Winging it

by Kim Griggs / 23 April, 2005
Don Merton is legendary for helping to save the Chatham Island black robin. And he caught the last Fiordland kakapo and genetic hope for that species' survival. He has, in the words of author Douglas Adams, "probably done more than any man living to preserve the threatened birds of New Zealand". This month Don Merton, conservationist, bows out.
At 18, Don Merton ignored well-meaning advice that he wouldn't make a living out of conservation, and he joined the wildlife branch of the Department of Internal Affairs, staying for 48 years.

What made you decide to work in conservation? We lived at Wainui Beach near Gisborne. I was four or five when my grandmother came to stay and she had a canary. I was absolutely enthralled by this thing and it sparked a passion in me for things wild. And from that point on, no skylark or sparrow or finch within a bull's roar of Wainui Beach was safe.

Because you'd go and look after them? I tried desperately to find their nests. I very seldom did. On one occasion, my brothers and I took the finches from a nest and put them in the canary's cage. The canary raised and looked after them. This was a real hoot at the time. But, 35 years on, it was to play an integral role in my thinking when we came up with the plan to cross-foster [Chatham Island] black robins, which played a crucial role in saving the species from extinction.

But how did you marry birds with conservation? We shifted inland a bit to a little farmlet and at that time there were weka everywhere in Gisborne. Through joining Forest and Bird - I must have been eight or 10 at that time - I discovered that these things were rare and this was the only place they were. They'd died out everywhere else in the North Island and they were in danger of becoming extinct. I was appalled. I thought that mustn't happen.

So, by about intermediate age, you'd set your sights on a conservation career. It was very competitive in those days. I had to get my School Certificate, which I duly did, and apply and the first time I got knocked back. It was so competitive. Even in those days there were 300 applicants for one, maybe two jobs a year. So I applied again and I finally got in.

Deer culling was the Wildlife Service's main focus then. Were you able to work with birds right away? One of the first things I was involved with was the North Island saddleback, which at that time was confined to just one island, Hen Island. We desperately needed to establish other populations of it. Other people had had a crack at it, but no one had been successful. Johnny Kendrick was the guy who introduced me to the portable tape recorder. We were able to utilise that to record their calls, play them back and attract the birds, lure them into the net. The techniques that we pioneered then are now commonplace in conservation management all around the world.

And that stood you in good stead for the Big South Cape disaster that quickly followed. The ship rat invaded Big South Cape Island off Stewart Island, where the last population of South Island saddlebacks existed and other things like bush wren, Stewart Island bush snipe and the greater short-tailed bat. We realised what was happening and some others at the time didn't believe that it was serious and tried to get us just to watch to monitor. Anyway, we got down there with great effort five months later and the damage had already been done. The rats exterminated five bird species and the bat from that island.

Do you think there would be a five-month delay today if that sort of thing were to happen again? Well, I don't know. It could happen. But hopefully we are much more

aware of these things now and sense the urgency of it and act much quicker. We wouldn't have to convince all these various people in high positions who should have known better. You see, they had been educated in Europe and North America, where predators are a natural part of the scheme of things. They couldn't accept that a predator could make such a difference.

To move to a success story - you retrieved Richard Henry, the kakapo, from Fiordland 30 years ago and he's still alive now. Do you think he knows you? Hah, I don't know. Parrots, as birds go, are highly intelligent and the kakapo is the longest lived by far and the largest of all parrots and presumably has the largest brain of all the parrots and could well have that sort of knowledge. Certainly, they have a well-developed sense of smell, so maybe like a cat or dog they may be able to pick up the individual smells with humans.

How does Old Blue - who, thanks to your grandmother's canary and fostering, was convinced to produce chicks - rate versus Richard Henry? They are both very, very special in my book, my career and my psyche. The robin, of course, is just a species.

Taxonomically, that's not all important. But they are beautiful little birds to work with, they come right up into your personal space and look you in the eye. And because of Old Blue, they still survive. So it was a very special time in my life. I feel hugely privileged to have worked with them and to have helped them.

But the kakapo is quite different? It's not just a species, not just a genera, it's a sub-family all to itself. So taxonomically it's much, much more important. Unlike the robin, which is so friendly, the kakapo are nocturnal, they are cryptically coloured, they are shy. But once you get them in the hand, like Richard Henry, for instance, he was just a cuddly toy. I'd talk to him and scratch him and he'd put his head back and just close his eyes, just like nursing a big Persian cat.

Such intensive conservation is so expensive, why should we bother? They are our national monuments. They are our Tower of London, our Arc de Triomphe, our pyramids. We don't have this ancient architecture that we can be proud of and swoon over in wonder, but what we do have is something that is far, far older than that. No one else has kiwi, no one else has kakapo. They have been around for millions of years, if not thousands of millions of years. And once they are gone, they are gone forever. And it's up to us to make sure they never die out.

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