered. Several species were hunted to extinction, most notably the moa and harpagornis. The most damage however was caused by habitat destruction and the other animals humans brought with them, particularly rats (the Polynesian rat or kiore introduced by Māori and the Brown Rat and Black Rat subsequently introduced by Europeans), but also mice, dogs, cats, stoats, weasels, pigs, goats, deer, hedgehogs, and Australian possums. The flightless birds were in particular danger. Consequently many bird species became extinct, and others remain critically endangered. Several species are now confined only to offshore islands, or to fenced "ecological islands" from which predators have been eliminated. New Zealand is today a world leader in the techniques required to bring severely endangered species back from the brink of extinction.
During the early years of European settlement many bird species were introduced for both sport and for a connection with the settler's homelands. New Zealand had a starkly different appearance to the countries from where the settlers came.
The terrestrial birds, wetland birds and seabirds in New Zealand each make up about a third of the total number of species. This is in sharp contrast to the composition of the global bird species where 90% are terrestrial.
Due to habitat loss, their historical use as a food source by the Māori and predation by introduced species some birds are threatened with extinction.
Huge conservation efforts are being made to save the takahe, kakapo, mohua, kokako and the kiwi. One well documented conservation success story, due in a large part to the efforts of Don Merton, is the saving of the black robin on the Chatham Islands.
Since human settlement at least 43 (33%) bird species have become extinct, 16 of these since 1840. Under the New Zealand Threat Classification System 153 out of a total of about 200 species are threatened with extinction.