Distribution and density
One of 38 species of falcon worldwide, the New Zealand falcon is endemic to this country.
The falcon has a wide distribution, being found on both the North and South Islands and several offshore islands, including Stewart Island and the subantarctic Auckland Islands. Recently, plantation pine forests have been found to be important breeding habitats for falcons. The highest known density of the species is found in Kaingaroa pine forest in the central North Island.
Three ecological forms
The small dark ‘Bush’ falcons live in forests. They are found in the North Island, mainly south of Hamilton; and NW South Island as far south as Greymouth.
Large paler 'Eastern' falcons live in open dryer habitats east of the Southern Alps but extend from coast to coast in central South Island.
'Southern' falcons are intermediate in size and colouration and live in Fiordland, Stewart Island and the Auckland Islands.
Adult New Zealand falcons measure between 40 cm and 50 cm. Males are smaller than females. Males weigh between 240 g and 350 g, while females weigh between 410 g and 720 g.
The New Zealand falcon is capable of flying at speeds over 100 km/h, and can catch prey larger than itself.
They hunt live prey, mainly by watching from a vantage point and making a fast direct flying attack and either striking or grasping the prey with their feet which are equipped with sharp talons. They kill their prey with a quick powerful bite to the neck.
Their diet includes a range of animals, including insects, mammals and lizards, but consists mainly of birds.
Like all falcons, the New Zealand falcon does not build a nest. Rather, it makes a scrape on the ground, under a rocky outcrop or in an epiphyte in an emergent forest tree into which it lays its eggs.
A typical clutch consists of 2–4 eggs which take about 33 days to hatch.
Nestlings are fed by both parents but the male does most of the hunting with the female guarding close to the nest until the nestlings are close to fledging, which occurs between 31 and 45 days after hatching.
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Threats to the New Zealand falcon are not well understood.
The bush and southern New Zealand falcons are listed as threatened species due to population decline. While not listed as threatened, the eastern falcon is recognised by DOC as "At Risk – in decline".
Although still widespread where suitable habitat exists, numbers have declined and predation by cats, mustelids, and hedgehogs is emerging as a problem for ground nesting falcons.
It is likely that stoats and other mustelids prey on eggs and nestlings in ground and tree nests, and rats may do the same. A recent study suggests that adult falcons are less able to defend their nest from predators that previously thought. More research is needed in this area.
Video of cat attack on falcon chicks
The video shows a wild cat entering a New Zealand falcon nest. It attacks one of two chicks. The other chick stays in the nest while this is happening. The mother twice tries to drive off the cat but is unsuccessful.
This shows that falcons are not necessarily able to successfully defend the nest (at least against cats which are thought to be important predators) despite being capable predators themselves. The cat spent 10 hours in the nest and killed both chicks.
There is no sound on the video.
Loss of habitat
Forest dwelling falcons often nest in emergent rimu and other large forest trees. Continued selective logging of such trees reduced available nesting habitat.
Tussock grassland and grey scrub habitats being converted to pasture also reduces nesting and prey habitat.
Like many birds of prey overseas, New Zealand falcons are also threatened by electrocution on power poles containing transformers.
Despite their fully protected status, New Zealand falcons are still shot by people, particularly when falcons occasionally kill racing pigeons or chickens.
Recently a new threat to New Zealand falcons has emerged in the form of wind farms. High mortality rates have been reported for some birds of prey at several overseas wind farms due to collision with the rotating turbine blades. The construction of wind farms in New Zealand falcon habitat may expose it to similar risks.
New Zealand falcons likely benefit from the predator control done by DOC around the country.
DOC advocates for New Zealand falcon conservation through the Resource Management Act (RMA) process, in particular in the context of wind farm development.
DOC has supported a genetic analysis to better understand any differences between Bush, Eastern and Southern falcons.
The use of falconry techniques by qualified experts is recognised by DOC as an important tool in conditioning injured or orphaned falcons for release.
Conceptual support, facilitation and permits are provided for external initiatives such as the Marlborough Falcon Conservation Trust project, release of captive bred falcons by Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust and university research.
You can help
Support a falcon conservation organisation
Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust
Cares for sick, injured and orphaned raptors. This includes research, captive breeding, public awareness work and rehabilitating raptors back into the wild.
Marlborough Falcon Trust
Cares for and rehabilitates injured New Zealand falcons. Conserves species through captive breeding and release, education and advocacy.
You could also build your own fan club. Tell other people about how special falcons are so they learn to appreciate them. Learn more about kārearea at NZ Birds Online.
Don’t shoot falcons! If you are experiencing problems call your local DOC office.
Help keep their nests safe
Control predators (cats, hedgehogs, stoats, weasels, ferrets and rats) on your property if it has falcon nesting habitats. Eggs and nestlings are more likely to survive, and there will be more food available.
Keep away from their nests. Falcons defend their nests actively and may dive bomb people up to 400 m from the nest. If this happens, move away until the attack stops. Don’t try to strike a falcon as you are likely to injure it and place the falcon chicks in danger.
Help protect New Zealand's native birds
- Volunteer with DOC or other groups to control predators and restore bird habitats.
- Don’t throw rubbish into water ways or storm drains.
- Set traps for stoats or rats on your property. Get more information from your local DOC office.
- Put a bell on your cat's collar, feed it well, and keep it indoors at night.
- Plant a range of native plants that provide food year-round to encourage birds into your garden.
When visiting parks, beaches, rivers, and lakes
- Only take dogs to areas that allow them, and keep your dog under control.
- Prevent the spread of pests. Check your gear for mice and rats when visiting pest-free islands.
- Use available access ways to get to the beach. Stay out of fenced-off areas. Leave nesting birds alone.
- Get your dog trained in avian awareness, and help save forest birds like kiwi and weka.
- Follow the water care code. Keep water craft speed to 5 knots within 200 metres of the shore.