On a wing and a prayer: The battle to save our native birds

by North & South / 26 September, 2018
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Pioneering conservationist Don Merton weighing kākāpō.

It’s a thin green line that divides a lush landscape alive with birdsong and the extinction of many of our beloved native species. Elisabeth Easther meets three of the foot soldiers in the battle for our birds.

New Zealanders love birds. Most specifically, our native species. We self-identify as Kiwis, drink a beer called Tui and last year, more than 50,000 of us cast votes for the Bird of the Year, an event so popular that many species have campaign managers.

Birds feature on all of our banknotes, while various avian experiences and sanctuaries attract huge numbers of visitors, both local and international. Sirocco the kākāpō has close to 17,000 Twitter followers, and more than 70,000 of us support the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, New Zealand’s largest and oldest independent conservation organisation.

We go to incredible lengths to protect our most vulnerable feathered creatures; it’s impossible to estimate how many hours are spent each year, both paid and voluntary, on fostering the survival of things with wings. And we’re world leaders in bird research, in spite of it being increasingly difficult to fund even the worthiest projects.

The late Don Merton was one of the world’s most influential conservationists, credited with saving more than his fair share of New Zealand’s – and the planet’s – rare species from extinction. He called them 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,” he told the NZ Listener in 2015.

“No one else has kiwi, no one else has kākāpō. 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.”

Yet in spite of this collective passion for birds, a 2017 report from the Commissioner for the Environment, Taonga of an Island Nation, warned that four out of five of our 168 native bird species are in peril, with some sitting on the verge of extinction.

On land, there were once 91 species of bird; close to 50 of those are now gone. And, by current estimates, more than 25 million native birds are killed annually by introduced predators. Many thousands of seabirds also perish each year, mostly through the impact of commercial fisheries.

Heeding Merton’s advice to do what they can, and in the face of such grim statistics, these three dedicated conservationists are a few of the many doing their best to protect some of our most vulnerable native species.

A young kiwi.

A young kiwi.

Armed with hard data, Taylor and her colleagues make recommendations around the management of species in an effort to minimise future losses from inbreeding. “There are currently 11 little spotted kiwi populations and they’re managed as one big population, with DoC moving birds between islands every few years.”

It’s too early to say how successful that’s been, as genetic diversity in those sites hasn’t been reassessed since they began being managed this way in 2010. “It takes a while to see turnover in kiwi populations due to the bird’s long life span, so it makes sense to wait another 10 years before re-evaluating.”

Taylor has also been studying inbreeding in hihi (stitchbirds). Her work hit the headlines this year following a crowdfunding exercise that saw donors betting on the swimming speed of sperm samples from 128 birds.

“We were on Tiri [Tiritiri Matangi Island], sitting around placing bets on which bird had the fastest swimmers. We were all going to chuck in a tenner when we thought, ‘We could make this bigger.’ Because the birds aren’t very well known – they’re so small and hard to see – there’s not a lot of funding for them, unlike species like kiwi and kākāpō.”

The “sperm detectives” made a website, fired up the PR machine and eventually raised more than $11,000 for hihi conservation. Bets came in from 17 countries, including the Czech Republic, Taiwan, the Netherlands and Canada. And the one question everyone: how exactly is the semen extracted?

Evidently birds have a hole called a cloaca, which is for reproducing and getting rid of waste. “During breeding season, the male’s cloaca swells with semen and we collect it using a technique called cloacal massage,” says Taylor, matter of factly.

And if that isn’t dedication to the cause, consider what happens next. Sperm die within minutes of extraction, which means there’s a tiny window of time to get the sample to the speed camera beneath the microscope – so Taylor designed a mobile sperm lab, consisting of a small tent, a desk, a generator and a microscope with a camera on top that’s connected to a laptop running sperm-tracking software.

“To keep the semen warm, we have a slide warmer on the microscope and, the pièce de résistance: a specially designed ‘in-bra sperm holder’ I wear to keep samples warm against my skin.”

Researcher Helen Taylor is so dedicated to the cause she has a specially designed ‘in-bra sperm holder’ that she wears to keep samples warm against her skin. Left photo by Guy Frederick/Right photo by Robyn White.

Researcher Helen Taylor is so dedicated to the cause she has a specially designed ‘in-bra sperm holder’ that she wears to keep samples warm against her skin. Left photo by Guy Frederick/Right photo by Robyn White.

Gene Genie

Helen Taylor’s bird-saving expertise helps free up “population bottlenecks” caused by inbreeding.

Since the arrival of humans in New Zealand, our native species have faced a barrage of challenges. First, they were hunted for food, then eager explorers – fascinated by the unique fauna they found downunder – killed thousands of specimens “for science”, so they could be studied more closely. Today, our threatened and endangered species have to contend with everything from predators and poachers to the destruction of habitat and climate change.

An equally grave threat is inbreeding. When the population of a particular species has been severely depleted, their gene pool is compromised.

Helen Taylor, a research fellow at Otago University, was lured from the UK by a PhD project focused on inbreeding in the little spotted kiwi (pukupuku). She also has Master of Conservation and Zoo Studies from Manchester Metropolitan University.

