For half a century the flightless blue-green takahe (Notornis mantelli) was thought extinct. These plump, turkey-sized birds – close relatives of the pukeko – were once common throughout New Zealand but after the arrival of Maori their territory became restricted to the southern extremities of the South Island, and by the time Europeans came only a few were spotted, by early settlers in Fiordland. No sightings were recorded after 1898; the few trampers and ornithologists who claimed to have seen its tracks or heard its call in remote Fiordland valleys were dismissed as cranks.
One keen birder, Geoffrey Orbell, pieced together the sketchy evidence and concentrated his search on the 500 square kilometres of the Murchison Mountains, a virtual island surrounded on three sides by the western arms of Lake Te Anau and on the fourth by the Main Divide. In 1948, he was rewarded with the first takahe sighting in fifty years. However, the few remaining birds seemed doomed: deer were chomping their way through the grasses on which the takahe relied. Culling the deer averted the immediate crisis but did not halt the decline caused by stoats and harsh winters.
Takahe often lay three eggs but seldom manage to raise more than one chick. By removing any “surplus” eggs and hand-rearing them (often using hand-puppets to stop the chicks imprinting on their carers), DOC were able to gradually increase the population. In addition, DOC has established several populations on predator-free sanctuary islands – Maud Island in the Marlborough Sounds, Mana Island and Kapiti Island northwest of Wellington, Maungatautiri near Hamilton and Tiritiri Matangi and Motutapu in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf – where the birds are breeding well. These efforts have helped bring the total population to 250.
The focus is now on boosting chicks’ genetic quality, identifying new large breeding sites and fine-tuning management of the wild population. It is hoped that takahe can be removed from the critically endangered list in the next ten years.