Love lives of pukeko to be revealed in new research

University of Auckland biologist and lecturer Dr Kristal Cain is carrying out field research in south Auckland into a ...
Chris Harrowell

University of Auckland biologist and lecturer Dr Kristal Cain is carrying out field research in south Auckland into a species of native bird.

Dr Kristal Cain is working to unlock the secrets of one of New Zealand's most recognised native birds.

The lecturer in the University of Auckland's school of biological sciences is conducting fieldwork research into pukeko birds in various sites including around the Watercare Coastal Walkway south of Ambury Regional Park in Mangere Bridge.

She's originally from Texas in the United States and has conducted similar research on other species in Australia.

Cain will be trapping pukeko and taking blood from them to do examine the birds' DNA.
Chris Harrowell

Cain will be trapping pukeko and taking blood from them to do examine the birds' DNA.

"I have to get permits and permission to work on each property that I'll be on," Cain says, of her work in Auckland.

"I'm finding good spots where the birds are and setting up bait so they get used to coming to those areas for food.

"I'll set up traps and once they're used to it then I can start catching them and taking measurements.

Cain says it's not yet known what purpose is served by the shield, which is the red ornament on the bird's forehead.
Chris Harrowell

Cain says it's not yet known what purpose is served by the shield, which is the red ornament on the bird's forehead.

"They'll be freed again. It takes about 10 minutes and doesn't hurt."

Cain says she will collect a small blood sample from each pukeko she catches and place a colour band on them to tell them apart.

It will also help her identify each birds' sex as well as which ones are dominant, she says.

"I can get a bit of DNA and hormone levels from the blood sample so I can figure out who's fathering who and who's mum to who.

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"I can get all that kind of information. I'll come out once a week for a couple of months to get the population established and get bands on everybody and then once all that stuff is going we can do more in depth work."

Cain says she expects her research may take "probably a couple of years" and she's hoping to get a PhD student involved in the project.

She intends to gather research that she will teach to students, publish in academic journals, and present at international conferences.

Among the things she's hoping to learn are what purpose, if any, the red shield on top of a pukeko's head plays, as well as the impact of the birds' hormones.

"We think it [the shield] may be a way to signal to each other who the more aggressive or dominant bird is.

"It could be the bigger and more aggressive birds have higher levels of testosterone and therefore have bigger shields.

"The main thing of interest is testosterone.

"We know it's important in regulating traits for aggression or competition but no one has really looked at it in the pukeko."

 - Stuff

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