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Emu Takahe
Weka - Flightless Birds
1402    Dibyendu Banerjee    04/05/2021

The weka, also known as Maori Hen or Woodhen is one of New Zealand’s iconic large flightless sturdy brown birds with red eyes, strong legs, and reduced wings, about the size of a chicken, and 3 to 6 times larger than the banded rails, which are considered their nearest flying relatives.

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Likely derived from a flighted ancestor, its relatively large, stout, and tapered, reddish-brown bill is often used as a weapon, while the pointed tail almost constantly flicked, which is a sign of unease characteristics of the rail family. However, apart from being occasionally used as a weapon, the beak is also used to forage for grubs and worms in the ground, to break open an egg, or to split the husk of a phoenix palm seed.

weka

The weka occurs in a wide variety of habitats, from the coastline to above the tree-line, including wetlands, rough pasture, shrubland, and native and plantation forests.

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Formerly inhabitants of the eastern districts of the South Island, the buff weka are now extinct in the region, except for some small-scale reintroductions, and are now confined to the Chatham Island and Pitt Island. Nonetheless, the western weka are mainly found in the northern and western regions of the South Island, from Nelson to Fiordland, and the Stewart Island weka are found only at a restoration site, near Halfmoon Bay, along with some other surrounding islands.

weka

Although flightless, the weka can run swiftly to avoid predators and walks up to 1 mile in search of food. It is also an accomplished swimmer, often crossing more than half a mile of a river, lake, or sea. They are usually shy and retiring, though some, especially those on the islands, are quite bold, even taking food from human hands. However, weka are more often heard than seen, and are often detected by their characteristic calling year-round, at dawn and in the early evening, often setting off a chain reaction among others that join in.

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The main call, a far-carrying shrill normally heard in the early evening, and often described as a high-pitched wee-eek, is often given by a pair in a practice called duetting and is used to announce each weka’s territory. However, aggressive encounters evoke a deep and resonant booming.

weka

The weka is an opportunistic feeder and is omnivorous with a diet comprising 30% animal foods and 70% plant food. It feeds both night and day, covering a big area, using its bill to uncover anything from bird eggs to fungus. While its plant foods include various fruits, leaves, grass, berries, and seeds, animal foods include anything from bird- eggs, larvae, ants, beetles, earthworms, beetles, ants, to the bigger victims like the lizards, frogs, spiders, rats, and mice. The weka carefully surveys the beach for rotting seaweed and scavenges, flicking through the litter with its sturdy bill. Sometimes curiosity leads them to stealthily search around houses and camps for food scraps, or anything unfamiliar and transportable, and known to mischievously take away shiny objects like spoons, and keys in particular.

weka

Under good conditions and availability of plentiful food, the weka can be very productive with year-round breeding and can breed up to four broods in a year. Although the pair bonds are usually for life, not much is known about their courtship behavior due to their secretive nature. But it is assumed that their courtship includes feeding and mutual preening. The nest is constructed on the dry ground located under tussocks, logs, stumps, or rocks, in tree hollows, under the cover of thick vegetation. The bowl-shaped nest is made of grasses, twigs, moss, feathers, wool, hair, and leaves with enough space to hold about four eggs. Usually, the female weka lay three creamy or pinkish eggs blotched with brown and mauve, and generally, the male incubates the eggs at night, and the female does so during the day. The hatching occurs over several days, after about three weeks, and the chicks are fed by both parents until fully grown between six and ten weeks.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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