The recovery of the Chatham Islands black robin from the brink of extinction is an internationally renowned conservation success story.
Chatham Island black robin
In 1980 there were only five black robins in the world, with just a single breeding pair left. The survival of the species hinged on that last pair.
A desperate and innovative management regime was quickly put into action that resulted in a successful population turnaround.
All the black robins alive are descended from that last breeding female, named 'Old Blue,' one of seven birds rescued from Little Mangere in 1976. Old Blue was one of the longest-lived robins known, reaching 14 years of age.
- The black robin is a small songbird with completely black plumage
- They are about 10 cm high
- They have a short black bill, long thin dark legs and an upright stance
- The sexes are alike, although the female is slightly smaller
- Females usually lay two eggs, and often re-lay if a clutch is lost
- In early 2013, the black robin population was around 250
- Numbers remain stable, but because it still has such a small population it is classified as critically-endangered
Where to find them
This little black bird is only found on the Chatham Islands. They currently live on Rangatira (South East) Island and Mangere Island in the Chatham Islands group.
Attempts made to establish another population in a fenced convenant on Pitt Island have failed, possibly due to competition for food with introduced mice.
Black robins live in woody vegetation, beneath the canopy of trees. They spend a lot of time in the lower branches of the forest in order to shelter from the strong winds that buffet the Chatham Islands group.
They also like foraging for insects in the deep layers of litter found on flat areas of the forest floor.
Chatham Island black robin fledgling
By 1900, the introduction of rats and cats following human settlement had wiped out the birds from everywhere apart from Little Mangere Island. The accidental introduction of predators to the two islands where it presently survives is still a threat.
All black robins have the same weaknesses and strengths, stemming from the fact they have similar DNA. This means that a single disease could kill them.
Chatham Island black robin fledglings in nest
DOC's work with the black robin
In 1972 wildlife officers could find only 18 black robins living on Little Mangere Island.
In 1976 there were a mere seven birds left. These were all moved to Mangere Island where 120,000 trees had been planted to provide better shelter. By 1980 a further two birds had died, and none had bred.
The outlook was bleak, but a dedicated team of New Zealand Wildlife Service staff took the daring step of cross-fostering eggs and young to another species to boost productivity.
The last breeding pair, named Old Blue and Old Yellow, and a foster species, the Chatham Island tits, ended up saving the black robin from extinction.
The fostering programme used to save the black robin was such a fantastic success that it has been used as a case model on how to save endangered birds around the world.
With the black robin population now well-established on Mangere and South East Islands, the Department of Conservation hopes to establish further populations in predator-free areas on Pitt and Chatham Islands.
There are even hopes that the black robin may one day be returned to its ancestral home, Little Mangere, where the vegetation is slowly regenerating.
Chatham Island black robin feeding chick
You can help
If you are travelling to the Chatham Islands, or transporting goods or livestock there, be careful that you don't accidently introduce pest animals, plants or diseases. These might threaten black robin or other rare and endangered flora and fauna in this unique environment.