The stitchbird/hihi (Notiomystis cincta) is one of New Zealand’s rarest birds. A medium-sized forest species, hihi compete with tui and bellbirds for nectar, insects and small fruits.
But apart from diet, hihi share few qualities with tui and bellbird, which are members of the honeyeater family. Recent DNA analysis has shown that hihi are in fact the sole representative of another bird family found only in New Zealand whose closest relatives may be the iconic wattlebirds that include kokako, saddleback and the extinct huia.
How to recognise hihi
Male and female hihi look quite different. He flaunts a flashy plumage of black head with white ‘ear’ tufts, bright yellow shoulder bars and breast bands and a white wing bar and has a mottled tan-grey-brown body.
She is more subdued with an olive-grey-brown body cover, white wing bars and small white ‘ear’ tufts. They both have small cat-like whiskers around the beak and large bright eyes.
Hihi can be recognised by their posture of an upward tilted tail and strident call from which the name ‘stitchbird’ derives.
A 19th century ornithologist Sir Walter Buller described the call made by the male hihi as resembling the word ‘stitch’.
This call sounds a little like two stones being repeatedly stuck together. Both males and females also have a range of warble-like calls and whistles.
A female stitchbird/hihi outside her nest hole in a tree
Male stitchbird/hihi singing
The stitchbird/hihi is one of New Zealand’s rarest birds. The female birds (pictured) have more subdued colouring and look quite different to the male birds
Unlike most other birds, hihi build their nests in tree cavities. The nest is complex with a stick base topped with a nest cup of finer twigs and lined with fern scales, lichen and spider web.
Hihi have a diverse and unusual mating system. A female may breed with a single male or with several. These arrangements can make determining the parentage of chicks a challenge. Hihi are also the only birds known to sometimes mate face to face.
An active research programme with Massey and Auckland universities, as well as other institutes, has greatly increased our knowledge of hihi biology.
Hihi have been found to have a fascinating and complex mating system. Males pair up with a female in their territory while also seeking to mate with other females in the neighbourhood. To ensure the chicks are his, males need to produce large amounts of sperm to dilute that of other males. And to avoid wasting this, the male has to assess exactly when a female is ready to breed. In the days leading up to laying, when a female is weighed down with developing eggs, a number of males may chase her for hours at a time, all attempting to mate with her.
Research has also resulted in developing techniques for managing nesting behaviour, for example, managing nest mites, cross fostering and sexing of chicks and habitat suitability.
Management of the captive population at the Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre in eastern Wairarapa has also contributed to understanding the role of avian diseases in managing hihi populations. Diseases such as Aspergillosis, a fungal infection of the respiratory tract, and Coccidiosis, an intestinal parasite, have been found to affect wild hihi survivial.
Current research programmes include developing a technique to measure the size of the Little Barrier hihi population and assess its health and viability. Another study, on Tiritiri Matangi, is looking at the effect of carotenoid availability on hihi health (carotenoids are used for the yellow colour in male hihi feathers and egg yolk, and are important for health).
Male birds flaunt a flashy plumage of black head with white ‘ear’ tufts, bright yellow shoulder bars and breast bands and a white wing bar, with a mottled tan-grey-brown body
Listen to or download a recording of stitchbird/hihi song.
Stitchbird/hihi song (MP3, 3,830)
4 minute 4 second recording of an adult stitchbird/hihi giving territorial calls.
Find more bird song recordings
Wild cat. A threat to stichbird/hihi
In pre-European times, hihi were found throughout the North Island and on several islands such as Great Barrier, Little Barrier (Hauturu) and Kapiti. Sadly the species became extinct on the mainland with the last recorded sighting in the Tararua Ranges in 1883.
Habitat loss, the introduction of mammalian predators such as cats and rats and specimen collection probably contributed to the decline of hihi on the mainland. They also appear to be especially prone to the effects of diseases, which may have been introduced to New Zealand with domestic birds.
The only naturally surviving population of hihi is found on Little Barrier Island (Te Hauturu-o-Toi) in the Hauraki Gulf. Hauturu was declared a bird sanctuary in 1894 and later a nature reserve, a move that undoubtedly saved the hihi from extinction. There are now also small managed populations of hihi on Tiritiri Matangi and Kapiti islands, as well as Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellington.
Recovery of hihi
The Department of Conservation’s Stitchbird Recovery Plan has a long term goal of increasing the number of self-sustaining populations of hihi to five. Important steps towards this include:
- Ensure the Little Barrier population of hihi is protected
- Establish self-sustaining populations at new sites through translocation
- Monitor and enhance existing populations on managed islands
- Improve knowledge of hihi through research
- Maintain a small captive population at the Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre in eastern Wairarapa.
Male stitchbird/hihi, hand held
DOC and its predecessor, the New Zealand Wildlife Service, have carried out a series of translocations of hihi from Little Barrier Island to other secure predator-free islands. Small populations now exist on Kapiti and Tiritiri Matangi islands. Early attempts to establish birds on Hen, Mokoia (Lake Rotorua) and Cuvier islands were not successful without supporting management.
Later transfers to Kapiti and Tiritiri Matangi trialled new management techniques to assist the hihi to survive.
DOC now supports these populations by providing nectar feeders and artificial nest boxes. Staff closely monitor breeding activity during the summer season, removing infertile eggs to encourage subsequent nesting attempts, and cross fostering where needed. Nest boxes are also sprayed to prevent mite infestations that can kill young chicks.
You can help
The survival of hihi depends on their fragile island sanctuaries remaining predator free. Don’t take your pets when visiting island sanctuaries. If you are a boat owner, keep your boat rodent-free and check equipment, bags and food stores for rodents before going ashore.
Donations to assist with hihi conservation can be made to the New Zealand National Parks and Conservation Foundation.
To secure the future for hihi funding is required. An opportunity consequently exists to become a sponsor of the hihi recovery programme.
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