Black robins - story of hope

The story of the black robin is familiar to many New Zealanders and bird lovers. It is a tale of endurance, ingenuity, dedication and sheer bloody determination on the part of the Wildlife Service staff who made it their mission to save these plucky wee birds.

If you don't remember it, it is the story of a tiny black native forest bird, whose population had plummeted to the point of just five adults, which included just one breeding female, who was named Old Blue.

In a now familiar tale you may recognise from many of my blogs, the introduction of rats and cats to the Chatham Islands had spelled disaster for the black robin. A remnant population held on for dear life on Little Mangere Island, but by 1972, just 18 birds were left. When Wildlife Service staff decided to remove the population to the safer Mangere Island in 1976, the number had reached single digits.  There were seven.

By 1980 there were five black robins left in the world. And this is where the story becomes one of awe and hope.

Instead of sitting down on the ground, head in hands and giving up on this species, which had reached seemingly impossible to recover numbers, Don Merton and his team took swift action, trialling new techniques and pulling out all the stops to save the species, even though only one breeding pair remained.  How they could have such courage and determination in the face of such utter adversity still blows my mind.  Don and the team noticed that after a storm had destroyed Old Blue and her partner Old Yellow's nest, the birds immediately set about laying new eggs. This was the "Eureka" moment. If Don and the team could remove the eggs, putting them under another species of bird, would Old Blue and Old Yellow lay more? The answer was yes.

Black robin fledgling

So a frenzy of cross-fostering began, with the rangers first putting the black robin eggs under grey warblers - but the tiny warblers had quite a job feeding the hungry robin chicks. Next the eggs were placed under tomtits, who did a fantastic job raising black robin chicks, but were such good parents, they raised them as tomtits! This made it difficult for the robins to learn to be robins and to recognise other robins as mates. So eventually eggs and fledglings were switched, juggled and replaced so that black robins grew up as robins.

Wildlife Service team leader Don Merton with Pippi the tomtit (foster mum) and a black robin fledgling in the box.

In those days, the rangers didn't have access to flash incubators, and I remember Don telling me once that they were transferring eggs and nests across the island on heated tins of bully beef!

Many of you who do know the story of the black robin will remember it from the fantastic Wild South documentary (which is available to view here thanks to the good folk at NZ Onscreen). You can watch Don tell the story of the rescue himself in this clip here.

It was that Natural History NZ black robin documentary, and many others by the Natural History NZ team (Wild South, Wildtrack in particular), that inspired my career as a nature nerd - and myself (and many others) still lament the lack of quality New Zealand native wildlife programming on the box these days. (I had my rant about that over here on "On the Box" - Crushing on David Attenborough).

So it was a real feeling of arriving at my personal mecca, when filming Meet the Locals on Rangatira Island in the Chathams when I got to experience those amazing black robins up close and personal. Thirty years on from the groundbreaking and courageous conservation moves by Don and the team, and there are around 200 birds surviving; they're not out of the woods yet, but to be rescued from just five birds and brought up to those levels shows us that we must never give up hope and that even when all seems lost, even the impossible is possible.

Did you know the story of the black robins? Do you find it as inspiring as I do?

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