Our smallest kiwi once lived all over mainland New Zealand. In 1912, when the numbers were still healthy, someone with admirable prescience moved five birds from the South Island to Kāpiti Island. Thank goodness they did, as by the 1980s all mainland populations of little spotted kiwi were extinct; only the Kāpiti birds survived. While it’s estimated there are about 1700 birds today, all are descended from the Kāpiti five, causing a serious problem known as “population bottleneck”.

Taylor explains: “Every time a new population of little spotted kiwi is formed – founded with anywhere from two to 40 birds – they lose genetic diversity. Although these birds seem to be doing well, there’s a bit of a paradox.

“On Long Island in the Marlborough Sounds, two birds were used to found a population. Little spotted kiwi live a very long time [up to 83 years] and those two birds are still alive today and reproducing. All their offspring are brothers and sisters, so they’re mating with siblings, which means all subsequent generations will be inbred. The Long Island population is mainly comprised of the founding and first-generation birds, while the second and third generations aren’t reproducing.”

When those founding birds die, the population will go into decline as a result of inbreeding that’s been masked by a long lifespan. Making the little spotted kiwi’s fate even more precarious, Taylor’s supervisor’s genetic research suggests only three of the original Kāpiti five bred.


Kevin Parker during a tīeke (saddleback) translocation from Tiritiri Matangi to Shakespear Open Sanctuary on Whangaparaoa Peninsula. “Most birds come straight out of the transfer boxes but a few are a bit slow and shy, so I always triple check them to make sure all of the birds get out safe and sound,” he says. “In this case, there was a bird perched in the back that flew out shortly after seeing me peering in.” Photo/Martin Sanders.

Kevin Parker during a tīeke (saddleback) translocation from Tiritiri Matangi to Shakespear Open Sanctuary on Whangaparaoa Peninsula. “Most birds come straight out of the transfer boxes but a few are a bit slow and shy, so I always triple check them to make sure all of the birds get out safe and sound,” he says. “In this case, there was a bird perched in the back that flew out shortly after seeing me peering in.” Photo/Martin Sanders.


Kevin Parker and the transformative powers of translocation.

As a child, Kevin Parker had a fascination with “everything that creeps, crawls, flies and swims”. He still remembers the Animals of the World encyclopaedia his parents gave him at five or six. Parker read it so many times that when family friends quizzed him about the creatures in the book, he very seldom flunked.

That fascination has never waned. He studied for a bachelor’s degree in parks and recreation management at Lincoln University, then worked as a park ranger for Auckland Regional Council and a keeper at Auckland Zoo. Parker returned to university and graduated with a PhD in ecology from Massey, finishing his studies with a large fernbird tattoo on his right shoulder and a tīeke, or saddleback, on his left. “The fernbird is from my master’s and the tīeke represents my PhD and post-doc.”

While his master’s focused on basic field biology and conservation management, his PhD took an unusual turn. “I started looking at the cultural evolution of song in tīeke and the impact of translocation,” he says. “What has translocation done to their song and the way it’s transmitted?”

Parker holding a hihi (stitchbird) from a translocation. Photo/Mandy Brooke.

He found evidence of cultural bottlenecks, not dissimilar to the genetic bottlenecks Helen Taylor’s conservation work is centred around. “When birds are moved, some songs are left behind, and because not all birds sing all the songs, with every translocation only a subset of songs move with them.” On the positive side, it turns out that mixing birds from different populations to increase genetic diversity also increases their song diversity.

Parker was publishing papers, receiving grants and settling into an academic career when he started feeling a little restless. “I enjoyed the thinking and research but I really liked the fieldwork too,” he says.

So a couple of years ago, he decided to combine the two and established a small business with his brother Graham Parker and sister-in-law Kalinka Rexer-Huber, who are also conservation scientists. “I do translocation, restoration and small-population management and research, while Graham and Kalinka mostly work on seabird conservation, particularly on our subantarctic islands,” he says.

With highly threatened birds, such as hihi and kōkako, Parker is looking to recover populations from very low numbers. He also translocates less-threatened birds, including tīeke, robins, whiteheads and fernbirds. A recent mission to move 40 tīeke from Tiritiri Matangi to the Shakespear Open Sanctuary on Whangaparaoa Peninsula wasn’t essential to their survival as a species, he says, “but it’s part of ecological restoration, bringing the birds back in order to restore mainland ecosystems. It’s important to make that distinction.”

Parker stresses it’s also important to think about where we put animals and why. “We need to be careful to discern between what animals need and what people want. Sometimes those two things are very different.”

As for what Parker wants, it’s simple. “I want to normalise our wildlife and make it an everyday occurrence. But equally I want everybody to know just how unique and special it is. I was 20 before I saw a tīeke and I’d like nothing better than to see them brought back to mainland New Zealand.

“Second, I want to help protect and restore what’s left. Ideally this means looking after our special plants and animals where they are right now. But if they’re missing, we can sometimes use translocations to bring them back. I don’t want to see all our taonga species stuck on islands and in little reserves… I’d like to see it around us all the time.”

