Tui, or koko (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae), were called parson birds by British settlers in New Zealand during the 19th century because the two white poi, or tufts of feathers at their throats, looked like the neck bands of a priest or minister.

They are versatile singers, combining beautifully musical notes with honks, wheezes, clicks and squawks. They can screech loudly and discordantly when alarmed. They also mimic other birds. Tui have a dual voice box, which helps them to produce so many varied sounds.

Tui were prized by Maori as fine food. They were also kept as pets and taught to talk. They were taught karakia (prayers) and whakatauki (proverbs), as well as mihi (greetings) to recite when visitors arrived. A skilful orator may be compared to a tui, using the expressions, "He koko tataki" (a witty speaker) or "Te korokoro tui" (a sweet singer or articulate speaker). Tui that could speak like this were called manu rangatira (chiefly birds).

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As an endemic bird, tui are protected. The mainland Aotearoa species is not endangered, but a subspecies, the Chatham Island tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae chathamensis) is classified as threatened and endangered.

A trapped tui. Watercolour, around 1870s. Artist / John Tiffin Stewart
A trapped tui. Watercolour, around 1870s. Artist / John Tiffin Stewart

Tui can be found in lowland native forests throughout New Zealand and on some offshore islands. About the only areas they do not inhabit are the alpine tracts of the South Island. They are also at home in towns and cities, attracted by flowering trees and shrubs on which they feed. Tui belong to the honeyeater family, feeding mainly on nectar from flowers of native plants such as kowhai, puriri, rewarewa, kahikatea, pohutukawa, rata and harakeke (New Zealand flax). They also eat insects. They are very territorial, driving other birds away from fruiting and flowering trees so they can feed.

Tui feathers have an iridescent metallic purple, blue and green sheen on an underlying black colour. Along with the white throat feathers, these birds also sport lacey white markings around the neck, white patches on their wings and reddish-brown feathers on their backs. The beautiful plumage was used by Maori weavers to adorn kahu huruhuru (feather cloaks) and kete (baskets).

After European migration to New Zealand began, tui numbers dropped, largely because the clearance of bush and forest for pasture, crops and buildings contributed to destruction of bird habitat.

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Tui were also favoured as taxidermy specimens in museums. Many were swapped, along with other birds such as huia, kakapo and kereru, for collections from around the globe.
They can be found in the collections of European and American museums to this day.
After that initial drop in population, tui adapted to the changed landscape and then thrived. These days, possums, feral cats, rats and stoats will gorge on tui eggs and young, and are the biggest danger to the species. In recent years effective predator control has led to an increase in the tui population.

Tui feeding.Whanganui Regional Museum
Tui feeding.Whanganui Regional Museum

•Libby Sharpe is senior curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.