The Animals and Birds You’ll See in the Cook Islands
Wildlife enthusiasts will not be disappointed by the array of animals and birds in the Cook Islands. There are around 88 species of birds, 1,500 invertebrate species, 136 coral species, seven mammal species and we’re not even going to begin counting the species of fish. While many of the animals and birds in the Cook Islands you’ll actually find across the South Pacific, there are an interesting few that are endemic to Rarotonga and the Cook Islands. Identify what you will see (or have seen) as you’re travelling through the islands with this list of the top 20 animals and birds in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands!
1. Kakerori (Rarotonga Monarch)
A bird unique to the Cook Islands, the kakerori (Rarotongan monarch or Rarotongan flycatcher) was almost extinct in the early 1990s. Some of the remaining 29 birds were taken to the island sanctuary of Atiu where the species was saved from extinction and population numbers were boosted to be reintroduced to Rarotonga and the Takitumu Conservation Area. Today, the bird saved from the brink of extinction has become an icon of the Cook Islands (some might say the national bird of the Cook Islands). You’ll spot them in the inland forests of Rarotonga and Atiu. The one in the image below was seen at the summit of the Arore Trek – check out the 10 Best Walks in Rarotonga for more details.
Sea turtles are endangered and rarely seen across the world. But in the Cook Islands, they’re flourishing. The most common species of turtle you’ll see is the greenback turtle, but hawksbill turtles and far less-commonly loggerhead turtles are also living in the Cook Islands’ waters. While you might chance on a turtle simply while snorkelling, there are dedicated turtle swimming tours and dive sites that will pretty much guarantee a sighting. Find out more about where to see turtles in the 10 Best Turtle Swimming Tours in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
3. Kopeka (Atiu Swiftlet)
Endemic to the island of Atiu and to one cave, in particular, kopeka (Atiu swiftlet) is perhaps the most fascinating bird in the Cook Islands. They live in caves and use echolocation to navigate the darkness, like a bat! It is also thought that when they are away from their nest, they are able to sleep while flying and able to return to the same cave on Atiu, Anatakitaki Cave. You too can visit this cave on Atiu, as outlined in the 5 Best Caves on Atiu.
Dogs were first introduced to the Cook Islands more than 700 years ago, arriving with settlers from other Polynesian countries. Today, Rarotonga is the only one of the Cook Islands where you’ll find dogs, approximately 4,000 of them wandering around the island! And yes, they do wander on the beaches, in the streets and at some of the resorts. Although most dogs do have a home on Rarotonga and are usually well looked after by the locals, it is customary to let them move around freely, i.e. they are not stray dogs. Any dogs that do not have a home are usually taken to the SPCA shelter nearby the Papua Waterfall, which visitors are free to visit by appointment.
Side note: it’s not advised to feed the dogs, as they will likely not leave you alone and could stray away from their owners.
5. Tanga’eo (Mangaian Kingfisher)
Endemic to the island of Mangaia, the Mangaian kingfisher or “tanga’eo” was thought to have gone extinct in the 1970s due to the myna bird (see below) taking over its habitat, as well as rats invading their nests. Nevertheless, the Mangaian kingfisher has made a comeback on the island and is thought to now have a stable population. You’re likely to see these little birds with large beaks and blue and white plumage while you’re hiking out in the forests. Check out the 5 Best Walks on Mangaia where you’re likely to spot them.
6. Common Myna Bird
The bird you will see the most in the Cook Islands, except for the Atiu which is set to be the first island in the South Pacific to eradicate this invasive species, is the common myna bird. Introduced to the islands in 1906 to control insect pests like paper hornets and the coconut stick insect, the common myna is now seen as a pest itself for interfering with endemic birds, as well as stealing food from homes and damaging ripe fruit.
7. Humpback Whales
Humpback whales migrate from their feeding grounds in Antarctica to the warm waters of the Cook Islands to mate and calve each year. The whale season is between July and October when humpback whales can be seen from the shores of the Cook Islands, while whale watching boat trips depart from Rarotonga and whale swimming trips are available in Aitutaki. Find out more about the whales in our guide, Cook Islands Whale Season: The Best Time to See Whales in the Cook Islands.
8. Ngōio (Brown Noddy)
Seen on the beaches of Aitutaki, as well as many of the other Southern Group islands, brown noddies are a very common seabird in the Cook Islands. The female only lays one egg per breeding season. It is easily mistaken for very similar species like the black noddy, which can be found in the Northern Group, and the blue-grey noddy.
