I often hear a bellbird calling along Udy Street. Often heard but seldom seen as their discreet colouring makes them difficult to pick out of the background greens.
There are just a few bellbirds in Greytown I think, or else they make themselves scarce in the face of the dominant and aggressive Tuis. Of our two more conspicuous honey eaters, the Tui seems to be dominant in the North Island and the bellbird in the South. A few years ago I spent Xmas at Akaroa and there the bellbird was everywhere, including clamorous and numerous juveniles, but not a Tui in sight.
According to the ornithologist, W. H. Oliver, the bellbird was undoubtedly the chief performer in the chorus described by Joseph Banks when Captain Cook entered Queen Charlotte Sound during the first voyage of discovery. “I was awakened by the singing of the birds ashore, from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile. Their numbers were certainly very great. They seemed to strain their throats with emulation, and made, perhaps, the most melodious wild music I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells, but with the most tunable silver imaginable, to which, may be, the distance was no small addition.”
The impact of the European on the bellbird at first took the form of a rapid and alarming reduction in the number of birds, especially in the cleared portions of the country but also decreases took place in forested districts. The disappearance was most noticeable in the North Island and large areas are still without bellbirds. In 1873 Buller prophesized extinction for the bird but by the turn of the century it had started to make a modest comeback and followed the tui into our suburban gardens, much to everyone’s delight.
They are tenacious defenders of their nests and the female will physically attack an intruder. She has been known to fall to the ground and flap away to distract a predator. They are territorial during breeding season but after breeding they are usually nomadic and solitary moving around to food sources. They are strictly monogamous and pairs remain together for several years. They court in winter when the male sings in front of the female. After mating they often duet.
“Ka rite ki te kopara e ko nei I te ata” — like the bellbird singing in the morning — was a simile used by Maori orators. Korimako and Makomako are just two of the 26 names Maori had for the bellbird.