But it’s rarely plain sailing in the world of conservation, and Parker is passionate about dealing to pests. “Our endemic species, our seabirds, invertebrates and reptiles, our threatened plants – they’re what make us unique in the world and the better we get at controlling pests, the more opportunities we‘ll have,” he says.

“In New Zealand, everything comes back to pests, and everything in conservation in the modern world comes down to funding – and the will to succeed. I’m always amazed at what we’re able to pull off regardless of the hurdles we face.”

Joanna Sim helps track and monitor native birds with  her detection dog Rua (left) and Maddi, now retired.

Joanna Sim helps track and monitor native birds with her detection dog Rua (left) and Maddi, now retired.

He’s a Bird Dog

Joanna Sim tracks native birds with her wildlife detector dog Rua.

“When I was young, I loved animals but I didn’t want to be a vet because I didn’t like the chemical smells,” Joanna Sim recalls. “The only thing in my head was that I wanted to live in a cabin in the forest with my dog.”

Since then, Sim has earned a degree in ecology, volunteered on conservation projects and worked for the Department of Conservation. In 2012, after many years working as a DoC ranger, she took a risk and set up her own wildlife detection agency.

“I was really scared when I left DoC,” she says. “But I went into business with my eyes wide open. Knowing it could fail, I still had to give it a go. There were a couple of years of surviving on pumpkin soup, but I came through and now, I’ve got work planned for almost the whole of next season.”

Sim started out in the bird-detection business with her old dog Maddi. About six years ago, she added Rua, a border collie/labrador/German shorthaired pointer cross. “At first I didn’t think Rua had it in him. I’d go out with both dogs and Rua would just trot along behind with Maddi finding everything. I thought he was useless. But one day, I took Rua out by himself and he blossomed into the most brilliant wildlife detection dog.”

Watching Sim work with Rua, it’s clear she has a special gift. “I’m quite strict,” she says. “For bird dogs, you need to get them to wait, under any circumstances. I really put emphasis on that. Then I introduce them to a bag of seabird or kiwi feathers, something that smells like what I want them to find. So it’s like a game, but they’re never, ever allowed to touch. I’ll hide the bag in my paddock and make a big fuss when it’s found. 

A kiwi burrow.

A kiwi burrow.

“There’s a lot of repetition but I try to make it fun. It’s relatively easy to get a dog to find something that smells good to them. Kiwi are very attractive to dogs; that’s why dogs kill so many of them.”

Because Rua is trained for seabirds and kiwi, the pair is busy from spring till autumn. “I go to beautiful spots: the Hauraki Gulf, Auckland’s west coast, Raglan, the Remutakas, Pūkaha Mt Bruce… Taranaki is a hot spot for us. They still have wild kiwi running around massive blocks of native and exotic forestry. They have predators, yet kiwi survive there.”

Even though kiwi are nocturnal, Sim and Rua only do day work. “Someone goes out the night before and listens for kiwi and tries to pinpoint where they’re calling from. They give us a bearing and we go in during the day in the hopes the kiwi is still in that valley. Searching big blocks of land using just Rua’s nose, it can do your head in a bit.”

Birds they find are banded (or existing bands are recorded), weighed and measured; new transmitters might be fitted or changed. “They’re pretty tough birds,” says Sim. “Some are quite lean, depending on the time of year.”

After eggs are laid, male kiwi do all the incubating, spending two months sitting on the eggs.

“They only get up at night to have a quick feed, so tend to be quite skinny at the end of the breeding season. Closer to hatching, they feed less and less. Sometimes when the female lays another set of eggs, the males will ‘double clutch’ and sit on those, too. So males are often lean while females have to use all that energy laying those ridiculously huge eggs.”

A particular highlight is finding birds in sites where populations are thought to have dwindled or disappeared altogether. “We found all these grey-faced petrels burrowing in near Muriwai,” Sim recalls. “We thought we might have one or two but found way more. Another time, at Shakespear Regional Park, recorders were put out but we didn’t hear anything. Then, walking the dog along the cliff, we found petrels there. Even though the land had been grazed before it was a sanctuary, the birds had survived. That was a buzz.”


Hihi (stitchbird).

Hihi (stitchbird).

Bird detecting can be solitary work so every August, DoC runs the Conservation Dog Programme for detection dogs and their handlers. Sim says there are about 60 kiwi dogs nationwide, and a lot of rat and stoat dogs, but Rua is one of only two specifically trained to work with seabirds.

Detection dogs are an increasingly important part of the wildlife puzzle. It’s all very well to focus on predator control, “but it’s also essential to keep track of threatened bird populations to monitor their health and demographics,” says Sim. “This in turn helps to improve the management of the species where they live, and to see if humans are actually helping them. That’s the aim, after all.”

When Sim is in the field with Rua, 11-year-old Maddi goes to stay with Sim’s parents. Her own home is a property outside Levin, which she’s planting with native trees – pretty close to that childhood dream of living in a cabin in a forest with her dog.

This article was first published in the October 2018 issue of North & South.


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