The talking tui

October 17, 2012 • 5:59 am

I didn’t even know this bird existed until an alert reader, Gayle Ferguson, called it to my attention. It’s the tui, endemic to the islands of New Zealand:

I can’t embed the relevant video here (YouTube forbids it), but it’s worth having a look at one of the capabilities of a tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae): its remarkable ability to imitate other sounds, including the human voice. First, a video of the talent, which you can see here.  It’s pretty amazing: the bird whistles popular songs, speaks in an eerily human voice, and even mentions someone’s cold and imitates a sneeze! The YouTube description:

Woof Woof is a Tui bird with a permanent wing injury, he lives at the Whangarei Native Bird Recovery Centre in New Zealand. He started talking at about 18 months old and now he talks to everyone. Some of his phrases are: Come up here, quick. How’s your cold? Give us a kiss, mmm. Where’s the Karkariki? (parakeet in the aviary next door. Whistles Pop Goes the Weasel. Visit http://www.whangareinativebirdrecovery.org.nz to view more photos & video.

The story of Woof Woof, and another display of his talents, is shown on a video at The Whangarei Native Bird recovery site (be sure to click on the videos to the right of the main one to hear Woof Woof’s repertoire).  The interesting thing is that many talking tuis are never taught to talk; they pick it up on their own. As reader Gayle Ferguson reports, who brought this to my attention:

The bird speaks with the accent and intonation of a NZ male of advancing years.  It’s incredible!  That’s why I thought it was a hoax.

Here’s another talking tui:

That video claims that the mimicry of tuis is adaptive in that it helps them protect their territories from other birds, presumably by imitating the other birds’ calls and fooling them into thinking that a conspecific male is in their territory, hence giving the tui more foraging space. I had never thought of that explanation for bird mimicry. I wonder if my birder readers know of this theory, or whether it would apply to the other great mimics: parrots and mynahs. The other explanation, of course, is that the imitation is a byproduct of the tui’s ability to produce a variety of sounds to lure females.

About tuis: they’re passerine birds endemic to New Zealand, eat nectar, fruits, and insects, and are in the honeyeater family (Meliphagidae).  Wikipedia talks about their smarts:

Tuis are considered to be very intelligent, much like parrots. They also resemble parrots in their ability to clearly imitate human speech, and were trained by Māori to replicate complex speech.Tui are also known for their noisy, unusual call, different for each individual, that combine bellbird-like notes with clicks, cackles, timber-like creaks and groans, and wheezing sounds. Song birds have two voiceboxesand this is what enables them to perform such a myriad of vocalisations.

Some of the huge range of tui sounds are beyond the human register. Watching a tui sing, one can observe gaps in the sound when the beak is agape and throat tufts throbbing. However, ongoing research has so far failed to detect ultrasound within tui vocalisations. Tui will also sing at night, especially around the full moon period.

Their songs in the wild are quite complicated; here’s a wild male singing:

h/t: Gayle

35 thoughts on “The talking tui

  1. Reminds me of the Australian Lyrebird, another great mimic. I remember seeing a great segment by Attenborough on the Lyrebird on the Beeb sometime ago.

    And yet another reason to want to travel to New Zealand, right up there with Madagascar on my list of top places to visit to see the fauna and flora. Evolutionary speaking, islands are just amazing.

    1. I’m down here in New Zealand d and have always loved the tui, I’ve spent Many a year outside watching them and tryin to make some sort of connection with them. They are beautiful in song and playful in nature, and if you mimic their whistle, they will get involved in a back chatting type of discussion, I’ve found that you can get within feet of them when you “discussing” them, I imagine they trust you as “one of them”
      They will continue to eat and talk away as you get close.
      I’ve found that they se to enjoy talking g with you in a back and forth pattern of I creasing complexity, almost as if playing a game of Simon or a memory game, I would attempt to copy their call instantly back to them they would pause listen to your reply- then move into a more slightly more complex pattern listen and so on. I suspect they gain a respect for your ability to “out song” or keep up with them.
      Definitely a lovely bird and bloody smart.
      Clicks seem to be a bit more of an aggressive sound, the older the bird the more complex and skilled its song.

  2. I can see why Gayle Ferguson thought it was fake – it is pitch perfect, almost. What seems strange is that all of its sound bites are in the same voice – has it really only copied one person? And only that brief one side of a possible conversation? I’m not suggesting it is fake, I’m intrigued why it is mimicking only those expressions in that voice.
    Never been to NZ, but the meliphagid diversity in Oz is stunning.

  3. The bird speaks with the accent and intonation of a NZ male of advancing years. It’s incredible!

    Alternatively, NZ males of advancing years speak with the accent and intonation of a tui.

    1. I think that bird’s been listening to me -same accent and speech rhythms, but I have marginally better enunciation.

  4. Thant bird in the first video sounds like something from a sci-fi horror movie, a transmission from a long lost spaceship perhaps.