9. Tavake (Red-Billed Tropicbird)
Seen across the Cook Islands, the red-billed tropicbird is easily identified by its red bill, white plumage and long red tail. Many visiting the Cook Islands see the bird on Aitutaki, but the most prolific population can be found on Palmerston where the species is more commonly known as the “bosun bird”. The island has a law in place where they can only hunt bosun birds every 28th day of the month in order to keep the population stable, yet available to use as a food source on this remote island.
10. Coconut Crabs (Unga)
The world’s largest species of crab is also one of the most endangered on the Cook Islands, mainly because the crab meat is a local delicacy. It can still be found on some of the outer islands of the Cook Islands, especially on Rakahanga, and are known for ripping open coconut husks to access the food within. Unga also feed on nuts, fruit and seeds. On Rarotonga, you’re more likely to see injured coconut crabs in captivity at the Discover Marine Wildlife & Eco Centre before they are released back into the wild in a (hopefully) safer place.
11. (Toa Moa) Chickens
It’s important to mention chickens and roosters in the Cook Islands, as they are everywhere! You’ll see them roaming around any one of the Cook Islands, scratching and eating anything they can find. For this reason, locals don’t eat the chickens of the Cook Islands. Plus, they don’t taste good! Your most likely interaction with roosters is being woken up by them at the crack of dawn – especially if you’re staying inland on Rarotonga.
12. Kakaia (White Terns)
Another commonly seen native species of seabird in the Cook Islands, white terns, also known as fairy terns or “kakaia”, usually hang out in groups in the trees on all of the islands of the Cook Islands.
13. Kakara (Hermit Crabs)
Living in shells of all shapes and sizes, hermit crabs are prolific on the beaches of the Cook Islands! The local name is “kakara” and they are always fun to spot scuttling along the beach.
14. Black Lip Pearl Oyster
Famous on the island of Manihiki (and any souvenir shop on Rarotonga), the black lip pearl oyster is what produces the black pearl used for jewellery. There are only two countries where black pearls are farmed: French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, with Manihiki representing the whole of the Cook Islands’ black pearl industry. Visit the island of Manihiki and you’ll have no trouble finding an authentic tour of a black pearl farm on one of the tiny manmade island inside the lagoon. Find out more about seeing black lip pearl oysters in The Complete Travel Guide to Manihiki.
15. Kōtuku (Pacific Reef Heron)
Also known as the eastern reef egret or “kōtuku”, Pacific reef herons are mainly found on the islands of Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Mitiaro. Adults either have white or black plumage, known as a white or black morph.
16. Rupe (Pacific Pigeon)
The largest forest bird in the Cook Islands, the Pacific pigeon or Pacific imperial pigeon is native to the islands of Rarotonga, Atiu, Mauke, Mitiaro, Palmerston and Pukapuka. They eat fruit and berries and occasionally leaves and flowers.
17. Moko (Polynesian Gecko)
There are around eight different species of gecko in the Cook Islands, the most iconic being the moko. Why should you know about the moko? Its high shrilling voice is a sound you’ll never forget! Although difficult to spot due to their changing camouflage skin, there are enough around to spot at least a couple during your trip to Rarotonga and the Cook Islands. Another common species of gecko is the house gecko which makes a “chi-chi-chi” call.
18. Torea (Pacific Golden Plover)
Found in open grass areas in the summer season of the Cook Islands, the Pacific golden plover comes 9,000km (5,592 miles) from Alaska. During their mating season, during February and March, their plumage changes colour in time for the “courtship parties” they will hold on their return to Alaska.
Another introduced animal found all over the Cook Islands, pigs are very important to Polynesian cultures including Cook Islanders. On the remotest of the Cook Islands, pigs are still a form of payment. Pigs, like dogs and chickens, roam freely on the islands that most people visit, such as Rarotonga, Aitutaki and beyond.
20. Paua (Giant Clams)
There are three native species of clams and giant clams in the Cook Islands, locally known as “paua”: the elongate giant clam, fluted giant clam and Noah’s giant clam. Due to the rapid depletion of giant clams that are harvested as a food delicacy, there are conservation efforts in place to keep the populations stable, for instance, the giant clam nursery at the Marine Research Centre in Aitutaki. You can see giant clams while snorkelling anywhere in the Cook Islands but particularly in the Aitutaki Lagoon.
More About Animals and Birds in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
That’s it for our list of animals and birds found in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands. For more information about experiencing animals and birds while visiting the Cook Islands, check out the following articles:
- 10 Best Nature & Wildlife Tours in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
- Wildlife in the Cook Islands: Animals in the Cook Islands & Where to See Them
- The Top 10 Natural Wonders in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
Finally, plan more of your Cook Islands’ itinerary using the 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands: The Ultimate List.