The kōkako is the only member of its family still surviving on the mainland. There are two sub-species of kōkako, the North Island kōkako (Callaeas wilsoni) and the South Island kōkako (Callaeas cinerea).
It is a dark bluish-grey bird with a long tail and short wings. There is 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, the South Island kōkako has orange or yellow wattles.
The bird is not very good at flying, and prefers to use its powerful legs to leap and run through the forest.
South Island kōkako are assumed to be extinct. However it's possible they may survive in low numbers in remote parts of the South Island and Stewart Island.*
The North Island kōkako is found mainly in tall diverse native forest, usually with a canopy of tawa or taraire and with emergent podocarps or kauri.
Kōkako rely on effective pest control of ship rats and possums (and to a less extent, stoats). The birds are largely restricted to areas where these pests are controlled over the kōkako breeding season. There are about 400 pairs in several isolated populations, mainly in the central and northern North Island.
In the last 20 years, there has been a significant decline of North Island kōkako. Management is reversing that trend in many areas now. Due to pest control, kōkako numbers increased from less than 350 pairs in the 1990s to approximately 1,400 pairs in 2015.
- Kōkako are known 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). Male generally larger.
- They protect large territories (eight hectares) by singing and chasing away invaders.
- They eat leaves, fern-fronds, flowers, fruit and invertebrates.
In Māori 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
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. Historically, kōkako declines were undoubtedly caused by forest clearance, and the introduction of predators.
Predation at nests – mainly by ship rats and possums – is the primary cause of kōkako declines. Stoats are an additional factor contributing to mortality of kōkako on occasion.
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
Road to recovery
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 (2,800 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. This population has also been helped by translocating kōkako from elsewhere (Mapara, Pureora, Tiritiri Matangi) to boost the population numbers and genetic diversity. A census in 2015 found 55 kokako pairs!
DOC's third North Island Kōkako Recovery Plan emphasises management of the species on the New Zealand mainland. We are working on a revised recovery plan, aiming for it to be completed some time in 2016.
Good husbandry of existing populations and restoration of kōkako to parts of their former range are key features of this plan.
North Island kōkako recovery plan 1999-2009 (PDF, 2,196K)
Transmitter being attached to a captive North Island kōkako before being released, Boundary Stream Mainland Island
Research by management
Our research focuses on increasing knowledge of the species. This will 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. 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. A 2013 survey estimated the population at Mapara to be 123 pairs.
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 Te Hauturu-ō-Toi/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. A survey in 2013 estimated 422 pairs on Little Barrier Island. Kapiti Island hasn't been such a success story, with an estimated >20 pairs on the island.
Tiritiri Matangi Island is holding kōkako of Taranaki lineage until a site at Taranaki is ready to receive them.
You can help
Community involvement is important for kōkako survival.
The 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.
Community groups are now involved mostly with pest management to protect kōkako populations. Around half of existing kōkako sites are largely managed by community groups.
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 your cat 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.
* Taxa that are suspected to be threatened, or in some instances, possibly extinct but are not definitely known to belong to any particular category due to a lack of current information about their distribution and abundance.