Takahē – the bird that came back from extinction

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 13 minutes

In November 1948, the rediscovery of takahē in the Murchison Mountains by Dr Geoffrey Orbell made world news. Today the takahē is still on the Nationally Vulnerable list of threatened species, but its future is now brighter, thanks to the efforts of the Department of Conservation (DOC) Takahē Recovery Team and their supporters. Alina Suchanski follows up on their progress.

Visitors to the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary have a rare opportunity to see a strange and unique bird, a flightless grazer similar to its more prolific cousin the pukeko, but of a more solid stature, stronger legs, and brighter plumage. Its name is takahē, a bird classified by Māori as a taonga (treasure) species.

Takahē were once widespread in the South Island of New Zealand, but after the introduction of mammalian predators, numbers declined rapidly to the point that by the end of the

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 13 minutes

In November 1948, the rediscovery of takahē in the Murchison Mountains by Dr Geoffrey Orbell made world news. Today the takahē is still on the Nationally Vulnerable list of threatened species, but its future is now brighter, thanks to the efforts of the Department of Conservation (DOC) Takahē Recovery Team and their supporters. Alina Suchanski follows up on their progress.

Visitors to the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary have a rare opportunity to see a strange and unique bird, a flightless grazer similar to its more prolific cousin the pukeko, but of a more solid stature, stronger legs, and brighter plumage. Its name is takahē, a bird classified by Māori as a taonga (treasure) species.

Takahē were once widespread in the South Island of New Zealand, but after the introduction of mammalian predators, numbers declined rapidly to the point that by the end of the 19th century, takahē were considered extinct.

According to the DOC website, “The flightless takahē (South Island takahē; Porphyrio hochstetteri), is the world’s largest living rail (a family of small to medium-sized ground-dwelling birds with short wings, large feet and long toes). [However,] the North Island takahē (Porphyrio mantelli), is unfortunately extinct (moho).”

Dr Geoffrey Orbell and his friend Neil McCrostie holding the takahē rediscovered at Lake Orbell, Murchison Mountains, Fiordland, 20 November 1948
Photo: Orbell family collection

In the 1940s, numbers of red deer in Fiordland were increasingly out of control. Large areas of native vegetation were experiencing severe damage, including snow tussock – the main food of takahē. Deer culling and live deer recovery days followed. For 12 years, during the red deer plague in Fiordland, Invercargill doctor Geoffrey Orbell spent much time as a government hunter.

In April 1948, during a hunting trip into the Murchison Mountains with two friends, Orbell heard the call of a bird he could not identify. On the sandy shore of the lake that would later bear his name, he saw a trail of unusual bird footprints. Although he did not see the bird itself, he later wrote in his journal: “I already had a good idea of what we were looking at.”

On 20 November 1948, Orbell returned to the lake equipped with a camera and 30 yards of rabbit net and accompanied by his friends, Neil McCrostie, Rex Watson and his fiancé, Joan Telfer. “We returned to where we had found the tracks on our last trip,” he related in his diary. “Suddenly … I spotted a bright blue-green bird in a little clearing in the snow grass.”

What they found was a living takahē – a bird believed to be extinct for fifty years. This sensational discovery changed their lives and put them in the spotlight of international news media.

Since then, the NZ Wildlife Service and its successor, the Department of Conservation, have made efforts to save the takahē from extinction. To protect the birds, in 1949, the Murchison Mountains were declared a ‘special area’ and closed to the public. There was also an attempt to rear the takahē in captivity at Mt Bruce Wildlife Centre near Masterton, North Island, where Bantam hens were used for hatching their eggs but it wasn’t successful.

Meanwhile, the wild population of the takahē residing in Murchison Mountains was shrinking. By the early 1980s, there were just over 100 birds left. Something had to be done to stop them from slipping into extinction.

In 1985, the Burwood Takahē Breeding Centre was set up at the Gorge Hill Red Tussock Reserve, halfway between Te Anau and Mossburn. It was a purpose-built facility, where eggs taken from wild takahē nests were artificially incubated, and young chicks fed using hand puppets resembling an adult bird.

Alongside the breeding program, DOC took steps to protect wild takahē by using pest control and bird relocation to predator-free islands.

It’s been a steep learning curve hampered by setbacks. A late ‘80s attempt to establish a new wild site in the Stuart Mountains failed after 58 captive-reared takahē were released there between 1987 and 1992. Almost all of them vanished, killed by predators and the unusually heavy winters of the early 1990s. The 2007 stoat plague reduced the Murchison Mountain population from 168 birds to 93 in a matter of months. The population reached its lowest point of 77 in 2015, following back-to-back stoat plagues, a major flooding event, and landslides in which birds were killed. Recent years have seen a turn-around with takahē numbers climbing steadily.

