a song for korimako

A male korimako feasts on the nectar of strawberry tree flowers

A male korimako feasts on the nectar of strawberry tree flowers

A song for korimako

Since I can remember, korimako (bellbirds) have been a part of my life.

Our family home in the small town of Geraldine in South Canterbury was nestled at the foot of a hill covered in native forest.

This wood, a small remnant of the once vast native forest that covered the rolling downs behind Geraldine, is officially known as Talbot Forest but, like many such places in New Zealand, is more often simply referred to as ‘the bush’.

Though small, ‘the bush’ is biologically important. It contains an abundant  biodiversity – plants, native birds, a population of rare native bat – out of proportion to its size; effectively acting as an ark  – a small natural boat afloat in a sea of land long stripped of its trees and turned over to highly modified pasture.

Talbot Forest

Talbot Forest

And in this ark there was in my childhood – and still is – a remarkable population of the glorious-voiced korimako; though, then, I only knew them as bellbird.

Indeed, the very first non fiction book on birds that I ever read – a battered and much-thumbed copy of R.A Falla’s book of New Zealand Birds borrowed from the local library – delighted me by singling out Talbot Forest as one of the best sites for bellbird in New Zealand. It is always a wonder to a young person to find that their small country town is famous . . . for anything!

I, of course, did not need Falla’s book to tell me that bellbird were abundant.

My mother was particularly fond of fuchsia and her garden was full of this pretty shrub in many forms. The bellbirds shared her love, but for a different reason. They would descend upon our garden to hang upside down and feast on the nectar of the pendulous fuchsia flowers; their foreheads becoming thick with colour as the fuchsia took advantage of these sweet-billed invaders to spread their pollen from bloom to bloom. In winter we’d put out jars of diluted golden syrup and the bellbirds and waxeyes would come down – the latter in their many dozens – to feast on this free source of nectar to see them through the season’s fast.

At times, being so fixated on bloom or jar, the bellbirds would tolerate me standing right beside them, within an arm’s reach – oh if only I had a good camera then!


Male bellbird with typical purple head of his gender

Falla noted in his book that bellbirds have distinct local dialects; in one area they will have quite a different pattern of calls compared with their relatives in another area. This interesting fact was something I had learned for myself, though without realising it until reading Falla’s description.




Female korimako head blue with fuchsia pollen. Note the female white stripe below the eye

Female korimako head blue with fuchsia pollen. Note the female white stripe below the eye

From an early age I had learned to imitate the territorial calls of the Talbot Forest korimako, especially the males.  A short low note, a longer high note, followed by two short notes mid-tone between the first lower and the second higher, then a little ‘chonk’ or ‘titch’ sound and, last, a throaty bell sound in the lower register. So accurate did I become that I could whistle and the resident males would come down screeching with aggression, all fluffed up and agitated to try to drive me away from their territory; and females would come to check out this apparent new boy in town.


A Talbot Forest male responds to my whistle 

Just a half hour’s drive further inland from Geraldine, at the much larger Peel Forest, my whistle was completely ignored. The bellbird there simply did not interpret my calls as being of their kind. Theirs was a more melodic and fluid suite of notes I found hard to imitate.

Though sweet voiced, korimako are bullies. At home they would fly at the waxeye gathered near our nectar jars and drive the little birds away. They would do this even if they were full. They’d perch all stuffed and feathers on the twig we’d set at the edge of the jar for a landing spot and guard the syrup water, lest another bird get so much as a sip!


Female feeding on coprosma berries


juvenile with a cicada

The bossy bellbird though, has a nemesis. New Zealand has three honeyeaters. From largest to smallest they are tui, korimako and hihi (stitchbird) and, if the bellbird is a bully, the tui is an outright tyrant!

Tui on harakeke

Hihi male trying to reach that itchy spot

Hihi male trying to reach that itchy spot

Fortunately for the korimako, tui are rare in Canterbury,    so at Talbot forest these mid-sized honeyeaters are king. In most other areas, however, the korimako have tui to contend with and are very much a step down in the pecking order. Tui will camp on a flowering tree and drive away any other competitors for the nectar; I’ve even seen them mobbing the much larger and fiercely weaponed kaka in order to keep a flowering kowhai tree to themselves.

At Zealandia, the wildlife sanctuary in Wellington, nectar feeders are used to encourage the honeyeaters to stay within the safety of the sanctuary fence. But they have had to create feeders screened with a mesh just the right size to keep tui out while allowing the korimako and hihi in for a feed, otherwise the smaller honeyeaters would not get so much as a look in.

