Takahē

The flightless takahē (Porphyrio [Notornis] hochstetteri) is a unique bird, a conservation icon and a survivor. The takahē has clung to existence despite the pressures of hunting, habitat destruction and introduced predators. 

The takahē was once thought to be extinct, but was rediscovered in 1948. Even today, despite years of conservation effort, the takahē remains critically endangered.

Mitre 10 Takahe Rescue logo.The Department of Conservation Takahē Recovery Programme in partnership with Mitre10 Takahē Rescue is committed to ensuring the survival, growth and security of takahē populations throughout New Zealand.

Takahē. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
The flightless takahē is a unique bird. Once thought to be extinct, today they are critically endangered

Facts

From an era when large flightless birds were spread throughout New Zealand, the takahē has clung to existence despite the pressures of hunting, habitat destruction and introduced predators. 

The takahē was once thought to be extinct, but in the 1948 it hit world headlines when an Invercargill doctor, Geoffrey Orbell, rediscovered the bird high in the tussock grasslands of the remote Murchison Mountains, Fiordland.

Even today, despite years of conservation effort, the takahē remains critically endangered.

Food and shelter

Wild takahē in the Murchison Mountains of Fiordland find their food and shelter in alpine grassland such as broad-leaved snow tussock, mid-ribbed snow tussock and curled snow tussock.

The takahē’s strong beak is perfect for cutting and stripping the base of tussock tillers to get at the juicy new growth, but it still needs to feed nearly all day to get enough nourishment. The takahē also eats tussock seeds when they are available, sliding its beak along the seed head to strip the seeds and eat them.

In winter, if snow cover is heavy, birds descend into the forest for shelter and feed mainly on underground starchy rhizomes of the summer green fern.

Breeding

After the snow clears in October, takahē often nest under the shelter of large tussocks where each nesting pair builds up a messy raised bowl of grasses.

Takahē. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
Although takahē have wings, they are flightless and only use them to display during courtship or as a show of aggression

One to three eggs are laid, and of these 80% hatch.

The 30-day incubation period is shared by both parents who also feed the chicks for three months.

Usually, only one chick will survive its first winter.

Young birds often stay with their parents for up to 18 months helping to rear the next year's chick. 

Are they just fat pukeko?

No! A takahē looks similar to the common pukeko, probably because they share an ancestor, so they are very distantly related.

A takahe in snow, Murchison Mountains. Photo:Sanjay Thakur.
Takahē in the Murchison Mountains of Fiordland find their food and shelter in alpine grassland

However, where the pukeko is skinny and blue with a black back, the takahē is much larger and more colourful. It has a large, strong red beak and stout red legs. Its gorgeous feathers range from an iridescent dark blue head, neck and breast to peacock blue shoulders and turquoise and olive green wings and back.  

Adult takahē are about the size of a large hen, 50 cm high and can weigh over 3 kg.

Takahē are flightless. They have wings, but they are only use them to display during courtship or as a show of aggression.

Takahē have lived over 20 years in captivity but in the wild few birds reach this age.

Takahē sound recordings

Listen to or download recordings of takahē song.

Takahē song (MP3, 622K)
38 second recording of takahē song.

Takahē song (MP3, 611K)
52 second recording of takahē song.

Find more bird song recordings

Help with files: see Open and save files.
Copyright of files: Song files may be reused as long as you attribute the work to the Department of Conservation. Read our Copyright terms.

Takahē and their chick. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
After the snow clears in October, takahē often nest under the shelter of large tussocks where each nesting pair builds up a messy raised bowl of grasses.

Threats to takahē

Fight for survival

The takahē once lived throughout the North and South Islands, although the North Island birds were probably a separate species (being taller and finer boned).

By the time of European settlement, takahē was already reduced in numbers and localised in distribution. Only four takahē were sighted in the late 19th century so that by the early 20th century they were considered extinct.

Following rediscovery of the takahē in 1948, a 50,000 hectare special area within Fiordland National Park was set aside to protect it. While the Murchison Mountains is still home to the only surviving wild population of takahē, almost 2/3 of the total takahē population is now found in populations that have been established at various safe sites around New Zealand.

Harsh alpine conditions

No-one is really sure why the last remaining takahē was only found in the Murchison Mountains. It is a harsh alpine environment where the birds often face challenges to survival such as unseasonal snow and avalanches. Is this a preferred home or a refuge retreated to as a last resort for survival against invading mammals?

Stoat. Photo: Rod Morris.
Stoats have invaded the mountains of Fiordland and are a major threat to takahē

Predators

As with many New Zealand birds, one of the biggest threats to takahē survival is introduced predators. One of the features of the Murchison Mountains is the absence of cats, ferrets or dogs. Unfortunately stoats have invaded the mountains of Fiordland.

In 2007, things were looking up for the takahē in the Murchison Mountains. The population had almost reached 200 birds when disaster struck. Following a beech and tussock mast (a mass seeding of beech trees and tussocks which happens every few years), the mountains were besieged by a plague of stoats.

Broad-leaved snow tussock, important takahē food. Photo: Daryl  Eason.
Broad-leaved snow tussock, important
takahē food

Within the span of a few months the wild population of takahē was halved. Fortunately by this time takahē populations had been established on safe pest-free islands as insurance against just this sort of disaster.

The major barrier to establishing a further 'wild' population outside the Murchison Mountains is the ability to successfully control all introduced predators over a large enough area.

