Takahē

Fact Box 

• An endemic bird, meaning it is only found in New Zealand.
• Numbers about 200, making it an endangered bird.
• Looks like a big, beautiful, over-weight pukeko
• Can’t fly, so is at the mercy of hunters, dogs and stoats.
• Rescued from near extinction and now living on pest-free islands.

Takahē: Like a pūkeko, only much rarer!
 

The takahē looks like a big, fat pūkeko – and that is roughly what it is! The takahē’s ancestors were birds like pūkeko who flew to New Zealand from Australia millions of years ago. They came to a land where the forest was dense and they had few enemies so they didn’t need to fly. Over many generations their wings became smaller and their bodies became larger until they were the big, flightless takahe we know today.

Meanwhile birds very like those takahē ancestors arrived in New Zealand again, a few thousand years ago. They were the ancestors of our pukeko.

Takahē once lived throughout New Zealand. Their bones have been found in Māori middens (rubbish heaps). Like the moa, their numbers shrank in the face of Māori hunting, but unlike the moa, the takahe did not become extinct. Instead they survived in the bleak, remote Murchison mountains, safe from the hunters. 

But even in their remote mountains they became threatened, this time by introduced stoats and deer which ate the takahē's favourite tussock grasses.

In the 19th century only four takahē were seen alive so by 1930 the species was presumed extinct!

Lost and found 

But there was a man, Dr Geoffrey Orbell, who believed there were still takahe living in the valleys of the Murchison Mountains. He spent his weekends and holidays searching for them. It took many trips and LOTS of walking, but, on the 20th of November 1948, he found them!

Dr Falla and Dr Orbell (right) in 1949. Dr Falla is holding a takahe chick

It turned out there were about 250 takahe living in the valleys of the Murchison Mountains and the neighbouring ranges. This is a photo of Dr Falla and Dr Orbell (right) in 1949. Dr Falla is holding a takahe chick.

The valley where Dr Orbell found the takahe was named ‘Takahē Valley’ and the lake nearby was named 'Lake Orbell'. 

Nowadays takahē still live in the Murchison mountains and new populations are thriving on predator-free islands like Maud, Mana, Kapiti and Tiritiri Matangi. You can go and see them there, or at the Wildlife Centre (Te Anau) and the National Wildlife Centre (Mount Bruce, near Masterton).

The takahē

• Beautiful blue and green feathers
• Small wings – can’t fly
• the size of a very large hen
• Strong beak and sturdy legs

What does a takahē do all day?

They eat and eat and eat and eat. Like many browsing creatures they spend most of the day eating to get enough nourishment from their food source. They eat the soft, juicy bit at the bottom of grass stalks, fern roots and insects.

Takahē families


Takahe and chicks. Photo: Ross Curtis

Takahē can live up to twenty years, which is a long time for a bird. Because they can live so long they don’t need to have many chicks to replace themselves.

Breeding begins when the birds are three years old. The pair makes a nest on the ground, hidden under long grass or tussocks. The female usually lays two eggs. The parents take turns to sit on the eggs and keep them warm.

 

Takahē chicks have black fluffy down (baby feathers) and a black beak – they get their red beak and beautiful green and blue feathers when they are older. Their parents feed them for about three months, then they have to find their own food. The chicks learn how to feed themselves by following and copying their parents.

Nesting takahē are safe on the predator-free islands but not in the Murchison Mountains. There the Department of Conservation helps the birds by trapping stoats which would eat their eggs and chicks. They also shoot the deer which eat the tussock grass which the takahe needs.

DOC’s takahe breeding programme

Despite DOC’s efforts, the number of takahē is still very small - there are only about 200 birds altogether. The birds breed very slowly. Most pairs can only rear one chick at a time so DOC staff have been taking away the ‘spare eggs’, that’s the second eggs in the nests.

At the Burwood Bush rearing unit in Te Anau, these eggs are hatched and the chicks are reared in a special ‘takahē nursery’. The chicks need to grow up like wild takahē. The DOC staff use a takahē puppet to feed them so that the chicks don’t get used to people. When they are grown up the captive-reared birds are released back into the Murchison Mountains or onto predator-free islands.

The future is looking much brighter for our beautiful takahē. Thank goodness they didn’t go extinct!