    1. Thanks, that’s a NZ accent.

      (There is a poshness scale for the NZ accent from broad to broadcasting, known as the Dagg to Dougal scale, where “Fred Dagg” [aka John Clarke, now working in Australia] is 1, and retired broadcaster Dougal Stephenson is 10. A retired broadcaster myself, I’m about an 8. WoofWoof is about a 4.)

  5. I hate to write it, but that bird’s got a better understanding of the issues surrounding healthcare and key social issues than a certain Republican presidential candidate….

    b&

  6. They also do zoo animals. There is a major urban sanctuary in Wellington where they happily multiply and the zoo across town provides a good day out.

    1. We suspect that the Karori sanctuary (now unhappily called Zealandia) has seeded the whole region with tui. There are certainly more in our garden, 36km north, than there ever used to be, one every day at some times of year. They don’t talk, but they have complicated songs, often including a remarkable tuned percussive sound like the Chinese temple blocks of an orchestra.

      (A kākāriki is not a parakeet, by the way, but a little [riki] parrot [kākā] which happens to be green, hence kākāriki also means “green”)

      1. My husband reminded me that he played a recording of a South Island tui out the window, and the local (North Island) tui hopped up with great interest, but couldn’t understand the foreigner. There is a lot of regional (and temporal?) variation.

      2. “(A kākāriki is not a parakeet, by the way, but a little [riki] parrot [kākā] which happens to be green,”

        Isn’t… that what a parakeet is?

      3. Methinks it actually started with the intensive possum control around Wellington (council, GWRC) – e.g. around Otari, Ngaio Gorge etc.as the population increase seemed to tie in more following the intensive controls.

        Whatever,they are gradually increasing around us – lovely when they are in your garden!

      4. Also our efforts through MIRO in the Mainlind Island between Wainuiomata and Eastbourne 🙂 The Kereru population is really taking off too

  7. Tuis are all very well and good, but they are not common where I live (Dunedin), so I must instead give my adoration to the native wood pigeon. And of course, the pukeko.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/sdgould/2350768031/

    Of interest: the pukeko, a relative to the Oz swamp hen, only arrived here in the past few hundred years, yet is already losing its ability to fly, and becoming more like the takahe.

    1. Unlike most large native birds, the pook is quite at home in urban surroundings, you see lots of them in the grass verges alongside motorways or anywhere else that grass or scrub and waterways intersect. Here’s one.

      They’re apparently not very good eating, there’s an old tale about how to cook a pook – you put a rock (mudstone, not granite!) in the pot with the pook, and when the rock goes soft – you throw away the pook and eat the rock.

  8. We lived in New Zealand (in Wellington) for about 8 months. The wild tui birds had a very distinctive song and several locals “swore” that they would get drunk from the fermented nectar of some of the flowers that they feed off of. Generally, they would say this when a tui would be singing whilst hanging upside down on a branch of a yellow flowered bush.

    Note: I’m not saying that it is true that the nectar of these flowers ferments or that the tui become drunk, but a casual observation would suggest that this is the case (and I do mean that this is completely anecdotal) – although I did observe many hanging upside down…

    They do have a lovely song and they have two distinctive white feathers on their “chest”. While the kiwi and kea are more well known, I think the tui is much more distinctive and interesting.

  9. Reading some of the other comments, I wonder how much has change in the last 16 years in New Zealand. When we were there, we lived in Wellington and I worked at the NZ Police College and a location east of it (sorry the names escape me). I remember the tui as being relatively commonly observed as well seeing it on our jaunts around the north island (sorry, I know I often drove on the wrong side of the road! If you were nearly run off the road by a crazy driver around 16 years ago, I heartily apologise)

  10. The wonderful recovery of tūī in Wellington started a bit before the Zealandia (http://www.visitzealandia.com/) predator-proof fence was installed; it seemed more to coincide with possum poisoning there, in the botanic gardens, and at Otari-Wilton’s Bush. A decline in magpies started at the same time. However the sanctuary can surely take credit for the kākā, which are very common here now.

  11. I didn’t either. Isn’t it fascinating. How come we didn’t learn that while we were growing up in New Zealand, and not even on my recent visits. There were lots of tuis around Susi Williams’ house, and they were noisy, and people complained about the racket, but I never heard about the ability to mimic.

    1. The mimicry was brand new to me, too.

      (In 1992 I was in a production of Tom Fooolery the stage show of Tom Lehrer songs. In the song “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park“, Lehrer changed the line
      “And maybe we’ll do it a squirrel or two”
      to
      “And maybe we’ll do in a sparrow or two”
      when he took the song to England, because (I think) Amereican grey squirrels really are a pest in England and sparrows are not. {Sparrows were a pest when they were first brought here in the late 19th century, but they’re in equilibirum now.}
      I wanted to change it to
      “And maybe we’ll do in a tui or two”
      but the producer wouldn’t have it.)

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