European naturalists catalogued and named the bird species that they encountered, sending most of the original specimens collected back to museums in Europe. Many of the birds collected during the 1700s and 1800s are now very rare or extinct. Some of the 19th Century specimens ended up in the Te Papa collection, but most of the historically important type specimens are held overseas, or were destroyed when the specimens deteriorated.
Te Papa holds approximately 17,000 bird skins, 4750 recent skeletons and 2800 eggs, including the largest collection of New Zealand bird skins held by any museum (c.11,000 skins of 289 species). Most of the bird specimens are study skins and skeletons held off-display but accessible to researchers. Only about 1300 are specimens mounted in life-like poses such as those used in traditional museum displays and dioramas. In addition to skeletons of living and recently extinct birds, there are about 43,000 bird skeletons and part skeletons registered in Te Papa's fossil vertebrate collection. [Totals as of 27 September 2010.]
The collection is notable for its holdings of albatrosses (nearly 1000 specimens) and other seabirds including petrels, penguins, shags, gulls and terns. This reflects the diversity and abundance of seabirds in New Zealand waters. There are ten kinds of albatross, twenty petrels, four penguins, eleven shags, two gulls and three terns that breed only in New Zealand, a higher number and proportion of endemic seabird species than any other country.