New Zealand’s smallest bird is the rifleman or tītiti pounamu. It belongs to an ancient endemic family of Gondwanan origin, Acanthisittidae (New Zealand wrens) in the Passeriformes (perching birds) order.
The male’s back plumage is green, and the female’s is flecked brown. Just 8 centimetres long, they have no tail to speak of, and their tiny body is almost round. The male weighs 6 grams, the female 7 grams – one-third of the weight of a house mouse. The rifleman’s delicate thorn-like bill is slightly upturned, and its fine black legs end in oversized toes (three pointing forward and one back, like other passerines).
Riflemen move around the forest in short aerial hops, clinging easily to rough tree trunks. Working their way up a tree, they take spiders, beetles, small wētā, caterpillars and moths from foliage and cracks in the bark. Adults and young often forage close together. They keep in contact with a high-pitched buzzing call, a single note that is out of hearing range for some people. Each pair has its own territory, which both males and females defend.
The male builds nests in tree or rock hollows, helped by the female. Over a week, she lays four white eggs, each weighing 1.5 grams – almost one-quarter of her weight. The male tops up the female’s food intake to help with the huge nutritional demands of egg production. Riflemen can live for six years, but 1½ to three years is more usual.
Look out for our Rifleman stickers on 200g coffee packs in South Island supermarkets. 20c donated to Forest and Bird to help protect threatened species in the Catlins.