Competition for food

Deer and takahē love to browse on the same tussock species in the alpine grasslands. Unfortunately deer browse is much harder on tussock and retards growth and so can impact on takahē food and habitat.

DOC's work with takahē

Takahē Recovery Programme

The Takahē Recovery Programme is the longest running species conservation programme in New Zealand and has pioneered many conservation techniques later used to save endangered species in New Zealand and around the globe. Despite all this effort takahē are still classified as a 'critically endangered' species. However, without the effort, they would probably be extinct!

Supported by a partnership with Mitre 10 Takahē Rescue,the Takahē Recovery Programme is working to ensure takahē will never again be 'considered extinct'.

The programme's priority is to establish 125 breeding pairs of takahē at safe sites. Unfortunately the Murchison Mountains, whilst home to the only wild population of takahē, is not a safe site because of the on-going threat of stoats. Safe sites include pest-free islands as well as mainland sites with well established predator control including predator proof fencing.

What do you do when you discover an 'extinct bird'?

At first following their rediscovery in 1948, experts believed takahē were safest left alone in their mountain haven. The rugged Murchison Mountains of Fiordland were declared a 'special area', off limits to all except a few scientists and deer cullers.

In the early 1980s research identified a serious decline in takahē numbers, kicking off a major conservation push to save them. Over the years since then a huge effort has gone into studying takahē and the threats to their survival. Actions to save them from extinction has included deer control, manipulating wild nests and eggs, artificially incubating eggs, captive breeding and predator control.

How did glove puppets help pull takahē back from the brink?

Using a puppet to feed takahe chicks. Photo: Ross Curtis.
Puppet feeding takahē chicks

For almost 30 years puppets and models to minimise contact with humans. the artificial incubation of eggs and rearing of chicks was carried out at our 'takahe farm' the Burwood Takahē Breeding Centre, near Te Anau.

Earlier attempts at captive breeding takahē had produced chicks that thought they were bantams or humans, so chicks hatched at Burwood were fed and brooded using glove puppets and models to minimise contact with humans.

DOC staff with the takahē puppet. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
Takahē puppets are used to minimise contact with humans

'Excess' eggs from wild nests were collected and the chicks raised at Burwood to produce birds suitable for freeing back into the wild population. Some of these captive-reared birds were also used to establish populations on pest-free islands.

Radical changes in captive breeding

Puppet rearing chicks helped save takahē from extinction, but recent scientific analysis has shown that puppet-reared birds have not bred as successfully in the wild as wild-reared birds.

Luckily, there are now sufficient takahē at Burwood for a move away from artificial incubation and puppet rearing. Instead, twenty breeding pairs of takahē are being used to hatch and rear the new chicks needed to establish and boost takahē populations.

Islands: from insurance policy to the backbone of takahe conservation

During the 1980s takahē bred at Burwood were used to establish new takahē populations on four islands: Maud, Mana, Kapiti and Tiritiri Matangi. These island populations were a takahē insurance policy in case anything ever happen to the remaining wild population in Fiordland.

Now, along with Burwood, Motutapu Island and at two mainland sites; Maungatautari Ecological Island and Cape Sanctuary, these ‘islands’ are the backbone of the Takahē Recovery Programme providing the birds and sites to secure the future of takahē.

Takahē take flight

DOC staff member Gilbert Mingam working with takahē. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
DOC staff member Gilbert Mingam working with takahē

Managing so many breeding sites creates challenges, not the least of which is juggling takahē between sites.

Young birds often need to be removed from islands to prevent them breeding with close relatives. This means an ongoing programme of transfers between takahē sites. Its not too unusual to see them occupying a seat on an Air New Zealand flight between Auckland, Christchurch and Queenstown.

Some older or infertile birds are also retired to a 'display site' where they become ambassadors for takahe conservation.

Managing the pests in the Murchison Mountains

The Murchison Mountains remain home to the only wild population of takahē. The stoat trapping programme has been extended and intensified to cover the entire 50,000 hectare Special Takahē Area. Testing and refining the effectiveness of this and deer control is now the focus of takahē conservation work in the Murchison Mountains.

About half the adult population of takahē are fitted with transmitters allowing regular monitoring via an aircraft fitted with a reciever (sky ranger) and creating a good picture of what is happening to takahē in the wild.

DOC staff Martin Genet at takahē Valley. Photo © Sabine Bernert.
DOC ranger Martin Genet heading out to track takahē in Fiordland National Park

You can help

You can assist the takahē recovery programme by recording any takahē sightings in the wild.

As the takahē population increases so does the expansion of birds to areas outside the Murchison Mountain Special Takahē Area. Monitoring this spread will aid the Department of Conservation in determining the population health. 

Essential information to record is date, location (grid reference if possible) and number of birds seen.

Any additional information about their sex, age (chick, juvenile or adult), photos, or samples of takahe sign such as faeces, discarded feathers or feeding sign would also be useful. 

Likely areas include the alpine and subalpine zones in the vicinity of the Kepler, Milford, and George Sound tracks, the Stuart Mountains, and areas immediately to the west of the Murchison Mountains.

The continued success of the takahē recovery project relies heavily on the financial assistance provided by Mitre 10 Takahē Rescue. By supporting those that support takahē, you are helping ensure the long-term survival of this unique species.

Watch a video about 13 year old Sophie Smith, Takahē champion who is helping save the species.


Contact

For more information about takahē contact:


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Te Anau Office
Phone:      +64 3 249 0200
Email:   teanauadmin@doc.govt.nz
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