New Zealand a Noah's Ark for Conserving Bizarre Birds

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Once the animals are safely established, they must be monitored. Scientists keep careful statistics on the abundance, survival, and reproduction of a population to determine whether they can sustain themselves.

In New Zealand, there are issues beyond the typical scientific concerns to address. The Tangata Whenua—the Maori tribes with traditional connections to the area—must be consulted. And since the animals are so unusual, so too are the challenges.

"The kakapo are particularly vulnerable to predators, because they are flightless, smelly, and attempt to a avoid predators by sitting still," Graeme Elliot, a scientist on the National Kakapo Team at the New Zealand Department of Conservation, said. "Worse yet, they breed only when the rimu tree goes into fruit—an event that occurs, on average, every 23 to 25 years."

In addition, female kakapos don't start breeding until they are 9 to 11 years old. (See Sidebar)

Sometimes, even if conditions seem exactly right, the project still ends in heartbreak.

After exhaustive planning and preparation, the hihi bird was reintroduced to Mokaia Island in 1994. Despite intensive management and supplemental feeding, the population languished. Many birds died, and eventually the surviving ones were translocated elsewhere. A fungal disease that was particularly virulent on Mokaia Island was eventually identified as a major source of mortality.

Saving Species, One Population at a Time

Thankfully, New Zealand's efforts to save its endangered bird species are largely qualified success stories.

In 1980, due to habitat destruction and predation, only five black robins remained in the entire world. Worse yet, only one was a breeding female. Today the black robin population exceeds 250 birds. The takahe, once thought extinct, now has a population of 120 birds.

The saddleback, a black wattlebird with a tan saddle of feathers on its back and a pendulous orange wattle at the base of its bill, has been translocated 27 times since 1925 and now inhabits approximately 16 islands. The bird—once on the very edge of extinction—is now on the lowest, safest rung of the international Red List of endangered species, and is considered a stabilized population.

The flightless, smelly kakapo, once all but extinct, has been nurtured and rebounded to become a thriving population of 83. Each bird has been named: Richard Henry is the grand old male who likes to be tickled under the chin. Sinbad is a fastidious bird with unusually tidy eating habits. Felix is named after a brand of cat food, which is what it would have been if it had been left on Stewart Island. Zephyr, the most productive female, seems to have a thing for Felix, who is the father of five of the female's chicks.

As successes mount, New Zealand's conservationists are starting to reintroduce their charges to New Zealand's mainland. The obstacles are substantial.

"Dispersal is the main one," said Colin Miskelly, a technical support manager at the New Zealand Department of Conservation. "Also restrictions on predator control methods due to multiple land uses and legislative constraints."

In several areas, high-tech fences have been erected and special dogs and ferrets have been used to clear predators out.

In the next few weeks, saddlebacks will be released in Boundary Stream Scenic Reserve on the eastern edge of the Maungaharuru range on the North Island of the New Zealand mainland.

"This will be the first attempt for some time to bring a Red-Listed species back to an unfenced mainland area," Armstrong said.

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For more New Zealand and endangered-bird stories, scroll to bottom.

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