Takahe turnaround

23:26, Nov 06 2012

Takahe almost disappeared off the face of the earth, but a determined discovery half a century ago and dedicated conservation since has brought them back from the brink.

Takahe are one of New Zealand's poster birds, some of the few remaining "charismatic megafauna" species remaining in addition to kakapo and kiwi. They are large birds (reaching up to four kilograms in weight and 63cm in length), and have blue and green colouring, a large red beak and sturdy red legs. (In fact they were once described as being "all drumstick" with five times more meat on their legs than on the breast).

Hunted by Maori and Europeans and suffering due to the onslaught of introduced pests, by 1898 takahe had disappeared. Most people thought they too had joined the moa, Haast's eagle, Stephens Island wren (and on and on it goes) into oblivion. 

Most people, that is, except for a determined Invercargill doctor named Geoffrey Orbell. Orbell is famous in my family because he took out my Dad's tonsils when Dad was a boy, but mostly Dr Orbell is famous for his dedicated and successful search for the takahe, which he rediscovered in the Murchison mountains in Fiordland in 1948.


So began the conservation story of the takahe, which included an enormous reserve high in the Murchison Mountains to protect their crucial alpine habitat. These big mountain-ranging birds love to eat the juicy inner stalks of alpine tussock grasses, so protecting their habitat made sense. However, it turns out introduced deer liked those grasses too, squeezing the takahe population by eating them out of house and home until deer control was undertaken up there. (Luckily, we have since discovered that takahe do quite well on pasture grasses as well as tussock.. Then a few years ago a stoat got into the Murchison reserve and took out a big portion of the population, putting them at risk again.  

With any species conservation issue, the key is not to have all your eggs in one basket - and in the case of takahe, that has worked well. Takahe (affectionately known as "tarks") can be found on predator-free islands like Kapiti, Mana, Tiritiri Matangi and Maud Islands as well as in large predator-fenced sanctuaries like Maungatautere and Zealandia.

Just last week, I was thrilled to hear that nine takahe had been relocated to Motutapu Island, just half an hour's ferry ride from Auckland central. This is amazing news and a credit to DOC's restoration of Rangitoto and Motutapu Islands, which has created a huge predator-free haven for such species.  With 260 takahe left, we need all the spare space for them we can get.

Takahe are also fantastic characters, none more so than the infamous "Greg" the takahe, who sadly died this year. Greg lived on Tiritiri Matangi Island in the Hauraki Gulf, and was renowned for antics which included greeting visitors to the island, but mostly attempting to pinch their lunches. Greg treated Tiri as his own island paradise and was regularly spotted wandering in and out of the gift shop. 

Ray Walter (who along with his wife Barbara was a ranger on the island for more than20  years) told me a hilarious story once which involved Greg trying to pinch a biscuit out of his hand after jumping up on to the picnic table, and Ray swiftly grabbing Greg and retrieving his biscuit (which he promptly ate), placing Greg on the ground in a very undignified manner. When he saw the shocked looks of the visitors, who were no doubt very bemused by such an interaction with such a rare bird, Ray replied "It's OK, Greg and I have an understanding."  Which I think after 20 or so years together on the island was probably very true.

Shifting takahe around is quite a process, and being so big and rare, they get to sit in the cabin (but not in seats - they can't do their own seatbelts up). I was part of a takahe translocation a few years ago where we brought half a dozen or so young tarks from Tiritiri Matangi, Mana and Kapiti islands to Invercargill on the plane to be taken to Burwood Bush near Te Anau. The takahe were well behaved and quiet on the way up, but these (usually!) flightless birds must have had issues with the change in air pressure on the descent and all began squawking loudly, much to the surprise of the human passengers!

Have you ever seen takahe? Did anyone have the privilege of meeting Greg during his 19 years at Tiritiri Matangi?

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