But, tui or korimako, one can forgive their aggressive natures when they start to sing.

A long running  debate in New Zealand is which bird is the better songster. My view is that they are complementary and each has their special talents.

The korimako is a piccolo and is undoubtedly the more melodic, it’s notes sweeter and generally higher, with tripping-down descending rills and pure, single, bell chimes of incredible purity.

a korimako male in full voice

a korimako male in full voice

At first hearing the tui is similar, but the tui is no piccolo, it is an organ. Its song is full of a raspy vibrating resonance and, whereas the korimako’s song pierces the forest, the tui’s seems to swell through the trees in an enveloping wave. Tui, also, are seriously good mimics and will fill out their repertoire with imitations of other birds and even, if they live near people, the sounds of telephones, cell phones and doorbells. Futher, they embellish their melodies with grunts, rasps and wheezes that would never normally be heard from the throat of a bellbird – though once I witnessed a male bellbird at a feeder giving a perfect imitation of a tui, throaty croak and all, presumably to discourage rivals from the food source he coveted for himself by making them think a dominant tui was in residence.

taking a sip

taking a sip

But, if I were forced to choose, then it is the dawn chorus of korimako that would secure my award for first prize. The bird authorities note this is particularly strong when bellbird are gathered in large numbers and few other songsters are around to compete with them. Such was often the situation at Talbot Forest. My Geraldine mornings, especially in spring, rang with a chorus of bells more fine than any group of campanologists could ever hope to create with the finest and most diverse range of crystal and silver bells. The first Europeans to sail within sound’s reach of the New Zealand dawn chorus wrote passionately of the dawn chorus – we know now that what they heard was probably comprised of a mass of bellbirds.


A newly fledged bellbird chick waiting for a parent to return with a feed

A newly fledged bellbird chick waiting for a parent to return with a feed

The beautiful voice of the korimako was, of course, remarked upon by Maori and the bird has entered their oral traditions. Indeed, the Maori language has some 26 names for the bellbird. Ka rite ki te kopara e ko nei I te ata — like the bellbird singing in the morning — is a simile used by Maori orators.

And it is the bellbird that features in one of Maoridom’s most compelling whakatauki (proverbs), which speaks of the bellbird feasting on the flowers of harakeke (New Zealand flax), a plant that, for Maori, is strongly symbolic of whanau (family). When Maori harvest harakeke they only take the leaves from the outside of the plant as cutting from the heart of it would kill it. Thus:

Hutia te rito o te harakeke                            When you slice open the heart of the flax plant

Mai wai te komako e ko?                               Where will the komako sing?

E patai atu ahau ki a koe,                             Let me ask you,

He aha te mea nui o te Ao?                           What is the most important thing in this world?

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.              It is people, it is people, it is people.

female feasting on harakeke - note the pollen on the forehead

female feasting on harakeke – note the pollen on the forehead


7 thoughts on “a song for korimako

  1. Stunning again, Steve. What a wonderful post. Your comparison of the tui and korimako song also makes me wonder where you would place the kokako song on the spectrum, and how you would describe it.

    • Ah the kokako. Well, of course I was comparing tui with bellbird but if you asked me to elect the best singer in the forest it would have to be the haunting kokako. I’ve heard it described as organ-like but to be it brings to mind those brassy, echoing, reedy sounds of Tibetan wind instruments, particularly their higher pitched brass horns, perhaps mixed with the ringing sound of a Tibetan ‘singing bowl’. Both Kokako and the singing bowl have that long continuous resonance that you seem to hear and feel in your head long after the instrument has ceased to play.

  2. It’s photos like these that remind us why we love this gorgeous country. I get all emotional when I read your New Zealand blogs. Not sure if I’m getting old and nostalgic or whether you just spin a great story. What’s that bird mimics everything and sounds like a telephone in town? Not a bellbird by any chance?

    • Thanks Colleen. The bird that mimics everything in town including telephones is the tui, not the bellbird. Though bellbirds are quite good mimics on occasion but nothing like the repertoire of the tui.

  3. lovely post.
    To me, bellbirds are an integral part of what defines living on the South Island’s East Coast- despite encountering them in many other places.

  4. Great pics Steve, and nice to get the story of the birds as well. I have a bellbird stuffed toy here which you squeeze to get the recorded song – I love it and squeeze it for the guests from overseas at my B&B and they love it

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