Whitehead Mohoua albicilla


  • A small, insectivorous bird the size of a house sparrow.
  • Easy to distinguish from other small birds due to the whitish colouration of its head and underparts which can be bright white in males. The back, wings and tail are grey-brown. Whiteheads have black beaks and eyes.

Interesting Facts

  • Whiteheads have been classified as Not Threatened for many years, but in 2017 their classification was changed to At Risk-Declining, on the basis of ongoing declines of mainland populations.
  • Whitehead are cooperative breeders which live in groups of up to eight birds. The primary female is the only incubator of the eggs, but she and her chicks are fed by the male and also by helpers at the nest which are usually males from previous breeding seasons.
  • Whitehead are the most common forest bird on pest-free Little Barrier Island.
  • Whiteheads are host to the migratory long-tailed cuckoo (At Risk-Naturally Uncommon). The cuckoo lays an egg in the nest of the whitehead, which is then incubated by the whitehead along with its own eggs. The cuckoo chick hatches and expels any whitehead eggs or chicks, and the whitehead adults raise the cuckoo chick.

Association with Plantations

  • Whitehead has long been known to have substantial populations within exotic plantation forests, and is particularly common in the plantations of the central North Island. The possibility that such plantation forests maintain self-sustaining and and stable populations of whiteheads is of considerable ecological interest given the species has disappeared from northern New Zealand, and is now considered to be in national decline.
  • Long-tailed cuckoo have ‘followed’ the whitehead host into plantation forests.


  • A combination of predation of eggs, young and adults by mustelids, cats, possums, and rats along with forest clearance is thought to be responsible for historical declines. Predation is likely to be having a continuing negative impact on whitehead reproduction and survival.
  • Whitehead are reluctant fliers, and are therefore vulnerable to habitat fragmentation, and do not re-establish easily.

Management Options and Methods

  • Undertake pest control if breeding populations are present in pine plantations:
    • Initially use 1080 for possum and rats with secondary benefit of killing of mustelids and cats. Residual trap catch (RTC) monitoring needs to be less than 5% in order for whitehead to be able to breed successfully.
    • Follow-up trapping or poisoning may be needed (refer NZ pigeon).
    • Undertake mustelid and cat control using Fenn traps for mustelids and kill-traps for cats (refer to Kiwi section).

Monitoring Options

  • Database of sightings, nest locations, protection methods and breeding outcomes.
  • Could undertake five-minute bird counts (obtain advice on survey design).
  • Report findings to DOC.

Further Information and Support

  • New Zealand Birds Online: whitehead.
  • Department of Conservation species accounts: whitehead.
  • Heather and Robertson 2000. The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Viking. 440 pp.
  • Pest management: DOC, Regional Councils.