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The takahē, Notornis, or South Island takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri), is a flightless bird indigenous to New Zealand and belonging to the rail family. It was thought to be extinct after the last four known specimens were taken in 1898. However, after a carefully planned search effort the bird was rediscovered by Geoffrey Orbell near Lake Te Anau in the Murchison Mountains, South Island, on 20 November 1948. The specific scientific name commemorates the Austrian geologistFerdinand von Hochstetter.
The takahē is the largest living member of the family Rallidae. Its overall length averages 63 cm (25 in) and its average weight is about 2.7 kg (6.0 lb) in males and 2.3 kg (5.1 lb) in females, ranging from 1.8–4.2 kg (4.0–9.3 lb). The standing height is around 50 cm (20 in). It is a stocky bird, with reduced wings, strong legs and a massive bill.
After long threats of extinction, takahē now find protection in Fiordland National Park (New Zealand’s largest national park). However, the species has not made a stable recovery in this habitat since they were rediscovered in 1948. In fact the takahē population was at 400 before it was reduced to 118 in 1982 due to competition with Fiordland domestic deer. Conservationists noticed the threat deer posed to takahē survival and the national park now implements deer control by hunting by helicopter.
The rediscovery of the takahē caused great public interest. The New Zealand government took immediate action by closing off a remote part of Fiordland National Park to prevent the birds from being bothered. However, at the moment of rediscovery, there were different perspectives on how the bird should be conserved. At first the Forest and Bird Society advocated for takahē to be left to work out their own “destiny”, but many worried that the takahē would be incapable of making a comeback and thus become extinct like New Zealand’s nativehuia. Interventionists then sought to relocate the takahē to “island sanctuaries” and breed them in captivity. However, no action was taken for nearly a decade due to a lack of resources and a desire to avoid conflict.
Biologists from the Department of Conservation drew on their experience with designing remote island sanctuaries to establish a safe habitat for takahē and translocate birds onto Maud Island (Malborough Sounds), Mana Island (near Wellington), Kapiti Island (Kapiti Coast), and Tiritiri Matangi Island (Hauraki Gulf). The success of these translocations has meant that the takahē’s island metapopulation appears to have reached its carrying capacity, as revealed by the increasing ratio of non-breeding to breeding adults and declines in produced offspring. This may lead to reduced population growth rates and increased rates of inbreeding over time and pose problems regarding the maintenance of genetic diversity, and thus takahē survival in the long term.
The original recovery strategies and goals set in the early 1980s, both long-term and short-term, are now well under way.
The programme to move takahē to predator-free island refuges, where the birds also receive supplementary feeding, began in 1984. Takahē can now be found on five small islands; Maud Island (Marlborough Sounds), Mana Island (off Wellington’s west coast), Kapiti Island (off Wellington’s west coast), Tiritiri Matangi Island (Hauraki Gulf) and Motutapu Island (Hauraki Gulf). The Department of Conservation also runs a captive breeding and rearing programme at the Burwood Breeding Centre near Te Anau which consists of five breeding pairs. Chicks are reared with minimal human contact, being fed and brooded through the use of puppets and models. The offspring of the captive birds are used for new island releases and to add to the wild population in the Murchison Mountains. The Department of Conservation also manages wild takahē nests to boost the birds’ recovery. Surplus eggs from wild nests are taken to the Burwood Breeding Centre.
An important management development has been the stringent control of deer in the Murchison Mountains and other takahē areas of Fiordland National Park. Following the introduction of deer hunting by helicopter, deer numbers have decreased dramatically and alpine vegetation is now recovering from years of heavy browsing. This improvement in its habitat has helped to increase takahē breeding success and survival. Current research aims to measure the impact of attacks by stoats and thus decide whether stoats are a significant problem requiring management.
One of the original long-term goals was to establish a self-sustaining population of well over 500 takahē. The population stood at 263 at the beginning of 2013. In 2015 300 Takahe remain.
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