Kōkako are a dark bluish-grey bird with a pair of brightly coloured, fleshy "wattles"
The kōkako belongs to the endemic New Zealand wattlebirds (Callaeidae), an ancient family of birds which includes the North and South Island saddleback and the extinct huia.
The kōkako is the only member of its family still surviving on the mainland.
A dark bluish-grey bird with a long tail and short wings, it has a pair of brightly coloured, fleshy "wattles" extending from either side of its gape to meet below the neck.
The North Island kōkako has blue wattles, while the South Island kōkako has orange or yellow wattles.
The bird is not particularly good at flying and prefers to use its powerful legs to leap and run through the forest.
The North Island kōkako has blue wattles, while the South Island kōkako has orange or yellow wattles
Species of kōkako
There are two sub-species of kōkako, the North Island kōkako (Callaeas cinerea wilsoni) and the South Island kōkako (C. c. cinerea).
North Island kōkako on branch
The North Island kōkako is found mainly in mature podocarp-hardwood forests. There are fewer than 400 pairs that occur in several isolated populations in the central and northern North Island.
In the last 20 years, there has been a marked decline in numbers of North Island kōkako, although management is reversing that trend in many areas now.
South Island kōkako are currently assumed to be extinct, although it is possible they may survive in low numbers in remote parts of the South Island and Stewart Island.
- Kōkako are renowned for the clarity and volume of their song which carries far across the forest.
- In the early morning, a pair may sing a duet for up to half an hour with other kōkako joining in to form a "bush choir".
- Male and female are similar in colour and size (weighing about 230 grams).
- They protect large territories (eight hectares) by singing and chasing away invaders.
- They eat leaves, fern-fronds, flowers, fruit and invertebrates.
In Maori myth, it was the kōkako that gave Maui water as he fought the sun. The kōkako filled its wattles with water and brought it to Maui. His thirst quenched, Maui rewarded the kōkako by making its legs long and slender, enabling the bird to bound through the forest with ease in search of food.
Conservation Blog: The adventure of Duncan the kōkako
The famous kōkako Duncan captured hearts across the country with his great escape; here’s his story.
Watch a video about saving the kōkako from extinction
Kōkako sound recordings
In the early 1900s the North Island kōkako was common in forests throughout the North Island while the South Island kōkako was widespread in the South Island and Stewart Island. Primary causes of kōkako decline were forest clearance by settlers and the introduction of predators such as rats, stoats and possums.
Research has shown that female kōkako are particularly at risk of predation as they carry out all incubation and brooding throughout a prolonged (50-day) nesting period. Years of such predation have resulted in populations that are predominantly male and with consequent low productivity rates.
A "research by management" approach has demonstrated that the kōkako decline can be reversed and populations maintained on the mainland by innovative management of their habitat. Current research aims to increase management efficiency to ensure long-term kōkako survival.
Four day old North Island kōkako chick
In the mid 1990s DOC and the Auckland Regional Council started a joint project to protect the remaining population of 21 North Island kōkako in the Hunua Ranges (1,500 survive throughout New Zealand). In 1994 the only remaining breeding female in Hunua fledged 3 chicks, heralding a new era of recovery. The population has grown slowly with the protection of nests from predators and close monitoring of nesting birds.
The Department of Conservation's third North Island Kōkako Recovery Plan emphasises management of the species on the New Zealand mainland.
Good husbandry of existing populations and restoration of kōkako to parts of their former range are key features of this plan.
Transmitter being attached to a captive North Island kōkako before being released, Boundary Stream Mainland Island
Research focuses on increasing knowledge of the species to facilitate and increase efficiency of management.
North Island kōkako being fed jam water before being released into the Pukaha Mount Bruce forest
The "research by management" programme which compared kōkako survival and productivity in three central North Island forests, has demonstrated that intensive management of introduced mammals can result in rapid expansion of kōkako populations.
At Mapara reserve in the King Country the total population has more than doubled in seven years between 1992-1999, but, more importantly, the female population has increased at least nine times over the same period! At least 110 adult birds were counted and many others sighted.
Similar techniques have been applied to locally threatened populations in Northland, Auckland, Waikato, East Coast and Bay of Plenty, where the birds are now increasing significantly.
A large, self-sustaining population has established on Little Barrier Island from translocations which took place during the early 1980s. This has been used, together with kōkako from other locations, to create a new island population on Kapiti Island.
A third island population was begun on Tiritiri Matangi Island, in the Hauraki Gulf, during 1998. At least five pairs are now breeding on Kapiti and one pair on Tiritiri.
Kōkako are held in captivity at the Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre (Mount Bruce, near Masterton) and at Otorohanga Kiwi House (Waikato). Rearing techniques have been developed and will be used in an attempt to prevent the extinction of some local sub-populations. Offspring will be released on island sites such as Tiritiri Matangi until sufficient numbers are held to allow reintroductions to protected mainland sites in the future.
You can help
Community Involvement is important for kōkako survival.
The general public has helped tremendously with kōkako conservation. Volunteers have been involved in survey and monitoring work and there have been several major conservation campaigns to save kōkako habitats from logging.
For further information about kōkako in your area: