Mohua | Yellowhead

Mohoua ochrocephala (Gmelin, 1789)

Order: Passeriformes

Family: Mohouidae

New Zealand status: Endemic

Conservation status: Declining

Other names: bush canary, mohoua

Geographical variation: Nil

Mohua | Yellowhead. Adult male. Routeburn Flats, Mt Aspiring National Park, December 2015. Image © Ron Enzler by Ron Enzler

Mohua | Yellowhead. Adult male. Routeburn Flats, Mt Aspiring National Park, December 2015. Image © Ron Enzler by Ron Enzler

Yellowheads are sparrow-sized, yellow-headed forests songsters. They were once one of the most common and conspicuous birds of South and Stewart Island forests, but have been gradually declining since the arrival of ship rats and stoats in New Zealand. Since the 1970s their range contraction has been dramatic, with many of the small scattered populations disappearing. Today they remain common in beech forests in parts of the Catlins, the Blue Mountains, the Dart and Landsborough Valleys, with scattered small populations in eastern Fiordland, west Otago and a small remnant population in North Canterbury. They have been introduced to several predator-free southern islands where they have mostly flourished.

Yellowhead are closely related to the brown creeper and whitehead, and all three species are the preferred hosts of the long-tailed cuckoo.


The yellowhead is a small, forest-dwelling songbird with a conspicuous yellow head and breast, brown back, wings and tail and a white lower belly and vent. The end of the tail is tattered and spiky when worn. The bill and legs are black.

Voice: a characteristic machine-gun like chatter made by both sexes, and an often musical song made by males which varies from place to place. Females make a distinctive descending buzzing call.

Similar species: the only yellow-headed bird with which they might be confused are male yellowhammers, but yellowheads never leave the forest, and yellowhammers never enter it. Their calls can sometimes be confused with those of brown creeper.

Distribution and habitat

Yellowheads were previously found in all forests in the South and Stewart Island from sea level to the tree line, but since at least the 1960s they have become confined to beech forest, and there has been a recent dramatic contraction in range. Yellowheads are now found in beech forests in Fiordland, the Catlins, Blue Mountains, some valleys in west Otago, the Landsborough Valley and the Hawdon and Hurunui Valleys in Canterbury. They are common only in the Catlins, Blue Mountains, Dart and Landsborough Valleys. Yellowheads have been introduced to Nukuwaiata and Bluemine Islands in the Marlborough Sounds, Breaksea, Anchor, Pigeon, Secretary, Resolution, Chalky and Pomona Islands in Fiordland, Pigeon Island (Wawahi-Waka) in Lake Wakatipu, and Codfish and Ulva Islands off Stewart Island.

Where they still occur, yellowheads are most common in tall red and silver beech forest.


With the exception of Nukuwaiata, yellowheads are common on the islands that they have been introduced to, and are still common in the parts of the Catlins, Blue Mountains, Dart and Landsborough Valleys. Elsewhere scattered pairs remain. The total population is probably of the order of 5000 birds.

Threats and conservation

Yellowheads are preyed on by stoats and rats, particularly while they are nesting and roosting in holes. In higher altitude beech forests their populations do well in most years, but in years following heavy beech seeding high numbers of rats and stoats often decimate populations. At low altitudes continuously high numbers of rats and stoats quickly eliminated yellowheads and they only survive at low altitudes on predator-free islands. Yellowhead populations thrive with effective stoat and rat control.


Yellowheads breed in spring and summer, mostly as monogamous pairs, but with helpers at some nests. A woven, feather-lined cup of fibrous material is built in a cavity in a tree, between 0 and 31 m off the ground. Clutch size 1-4. Only females incubate, which takes 20-21 days. Both sexes feed the young, which leave the nest after 18-22 days, and are fed intensively for a few more weeks, and occasionally for up to 9 months. Some nests are parasitised by long-tailed cuckoos.

Behaviour and ecology

Yellowheads spend most of their time high in trees gleaning invertebrates from foliage, or searching for invertebrates by scratching amongst accumulated litter in the crooks of branches, or scratching loose bark mosses and ferns on the trunks of trees. They often scratch with one leg whilst hanging onto a tree trunk with the other leg and using their tail as an extra prop (hence the spiky tail). They are often detected by the rain of litter they dislodge. They flit agilely from branch to branch but are surprisingly poor fliers when moving more than a few metres. During their breeding season they forage in family groups comprising a pair, sometimes one or two helpers and any chicks of the year. In the autumn and winter they move around in much larger groups often with yellow-crowned parakeets and fantails in attendance.

Because they mostly forage high in trees they are most often detected by their calls, particularly the chatter and male song.


Yellowheads consume invertebrates especially caterpillars and spiders. They occasionally take small fruit.


BirdLife factsheet


Mohua Charitable Trust


Elliott, G.P. 1990. The breeding biology and habitat relationships of the yellowhead. PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington. Wellington, New Zealand. 183pp.

Elliott, G.P. 1996. Mohua and stoats: a population viability analysis. New Zealand Journal of Zoology 23: 239-247.

Elliott, G.P. 1996. Productivity and mortality of mohua (Mohoua ochrocephala). New Zealand Journal of Zoology 23: 229-237.

Elliott, G.P.; O'Donnell, C.F.J.; Dilks, P.J. 1996. Nest site selection by mohua and yellow-crowned parakeets in beech forest in Fiordland, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Zoology 23: 267-278

Gaze, P.D. 1985. Distribution of yellowheads (Mohoua ochrocephala) in New Zealand. Notornis 32: 261-269.

Higgins, P.J.; Peter, J.M. (eds) 2002. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 6, pardalotes to shrike-thrushes. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Miskelly, C.M.; Powlesland, R.G. 2013. Conservation translocations of New Zealand birds, 1863-2012. Notornis 60: 3-28.

Robertson, H.A; Baird, K.; Elliott, G.P.; Hitchmough, R.A.; McArthur, N.J.; Makan, T.; Miskelly, C.M.; O’Donnell, C.F.J.; Sagar, P.M.; Scofield, R.P.; Taylor, G.A.; Michel, P. 2021Conservation status of birds in Aotearoa New Zealand birds, 2021. New Zealand Threat Classification Series 36. Wellington, Department of Conservation. 43p.

Recommended citation

Elliott, G.P. 2013 [updated 2022]. Mohua | yellowhead. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online.

Mohua | Yellowhead

Social structure
co-operative breeding groups
Breeding season
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Nest type
tree hole, woven cup
Nest description
Woven in a cavity in a tree, bowl sometimes lined with a few feathers.
Nest height (mean)
13.3 m
Nest height (min)
0 m
Nest height (max)
31 m
Maximum number of successful broods
Clutch size (mean)
Clutch size (min)
Clutch size (max)
Mean egg dimensions (length)
23.5 mm
Mean egg dimensions (width)
18.2 mm
Egg colour
Pink spotted with pale and dark reddish brown spots and blotches
Egg laying dates
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Interval between eggs in a clutch
1-2 days days
Incubation behaviour
female only
Incubation length (mean)
20 days
Incubation length (min)
20 days
Incubation length (max)
21 days
Nestling type
Nestling period (min)
18 days
Nestling period (max)
22 days
Age at fledging (mean)
20 days
Age at fledging (min)
18 days
Age at fledging (max)
22 days
Age at independence (mean)
55 days
Age at first breeding (typical)
2 years
Age at first breeding (min)
1 years
Maximum longevity
16 years
Maximum dispersal