New Zealand Fantail Piwakawaka

The distinctive New Zealand fantail birds are distributed across most of New Zealand and are the only fantail in New Zealand. As you travel around you are certain to see fantail somewhere, in native forest, scrubland, farmland, orchards, in gardens and town parks, and even on campsites.

North Island fantail pied morph - New Zealand fantail piwakawaka
North Island Fantail pied morph, New Zealand Fantail Piwakawaka

Fantails are very small, very fast, and instantly recognisable by their fanned tails and the high speed at which they can flit around. Fantails do not appear to be very shy and will fly in and out of buildings, land close by looking very inquisitive, and follow you as you walk along pathways where they are attracted by the insects you reveal by walking, such as flies, moths, and spiders.

North Island fantail pied morph - New Zealand fantail piwakawaka
North Island fantail pied morph - New Zealand fantail on a branch

Fantail Species

Geographically there are four fantail subspecies of which the two you will be most likely to see are the North Island fantail R. f. placabilis and South Island fantail R. f. fuliginosa, neither of which are considered threatened. Of the remaining two subspecies, one is uncommon (Chatham Island fantail R. f. penita), and the other is extinct (Lord Howe Island fantail R. f. cervina).

Other names fantail are also known by are; fantail, pīwakawaka, piwakawaka, pied fantail, black fantail, grey fantail, tīrairaka, and tirairaka.

New Zealand Fantail Colours

There are two colours of New Zealand fantail known as ‘morphs’, the pied morph and the black morph. The most common colour is the pied morph and they are found throughout New Zealand; the black morph is mostly found in the South Island and only makes up about five percent of the fantail population, black morph are rare in the North Island.

There is colour variation between juvenile and adult fantail, and among North and South Island adults in the amount of white or grey in their tail feathers.

Lucky for me, I photographed a black morph fantail in Greytown in the North Island (see photo below).

The black fantail was a lot shyer than the pied fantails and didn’t come so close, although that may have been because the pied fantail kept chasing it off. Fantails are known to be quite territorial during breeding season.

New Zealand Black Fantail
North Island fantail black morph with white marking behind eye
New Zealand Fantail, North Island fantail black morph with white marking behind eye

NZ Fantail Survival and Conservation

The New Zealand fantail doesn’t like long spells of cold, wet, or severe bad weather. New Zealand fantail population can decline quite rapidly but equally seems to recover quickly over a couple of years in areas where the habitat is suitable due to having a high breeding rate. In ideal habitat and good weather conditions, up to five broods of chicks in a breeding season has been recorded.

North Island fantail pied morph looking for ground insects
New Zealand fantail piwakawaka

New Zealand Fantail, North Island fantail pied morph looking for ground insects

Although fantail have coped with native forest being converted to agricultural farmland, and survive very well in comparison to other New Zealand bird species, they are still vulnerable to predation by non-native predators particularly during nesting and chick rearing. Therefore, predator controlling conservation methods benefit fantail as they do other native birds in NZ.

New Zealand Fantail having a bath in a stream - South Island pied morph
New Zealand Fantail having a bath in a stream - South Island pied morph

New Zealand Fantail wet from bathing in a stream - pied morph
New Zealand Fantail, wet from bathing in a stream, pied morph, North Island NZ

New Zealand Birds and Wildlife

List of New Zealand Native Birds and List of New Zealand Animals, Land and Marine