The koreke, or New Zealand quail, was the only quail endemic to Aotearoa New Zealand.

It measured between 17.5 and 22cm and only weighed 200-220g. Males and females had similar plumage: brown with buff or cream-coloured lines on the feathers of the back and upper wings.

The females were lighter in tone and had darker feathers around the eyes, whereas the males had orange feathers that extended from around the eyes, down the neck and on to the front of the throat. Juveniles were similar to the females, but lighter again.

Koreke inhabited lowland areas covered with tussock where they foraged for seeds and green grass leaves.

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Their nests consisted of scrapes in the ground lined with grass.

Museum Notebook
Museum Notebook

They laid 10-12 eggs at a time, which hatched after about 21 days, delivering chicks that left the nest after a day or two.

Based on a family of koreke that was shot, consisting of an adult male, adult female, and seven juveniles, it is theorised they were monogamous and both parents helped to raise the chicks.

Aside from this, we do not know much about the koreke because it has been extinct for nearly 150 years. The information retold here is what can be gathered from the few specimens held in collections and the notes taken by early naturalists.

We do not know if there were great differences between North Island and South Island koreke. Nor do we know what their mating habits entailed or anything about their lifespan, behaviour or predation. One observer wrote the male koreke call sounded like "twit-twit-twit-twee-twit" sung repeatedly, but we do not know what pitch or how frequently they called.

Sir Joseph Banks was the first European to document the koreke when he accompanied Captain James Cook to New Zealand in 1769-1770.

A close-up view of a male koreke, showing the orange colour around the eye. Photo / Whanganui Regional Museum
A close-up view of a male koreke, showing the orange colour around the eye. Photo / Whanganui Regional Museum

Crozet then sighted koreke in the Bay of Islands in 1772, and Forster found them in Queen Charlotte Sound during Cook's second voyage in 1773.

The first specimen was not caught until 1827. Jean Rene Constant Quoy and Joseph Paul Gaimard, two French naturalists on Jules Dumont d'Urville's exploration expedition, caught one near the River Thames and conducted a thorough description.

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Prior to European arrival, the koreke was very common around the country. Sir Walter Buller recorded the species as "excessively abundant" and noted that Māori lore indicated the species' abundance, especially near the Murimotu plains near Taupō.

The first European settlers were said to enjoy hunting koreke for food and sport, with a catch of 20 brace of quail deemed nothing extraordinary for a day's shoot.

By 1840, however, naturalists were reporting it as "not common" in either the South or North Islands. Captain Gilbert Mair found one in Whangarei in 1860.

The last recorded sighting was in Taranaki in 1869.

The koreke remained plentiful longer in the South Island. Sir D Munro and Major Richmond famously shot 43 brace within a few hours near what is now Nelson in 1848.

From 1865, the koreke population went into sudden and steep decline. The last specimens captured were for Sir Walter's collection, and were trapped in Blueskin Bay during 1867-1868. Attempts at conservation were too late, and they went extinct around 1875.

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The koreke faced many foes they had not seen before: overhunting, introduced cats, rats and dogs, fires destroying food and habitat for the creation of farmland, and possibly even disease carried by introduced game birds. It proved too much for the small birds, who went from abundant to extinct in a century.

Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.