DOC senior biodiversity ranger Glen Greaves has been working on the takahē programme for 15 years. “The Centre has been crucial to the Takahē Recovery with the survival rate at Burwood higher than in the wild. But puppet rearing was incredibly intensive and therefore very expensive. In addition, puppet-reared birds were not as good at parenting as wild birds, resulting in reduced productivity,” he said.

In 2011, DOC ceased the practice, moving away from the intensive incubator and puppet model towards a hands-off, extensive approach relying on supplementary feeding, nest management and genetics to maximise takahē productivity and survival of the chicks. This required investment in more breeding enclosures, bringing the number of breeding pairs able to be housed from six to 29.

In the wild, takahē breed once a year laying two eggs (20% of them infertile), but usually only manage to rear one chick. As part of nest management, DOC removes infertile eggs and moves eggs between nests for a better breeding outcome.

The programme has become so successful that more wild sites and sanctuaries are needed to accommodate the birds. “In 1986, we started with six birds at Burwood, and now in 2021, we have 85-105 birds, depending on the time of year. It’s at a low at the moment because cohorts have been released into the wild,” Greaves says. Today, total takahē numbers are estimated at 440 and are growing steadily.

One problem with takahē is that they are rather antisocial. The one hectare per breeding pair pens at the Burwood Takahē Breeding Centre were initially separated by ordinary farm wire fences. However, these structures had to be replaced with solid fences, as the birds did not tolerate such close neighbours and showed aggressive behaviour towards each other. When released, they quickly disperse (in the wild, takahē require up to 50 ha of real estate per pair) – to their own detriment – because in a geographically dispersed population it’s hard to find a mate and start a family.

A solid fence at Burwood Centre separates one takahē family pen from another
Photo: Alina Suchanski

“Sanctuary sites for takahē on predator-free islands and in wildlife sanctuaries are small, limited in availability, and expensive to maintain to avoid inbreeding. All of these sites are outside of the natural habitat of takahē and vary greatly in terms of population success. Having takahē in sanctuaries is considered an insurance policy should disaster hit the wild populations, but it does not achieve recovery of the species in its natural wild habitat,” says Greaves.

In 2018, a new wild site was established at Gouland Downs on the Heaphy Track in Kahurangi National Park. Thirty takahē were released there in an historic attempt to create a wild population outside of Fiordland, and in March 2021, another 15 birds were added. Also, two takahē chicks have hatched and been raised. Sadly, of the 45 takahē released at Gouland Downs, 15 have died, mostly due to natural causes (malnutrition) and three from predation. A further three takahē were recently found dead – washed away in a flood event, and a few juveniles simply disappeared (unknown cause).

“Establishing new wild populations is challenging with all native bird species,” says Greaves. “We know takahē can do well on Gouland Downs during and in the year following a tussock mast (seeding) which provides more food for takahē. Intervening years are tough due to less available food in some parts of the area. This breeding season will be critical to the future of the population. There are around 25 takahē still at the site.”

Thankfully, the Murchison Mountains site is now doing well. According to Greaves, there are currently 201 takahē there – the highest number on record. “A large number of releases have occurred in the past four years to bring the population to this target level,” he says.

The overarching goal of the Takahē Recovery Programme is to re-establish multiple takahē populations in the wild. Now the focus is almost entirely on continuing to support and sustain existing wild populations and finding new sites for them. Success is no longer measured in terms of individual bird survival. Instead, it’s about effective breeding pairs, genetic health measures, and progress in research.

The Murchison Mountains are out of bounds for anyone other than DOC employees involved in the takahē programme or contractors employed by DOC in predator control. However, once a year, as part of DOC Te Anau’s summertime educational programme, members of the public are taken across Lake Te Anau to walk up to the Takahē Valley. I was lucky enough to join them one year. The group – led by a DOC takahē ranger – hiked up a three-hour uphill trail to the special place where takahē had been re-discovered and where they still live in the wild.

We then walked to the sandy beach where Dr Orbell first spotted takahē footprints and where he and his friends later captured two of these unique birds. The ranger played out a recorded call of the takahē and soon a blue-green bird stepped out of the shrubs on the edge of the forest. It moved quickly downhill towards the call but hid in the tussocks when noticing the people standing by the lake.

The beach on Lake Orbell in the Takahe Valley, where Geoffrey Orbell and three others rediscovered the takahē in 1948
Photo: Alina Suchanski

It’s a real privilege to see this dinosaur-like bird in its natural habitat. Outside of the wild populations one can meet a takahē at sanctuary sites, which are spread throughout New Zealand.

There is no doubt that without major conservation efforts, there would not be wild takahē today. In the last Conservation status of New Zealand birds report issued in 2016, the species moved two steps away from extinction – from Nationally Critical to Nationally Vulnerable in the New Zealand Threat Classification System. That’s two big steps for the country’s conservation effort.

 

 

Sources: 1. Takahē; 2. Conservation status of New Zealand birds, doc.govt.nz 3. Seventy Years in Fiordland, journal

To immerse yourself in more articles like this, Subscribe or Log in