From an era when large flightless birds were spread throughout New Zealand, the takahē has clung to existence despite the pressures of hunting, habitat destruction and introduced predators.
The takahē was once thought to be extinct, but in the 1948 it hit world headlines when an Invercargill doctor, Geoffrey Orbell, rediscovered the bird high in the tussock grasslands of the remote Murchison Mountains, Fiordland.
Even today, despite years of conservation effort, the takahē remains critically endangered.
Are they just fat pūkeko?
No! A takahē looks similar to the common pūkeko, which is a result of the species sharing a common ancestor, so they are very distantly related.
The pūkeko is skinny and blue with a black back, the takahē is much larger and more colourful. It has a large, strong red beak and stout red legs. Its gorgeous feathers range from an iridescent dark blue head, neck and breast to peacock blue shoulders and turquoise and olive green wings and back.
Adult takahē are about the size of a large hen, 50 cm high and can weigh over 3 kg.
Takahē are flightless. They have wings, but they are only use them to display during courtship or as a show of aggression.
Takahē have lived over 25 years in captivity but in the wild few birds reach this age.
Takahē are larger with stout legs and more colours; pūkeko are blue with a black back
Image: Shellie Evans ©
Food and shelter
Wild takahē in the Murchison Mountains of Fiordland find their food and shelter in alpine grassland such as broad-leaved snow tussock, mid-ribbed snow tussock and curled snow tussock.
The takahē’s strong beak is perfect for cutting and stripping the base of tussock tillers to get at the juicy new growth, but it still needs to feed nearly all day to get enough nourishment. The takahē also eats tussock seeds when they are available, sliding its beak along the seed head to strip the seeds and eat them.
In winter, if snow cover is heavy, birds descend into the forest for shelter and feed mainly on underground starchy rhizomes of the summer green fern.
After the snow clears in October, takahē often nest under the shelter of large tussocks where each nesting pair builds up a messy raised bowl of grasses.
One to three eggs are laid, and of these 60% hatch. Fertility and hatch rates vary between sites, but are naturally lower than most birds. The 30-day incubation period is shared by both parents who also feed the chicks for three months.
Usually, only one chick will survive its first winter. Young birds often stay with their parents for up to 18 months helping to rear the next year's chick.
Fight for survival
The takahē once lived throughout the South Island. In the North Island, another similar looking species that shares the same ancestor as the pūkeko, was known as the moho, but has long been extinct. By the time of European settlement, takahē was already reduced in numbers and localised in distribution. Only four takahē were sighted in the late 19th century so that by the early 20th century they were considered extinct.
Following rediscovery of the takahē in 1948, a 50,000 ha special area within Fiordland National Park was set aside to protect it. While the Murchison Mountains is still home to the only surviving wild population of takahē, almost two thirds of the total takahē population is now found in populations that have been established at various safe sites around New Zealand.
Harsh alpine conditions
It is not entirely certain why the takahē were able to hang on in the Murchison Mountains, a harsh environment that provides seemingly endless challenges to survival. The relative absence of cats, dogs, ferrets, and people, as well as low numbers and late arrival of deer and stoats, likely had a big part to play.
Though unlikely to be ideal habitat, takahē are obviously able to cope with the conditions through behavioural and physiological adaptations. In fact, the species is more productive in the Murchison Mountains, than on virtually any other takahē site, suggesting they are well suited to cold, damp, fertile environments.
Stoats are a major threat
Image: Rod Morris
Takahē often nest under the shelter of large tussocks
Image: Sabine Bernert ©
As with many New Zealand birds, one of the biggest threats to takahē survival is introduced predators. One of the features of the Murchison Mountains is the absence of cats, ferrets or dogs. Unfortunately, stoats are now well established in the mountains of Fiordland.
In 2007, things were looking up for the takahē in the Murchison Mountains. The population had almost reached 200 birds when disaster struck. Following a beech and tussock mast (a mass seeding of beech trees and tussocks which happens every few years), the mountains were besieged by a plague of stoats.
Within a few months the wild population of takahē was halved. Fortunately, by this time takahē populations had been established on safe pest-free islands as insurance against just this sort of disaster.
In response to this, DOC’s stoat trapping programme has been extended and intensified to cover the entire 50,000 ha Special Takahē Area in the Murchison Mountains. It is now the largest trapping network in New Zealand. Testing and refining the effectiveness of this and deer control is now the focus of takahē conservation work in the Murchison Mountains.
About half the adult population of takahē are fitted with transmitters allowing regular monitoring via an aircraft fitted with a receiver (sky ranger) and creating a clear picture of what is happening to takahē in the wild.
The major barrier to establishing a further 'wild' population outside the Murchison Mountains is the ability to successfully control all introduced predators over a large enough area. Due to recent growth in the population, including passing the 300 individuals mark for the first time since rediscovery, the recovery programme is currently searching for a site to establish a new wild population.
Competition for food
Deer and takahē love to browse on the same tussock species in the alpine grasslands. Unfortunately, deer browse is much harder on tussock and retards growth and so can impact on takahē food and habitat.
