- 1 species worldwide
- DR personal total: 1 species (100%), 0
|New Zealand has traditionally been credited
with three endemic avian families: kiwis, New Zealand wrens, and New
Zealand wattlebirds. Molecular evidence has just revealed another: Stitchbird,
often locally called the Hihi (left, in a great photo by Trevor
Quested). The species had previously been considered one of three
honeyeaters on New Zealand. The DNA evidence shows that the other two
(Tui, Bellbird) are, indeed, honeyeaters but Stitchbird is not
(Driskell et al. 2007). Rather, Stitchbird is from an ancient relict
line whose closest relations are New Zealand wattlebirds. But
Stitchbird diverged from wattlebirds ~33.8 million years ago. Thus the
appropriate taxonomic placement is in its own family, the Notiomystidae
(Driskell et al. 2007).
Stitchbird is entirely endemic to North Island and
surrounding islets, New Zealand. It is a forest species, somewhat
nomadic and forming loose groupings of adults and youngsters. These
feed primarily on nectar and fruits, when available, but also take some
invertebrates gleaned from foliage and bark (Heather & Robertson
1996). It may need substantial expanses of native forest to survive
(Armstrong et al. 1999, Birdlife International 2000).
Stitchbird was once common, especially in the southern
parts of North Island, until the 1870s. Thereafter it declined rapidly.
By 1885 it had vanished from the mainland of North Island, plus from
the offshore Great Barrier and Kapiti Islands (Heather & Robertson
1996). The cause of the rapid decline was habitat loss, and the
introduction of non-native predators such as rats, cats, and stoats.
From 1885 to 1980, they survived only on Little Barrier
Island. Recent estimates from Little Barrier are just 500 to 2000 birds
(Birdlife International 2000). Attempts were make to re-establish
former populations on other offshore islands, including Hen, Cuvier,
Kapiti, Tiritiri Matangi and Mokoia Islands. The early efforts, in the
1980s, were not successful (i.e., on Hen and Cuvier Islands) but
populations did gain a toe-hold on Kapiti, Tiritiri Matangi, and Mokoia
Islands. These were established between 1991–1995 (Armstrong et al.
1999, Birdlife International 2000). Food shortages, translocation
methods, and extent of habitat may be important limiting factors in
re-establishing the species on some islands (Armstrong et al. 1999).
Populations have done particularly well on Tiritiri
Matangi, where each individual is banded (see photo) and tracked. My
visit there was in Dec 1997, when we learned that 37 birds had been
released in 1995. They initially declined but rallied, and at that time
there were 17 breeding pairs that had fledged 14 young that austral
spring. We saw a number of adults and youngsters,* a good number of
whom were concentrated around feeding stations within the native
forest. By December 2004, The Tiritiri Matangi website (checked today,
in July 2007) gave the population as "over 100" on the island, and said
to be 3000 altogether (including those held in zoos for captive
breeding). That website still listed Stitchbird as a honeyeater, and
stated that "The stitchbird is the lowest in the pecking order of the
three honeyeaters and will only be permitted to feed on low-grade
sources of nectar when the tui and bellbird are also present. On
Tiritiri Matangi their diet is supplemented with nectar water placed in
feeding stations located in areas frequented by stitchbirds."
The population on Tiritiri Matangi has since done so
well that 64 individuals were translocated from Tiritiri Matangi into
the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in 2005. This was the first effort to
establish a wild population on the North Island mainland in 120 years.
The birds began breeding and the population had doubled by the end of
2005. There are plans for other North Island mainland introductions
elsewhere. It is anticipated that the discovery that Stitchbird
represents a relict, family–level endemic will "assist policy
determinations for the conservation of this rare bird" (Driskell et al.
Photos: Trevor Quested photographed the
cincta at Tiritiri Matangi Island, New Zealand, in Oct 2004. Photo © 2007 Trevor Quested, used with
permission; all rights reserved.
Bibliographic note: There is no "family book"
per se, as this was always assumed to be a honeyeater. Standard
information is in the New Zealand literature, including field guides
(e.g., Heather & Robertson 1996).
Armstrong, D.P., I. Castro, J.C Alley, B. Feenstra,
and J.K. Perrot. 1999. Mortality and behaviour of hihi, an endangered
New Zealand honeyeater, in the establishment phase following
translocation. Biol. Conserv. 89: 329-339.
Birdlife International. 2000. Threatened Birds of the
World. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Driskell, A., L. Christidis, B.J. Gill, W.E. Boles,
F.K. Barker, and N.W. Longmore. 2007. A new endemic family of New
Zealand passerine birds: adding heat to a biodiversity hotspot.
Australian J. Zool. 55: 73-78.
Heather, B.D., and H.A. Robertson. 1996. The Field
Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Penguin Books, Auckland, N.Z.
Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and
Classification of Birds: a Study of Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ.
Press, New Haven, CT.
|* = from a world listing standpoint, it has long
been my position that the 'countability' of re-introduced native birds
into their former native habitat is not bound by the (properly) strict
criteria that governs the 'countability' of introduced non-native
species. In short, native birds are "good" while non-native exotics are
"bad" and often negatively impact native populations. One welcomes
re-introduced native birds (locally for me, that includes California
Condor) while wishing that dangerous exotics (e.g., E. Starling) be
discouraged (although I strongly believe that observers should study
and keep track of populations of both native and non-native birds,
rather than ignoring exotics). Among the many ways to discourage the
introduction or maintenance of exotics is to make it easy for birders
to 'count' native re-introduced birds but very difficult to 'count'
non-natives. As many of today's strong conservation leaders began as
birding 'listers,' this approach teaches useful lessons. The approach
is actually adopted in practice by the vast majority of birders,
although it is rarely expressed in these terms. While I agree that a
zoo-hatched native bird is not 'countable' even after its release e.g.,
(the American Birding Association rule that zoo birds are not
'countable') it is entirely proper that the wild born youngsters of
re-introduced native species are 'countable.' Thus, on Tiritiri, it was
important to us to see young birds in the wild. We succeeded with
Stitchbird, New Zealand Robin, Saddleback, and Takahe, but saw only
released adults of Brown Teal (the young of the pair had been taken by
a predator). The Stitchbird, Robin, Saddleback and Takahe were
'counted' as lifers, but the Brown Teal was not. We traveled many hours
farther north to see 'countable' Brown Teal.