The kōkako, endangered and terrible at flying


Bec Crew


Bec Crew

Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
By Becky Crew 16 April 2015
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The iconic but ungainly kōkako is easy pickings for rats, cats and stoats

ONE OF NEW ZEALAND’S most iconic species, the kōkako (Callaeas cinerea) is a handsome bird with a beautiful singing voice and an uncertain future.

Confined to the dense, but scattered forests of NZ’s North Island, the kōkako had once split itself into two populations – one on the North Island, and one on the South Island. These populations grew so different from each other, and were separated for so long, they formed two subspecies, but it’s now thought that the South Island subspecies has gone entirely extinct.

This is unfortunately a pretty strong characteristic of the family to which the kōkako belongs: NZ’s endemic wattlebirds (Callaeidae). The other two members of this family are the near-threatened North- and South Island tieke birds – there are just under 8000 left – and the extinct huia, lost in the early 20th century due to obscene amounts of hunting.

Endangered kōkakos need to breed 

And now the endangered kōkako is itself at serious risk. According to the New Zealand Herald, a colossal rat plague swept over Aukland’s Hunua Ranges, with tens of thousands of the hardy rodents feasting freely on the kōkako eggs. To make matters worse, introduced feral cats and stoats are also hunting the adult kōkako, which – like a number of NZ’s endemic birds – are actually pretty terrible at flying. It’s thought that just 1500 kōkako remain in the wild.

The solution? Well, firstly, the rats need to go, and secondly, the kōkako need to breed like crazy. And the results of the latest breeding season don’t look good. “This year’s results are dismal, with no fledging success at all and, of even greater concern, signs that adult birds have been lost,” the Auckland Council’s biodiversity manager, Rachel Kelleher, told the New Zealand Herald.

But the good news is there’s a plan to eradicate these rats so give the kōkako some room to breathe – and breed. The Herald reports that the Auckland Council will embark on a large aerial pest-control operation, dropping baits in the worst affected areas throughout winter. Fingers crossed this will take the pressure off of the harrowed kōkako. What a tragedy if the only place you could find one for sure was the back of an NZ $50 note.

(Image credit:David Cook, here on Flickr.)