Chatham Island black robin
Image: Leon Berard | Creative Commons

Introduction

The recovery of the Chatham Islands black robin from the brink of extinction is an internationally renowned conservation success story.

Highlights

Population: Around 250 in 2013
Conservation status: Critically endangered
Found in: Chatham Islands
Threats: Predation, disease 

In this section

Did you know

The black robin is a small songbird with completely black plumage. They are about 10 cm high, 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.

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.

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.

All the black robins alive are descended from the last breeding female, Old Blue. Old Blue was one of the longest-lived robins known, reaching 14 years of age.

Chatham Island black robin female. Dave Crouchley.
Chatham Island black robin

Chatham Island black robin fledgling. Image: Don Merton.
Chatham Island black robin fledgling 

Threats

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.

Our work

In 1972 wildlife officers could find only 18 black robins living on Little Mangere Island. In 1976 there were only 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.

There were only five black robins in the world in 1980, with just a single breeding pair left. The survival of the species hinged on that last pair. 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.

Plans to help black robin:

Chatham Island black robin fledglings in nest.  Image: Don Merton.
Chatham Island black robin fledglings in nest

Chatham Island black robin. Image: Don Merton.
Black robin

Chatham Island black robin feeding chick. Image: Don Merton.
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.

Help protect New Zealand's native birds

  • Volunteer with DOC or other groups to control predators and restore bird habitats.
  • Don’t throw rubbish into water ways or storm drains.
  • Set traps for stoats or rats on your property. Get more information from your local DOC office.
  • Put a bell on your cat's collar, feed it well, and keep it indoors at night.
  • Plant a range of native plants that provide food year-round to encourage birds into your garden.
When visiting parks and beaches
  • Only take dogs to areas that allow them, and keep your dog under control.
  • Prevent the spread of pests. Check your gear for mice and rats when visiting pest-free islands.
  • Use available access ways to get to the beach. Stay out of fenced-off areas. Leave nesting shore birds alone.
  • Get your dog trained in avian awareness, and help save forest birds like kiwi and weka.
  • Follow the water care code. Keep water craft speed to 5 knots within 200 metres of the shore.
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