Juvenile saddleback
PHOTO: Leon Berard | Creative Commons


The saddleback or tīeke belongs to New Zealand's unique wattlebird family, an ancient group which includes the endangered kōkako and the extinct huia.

Quick facts

  • There are two species: North Island saddleback (Philesturnus rufusater) and South Island saddleback (P. carunculatus).
  • The most endangered of the two species is the South Island saddleback, with only 650 birds in existence.
  • It is a medium sized bird, and adults of both sexes have similar plumage.
  • The bird's main feature is a conspicuous chestnut-coloured saddle on its back, but it also has chestnut on the tip of its tail, a black bill, black legs, and orange, 'fleshy' wattles either side of its throat.
  • Young South Island saddleback/tīeke (less than 15 months old) have a different plumage from adults. They are entirely dark brown with smaller wattles.
  • South Island birds assume a saddleback marking by the end of the second moult.
  • North Island birds assume a saddleback marking before they leave the nest.
  • Juveniles are known as "jack-birds".
  • Saddlebacks are very vocal birds. The males have a repertoire of melodious calls that they use during mating and in territorial disputes.
  • The male has larger wattles than the female.
  • Size: 25cm; males 80g, females 70g.

Where to find them

There are mainland saddleback populations at six fenced sanctuaries, where they have been re-introduced from 'lifeboat' island populations: Zealandia Ecosanctuary, Bushy Park Sanctuary, Tawharanui Regional Park, Cape Sanctuary, Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari and Rotokare Scenic Reserve

In 2014 saddleback successfully bred in the Polhill Reserve, adjacent to Zealandia Ecosanctuary, the first time it had done so 'in the wild' on the mainland for over a century.

Saddlebacks are found mostly in the middle and lower layers of the forest, usually on the ground, probing through dead wood and leaf litter for weta, grubs and other insects. They also eat fruits of various forest trees, such as kawakawa and coprosma.

South Island saddleback/tīeke . Photo: Dick Veitch.
South Island saddleback/tīeke

North Island saddleback/tīeke. Photo: Dick Veitch.
North Island saddleback/tīeke

North Island saddleback female, close up of head. Photo: Dick Veitch.
The saddleback or tīeke belongs to New Zealand's unique wattlebird family, which also includes the endangered kōkako and the extinct huia

Saddlebacks were once widespread throughout New Zealand's mainland and island forests. Their decline began in the mid 19th century, caused by forest clearance and introduced predators such as ship rats, feral cats and stoats.

By this century, both species were close to extinction. South Island saddlebacks were limited to three islands: Big South Cape, Pukeweka, and Soloman Islands (near Stewart Island), while the North Island species was restricted to Hen Island in the Hauraki Gulf.

Sound recordings

North Island saddleback/tīeke song (MP3, 1,745K)
01:51 – Saddleback/tīeke song.

South Island saddleback/tīeke song (MP3, 1,406K)
01:29 – Two males giving territorial calls responding to playback of taped calls.

Bird songs may be reused according to our copyright terms.


In the early 1960s, disaster struck the southern species. A boat accidentally brought ship rats to Big South Cape Island (largest of its three island homes), and quickly spread to the other two. The result was an ecological nightmare for many endemic species and caused the extinction of the Stewart Island snipe, Stead's bush wren and the greater short-tailed bat.

The New Zealand Wildlife Service (now DOC) came to the rescue and saved the saddleback from extinction.

North Island saddleback/tīeke. Photo: Peter Morrison.
North Island saddleback/tīeke

North Island saddleback juvenile. Photo: Dick Veitch.
North Island saddleback juvenile

Early in 1964, the NZ Wildlife Service successfully transferred some North Island saddlebacks from Hen Island, Hauraki Gulf to nearby Whatapuke Island. This was possibly the first time the translocation of a species had been successfully carried out.

This led the way for the translocation of South Island saddlebacks from their rat-plagued islands to predator-free ones. The current population of over 700 birds is descended from the survivors of the 36 saddlebacks rescued in 1964.

This method of translocating species to island refuges continues to be a major strategy of DOC.

The North Island saddleback is now resident on nine large islands (7,000 ha) and is in a favourable position to survive. The South Island species is on 11 smaller islands (500 ha) and it needs translocating onto further predator-free islands if it is to recover.

Dick Veitch banding saddleback, Cuvier Island.
Dick Veitch banding saddleback/tīeke, Cuvier Island

Co-operation between local iwi, who harvest muttonbirds on several of the islands, and the department has been crucial to the success of the conservation work being carried out for the southern species.

Our work

DOC has a South Island saddleback recovery plan (PDF, 207K).

The plan aims to:

  • maintain the existing wild saddleback populations, including protecting the 10 existing populations on Titi, Breaksea, Motuara and Allports islands
  • adopt stringent rodent, weed and disease quarantine measures for the islands
  • remove predators from islands suitable for saddlebacks and translocate the birds to these refuges
  • maintain a population in captivity. The value of captive breeding is to learn more about the management of a species. North Island saddlebacks are held at the National Wildlife Centre, Mount Bruce, Wairarapa.

You can help

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, beaches, rivers, and lakes
  • 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 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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