Most New Zealanders can easily recognize the bellbird by its song, which Captain Cook described as sounding ‘like small bells exquisitely tuned’. They have three distinct sounds, and songs vary enormously from one place to another. For example, a study in Christchurch found that birds in three patches of bush on the Port Hills all had different songs.
When Europeans arrived in New Zealand, bellbirds were common throughout the North and South Islands. Their numbers declined sharply during the 1860s in the North Island and 1880s in the South Island, about the time that ship rats and stoats arrived.
For a time it was thought they might vanish from the mainland. Their numbers recovered somewhat from about 1940 onwards. They are almost completely absent on the mainland north of Hamilton, and are still rare in parts of Wellington, Wairarapa, and much of inland Canterbury and Otago.
They are recovering in Wellington, parts of Christchurch, and in other places with regular pest control. A translocation to Hamilton was unsuccessful.