New Zealand Birds and Animals

Takahe

  • The takahe was believed to be extinct by the end of the nineteenth century, but was rediscovered by Geoffrey Orbell in Fiordland in 1948.
  • Fossil remains have been found in both the North and South Islands, but numbers of takahe were probably never very high.
  • The present-day population lives in an area of just 500 square kilometres, in the Murchison Mountains in Fiordland.
  • The takahe has similar colouring to the pukeko, with purple-blue-green feathers and distinctive red legs and beak, but is a larger, flightless bird, weighing 3 kilograms and standing about 50 cm tall.
  • The takahe's wings are not too small for flying but they are used during courtship and to show aggression.
  • It is the largest living member of the rail family of birds, and its closest relative is the much more common pukeko.
  • Takahe in captivity have lived for up to 20 years, but few birds survive this length of time in the wild.
  • Its main source of food is tussock grass, but because of competition for the grasses from increasing numbers of deer during the 1940-50s the numbers of takahe declined, reaching a low of 118 birds in 1982.
  • The takahe eats the bottom juicy part of the tussock grass for the sugar and protein it contains. When supplies of tussock grass are limited by heavy snow in winter, takahe move to lower areas of forest and feed on fern.
  • The tussock grass is also used for shelter when a takahe pair builds a nest after the snow disappears. Up to three eggs may be laid, but usually only one chick survives the following winter.
  • Both takahe parents share the incubation of the eggs, and also the feeding of the chicks for the first three months.
  • One reason for the poor breeding record of the takahe is that many of the eggs laid are infertile, possibly the result of having a population which is too closely related.
  • Attempts to increase the takahe population been made with the establishment of a captive breeding programme which takes takahe eggs, and hatches them, and then rears the young birds until they are able to survive in the wild.
  • As part of this process, handling by humans is avoided as much as possible. Instead takahe puppets and dummies are used as "parents".
  • The takahe's source of food, alpine vegetation and tussock grass, has recovered with the control of red deer numbers. Research is now being made on the impact of predators such as stoats on the population of wild birds.
  • "Mast" years also have an impact on both the takahe and its predator, the stoat. These years are when beech trees produce a heavy amount of seed, and provide more food for rodents and, in turn, stoats. When the number of rats and mice drop, the increased stoat population look to native birds for food.
  • A number of breeding pairs of birds have also been transferred to off-shore islands Maud, Mana, Kapiti and Tiritiri Matangi, to increase the takahe's chances of survival.
  • There are now about 190 takahe alive in the wild, and another 25 in captivity.

For more information see

Rare and endangered New Zealand birds: conservation and management
Gaze, Peter
The natural world of New Zealand: an illustrated encyclopaedia of New Zealand's natural heritage
Hutching, Gerard
Takahe Fact Sheet
Kiwi Conservation Club
Department of Conservation
Department of Conservation