Takahē Recovery Programme
This is the longest running species conservation programme in New Zealand and has pioneered many conservation techniques later used to save endangered species in New Zealand and around the globe. Despite all this effort takahē are still classified as a 'critically endangered' species. However, without the effort, they would probably be extinct!
DOC's Takahē Recovery Programme is committed to ensuring the survival, growth and security of takahē populations throughout New Zealand. We are working to ensure takahē will never again be 'considered extinct'.
The programme's priority is to establish 90 breeding pairs of takahē at safe sites. Safe sites include pest-free islands as well as mainland sites with well established predator control including predator proof fencing.
Discovering the 'extinct bird'?
At first following their rediscovery in 1948, experts believed takahē were safest left alone in their mountain haven. The rugged Murchison Mountains of Fiordland were declared a 'special area', off limits to all except a few scientists and deer cullers.
In the early 1980s research identified a serious decline in takahē numbers, kicking off a major conservation push to save them. Over the years since then a huge effort has gone into studying takahē and the threats to their survival. Actions to save them from extinction has included deer control, manipulating wild nests and eggs, artificially incubating eggs, captive breeding and predator control.
Glove puppets helped takahē
Puppet feeding takahē chicks
Image: Ross Curtis
For almost 30 years puppets and models to minimise contact with humans. the artificial incubation of eggs and rearing of chicks was carried out at our 'takahe farm', the Burwood Takahē Breeding Centre, near Te Anau.
Earlier attempts at captive breeding takahē had produced chicks that thought they were bantams or humans, so chicks hatched at Burwood were fed and brooded using glove puppets and models to minimise contact with humans.
Puppets minimise human contact
Image: Sabine Bernert ©
'Excess' eggs from wild nests were collected and the chicks raised at Burwood to produce birds suitable for freeing back into the wild population. Some of these captive-reared birds were also used to establish populations on pest-free islands.
Radical changes in captive breeding
Puppet rearing chicks helped save takahē from extinction, but recent scientific analysis has shown that puppet-reared birds have not bred as successfully in the wild as wild-reared birds.
Luckily, there are now sufficient takahē at Burwood for a move away from artificial incubation and puppet rearing. Instead, 20 breeding pairs of takahē are being used to hatch and rear the new chicks needed to establish and boost takahē populations.
Islands: from insurance policy to the backbone of takahē conservation
During the 1980s takahē bred at Burwood were used to establish new takahē populations on four islands: Maud, Mana, Kapiti and Tiritiri Matangi. These island populations were a takahē insurance policy in case anything ever happen to the remaining wild population in Fiordland.
Now, along with Burwood, Motutapu Island and at two mainland sites, Maungatautari Ecological Island and Cape Sanctuary, these ‘islands’ are the backbone of the Takahē Recovery Programme providing the birds and sites to secure the future of takahē.
Gilbert Mingam from DOC
Image: Sabine Bernert ©
DOC ranger Martin Genet heading out to track takahē in Fiordland National Park
Image: Sabine Bernert ©
Takahē take flight
Managing so many breeding sites creates challenges, including juggling takahē between sites.
Young birds often need to be removed from islands to prevent them breeding with close relatives. This means an ongoing programme of transfers between takahē sites. Its not too unusual to see them occupying a seat on an Air New Zealand flight between Auckland, Christchurch and Queenstown.
Some older or infertile birds are also retired to a 'display site' where they become ambassadors for takahē conservation.
You can help
You can assist the takahē recovery programme by recording any takahē sightings in the wild.
As the takahē population increases so does the expansion of birds to areas outside the Murchison Mountain Special Takahē Area. Monitoring this spread will aid DOC in determining the population health.
Essential information to record is date, location (grid reference if possible) and number of birds seen.
Any additional information about their sex, age (chick, juvenile or adult), photos, or samples of takahē sign such as faeces, discarded feathers or feeding sign would also be useful.
Likely areas include the alpine and subalpine zones in the vicinity of the Kepler, Milford, and George Sound tracks, the Stuart Mountains, and areas immediately to the west of the Murchison Mountains.
Show your support
The continued success of the takahē recovery project relies heavily on the financial assistance provided by our partners. By supporting those that support takahē, you are helping ensure the long-term survival of this unique species.
Help protect New Zealand's native birds
- Volunteer with DOC or other groups to control predators and restore bird habitats.
- Don’t throw rubbish into water ways or storm drains.
- Set traps for stoats or rats on your property. Get more information from your local DOC office.
- Put a bell on your cat's collar, feed it well, and keep it indoors at night.
- Plant a range of native plants that provide food year-round to encourage birds into your garden.
When visiting parks and beaches
- Only take dogs to areas that allow them, and keep your dog under control.
- Prevent the spread of pests. Check your gear for mice and rats when visiting pest-free islands.
- Use available access ways to get to the beach. Stay out of fenced-off areas. Leave nesting shore birds alone.
- Get your dog trained in avian awareness, and help save forest birds like kiwi and weka.
- Follow the water care code. Keep water craft speed to 5 knots within 200 metres of the shore.
For more information about takahē contact:
Visit the Takahē Recovery website.