Stephen’s Island Wren
It was one of only three flightless songbirds in the world – but it went extinct after a lighthouse keeper’s cats ate up every last one!
Our Stephen’s Island wren is part of an ancient group of birds. It is related to the South Island rock wren and the rifleman. The Stephen’s Island wren was nocturnal, and flightless, so it acted more like a mouse than a bird! The Stephen’s wren was the third of six species of wren that became extinct.
The bird once lived throughout the country but the Polynesian rat, or kiore, caused it to become extinct on our two main islands.
It could only be found on a small island (2.6 square metres) in the Marlborough sounds.
In the late 1800s, more and more boats started crossing the Cook Strait. They needed light to guide their way, and so a light-house was built on this small island.
Tibbles: Discoverer and destroyer
Soon after, a small community of three families settled on the island. Naturalist and lighthouse-keeper, David Lyall, and one voracious (and pregnant) bird-killer called Tibbles were amongst the community.
Every day, Tibbles would explore her new hunting ground, and present to her human clan examples of the local wildlife.
Lyall noticed there was a rather unusual bird amongst the lot – so he sent it to the famous ornithologist Walter Buller to be examined.
Sure enough it was unique species – and so it was named Xenicus (Traversia) lyalli – after Lyall.
It later became known as Stephen’s Island Wren.
Only a year after Tibbles and her brood arrived in 1884, the Stephen’s wren was declared extinct.
Lyall dutifully saved each and every body he discovered. These can now be found in museums throughout the world from London to Pittsburgh.
If you want to see one in New Zealand, you can go to Te Papa in Wellington, or to the Canterbury or Otago museums.
Land raft or vegetable raft?
One question remains about the Stephen’s Island wren – how did a flightless bird make it onto an island that lay 3.2 kilometres from the mainland?
There are two answers to this question: either it travelled there using a vegetable life raft, or it was around at the time of the last ice-age when the island was joined to the mainland.
Cat: pet or pest?
Bird exterminators like Tibbles are just doing what they do best: hunt. There are some things we can do to help stop our cats from hunting our precious native animals.
You can –
• Desex your cat so it won’t breed. It will also be less inclined to wander.
• Kittens are cute but finding good homes for them can be difficult. Never abandon cats or kittens: it’s cruel and irresponsible. If they survive they will have to find food and they will prey on wildlife.
• Keep your cat inside at night
• If you live very near a wild place, a native forest reserve, a wild river or a beach where shore birds nest, don’t have a cat. Enjoy the wildlife instead!
For more information on this, see here –