Takahē population flying high

Takahē may be flightless but their population is flying high with the official count reaching 418 after a record breeding season that produced an estimated 65 juveniles, the Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage announced today.

“The population reaching a high of 418 is great news for takahē which were considered extinct until rediscovered in 1948. It demonstrates what can be achieved when we give nature a helping hand,” said Eugenie Sage.

The Department of Conservation’s annual takahē count at the end of September showed the population had now passed the 400 mark for the first time in at least a century.

“I congratulate all those involved in the Takahē Recovery Programme for their tremendous work in growing the population of this once critically-endangered taonga. This includes the dedicated and skilled DOC staff who work hands-on with takahē and programme partners Ngāi Tahu and Fulton Hogan whose support has been instrumental in the takahē recovery gains being achieved.”

Crucially for the future of the species, breeding pair numbers have more than doubled in the past six years, from 66 in 2013 to 130 today. As a result, annual productivity has risen by nearly 300% in that time.

“Science-based conservation techniques are behind the DOC Takahē Recovery Programme’s success in increasing the population’s annual growth rate to more than 10%,” Eugenie Sage said.

“The Takahē Recovery Team carefully matches takahē pairs based on birds’ rarity and relatedness, to optimise genetic diversity and breeding productivity.”

“While the overall population number is good news, the number of breeding pairs is a more accurate indicator of population health. The number of takahē breeding pairs shows a good gender and age balance in the population and is critical to being able to keep pushing takahē further away from extinction.”  

 “The Takahē Recovery Programme has also developed smart ways of preparing juvenile birds at the Burwood Rearing Centre near Te Anau for successful release into the wild. It is amazing seeing the birds here in their natural tussock habitat.

“Many of the offspring from pairs at sanctuary sites elsewhere in New Zealand are used to boost wild populations but need to learn several important skills first. At around five months old, they are transferred to the Burwood Takahe Centre in Southland and placed with foster takahē parents, who spend the winter and spring training their unnaturally large brood.”

“These foster parents teach the juvenile takahē how to cope with heavy snow, feed on tussock, and locate and dig up the rhizomes of the hypolepis fern – a critical winter food source in Fiordland.

“The juveniles stay with their foster parents while the pair raise chicks in the next breeding season and learn parenting skills from them so they can go on to successfully raise their own chicks. 

“A landmark for the Takahē Recovery Programme was the 2018 release of takahe into Kahurangi National Park’s Heaphy Track area to attempt to establish a second wild population outside of the Murchison Mountains. This was a major step towards the long-term goal of securing self-sustaining populations in areas of their former natural range.”

“The Kahurangi population has grown and now has 31 birds. Almost all of the takahē have been gaining weight since their release. It is planned to release another 10 takahē there early next year.”

About two-thirds of the takahē population is spread across 18 secure island and mainland sanctuaries. This is a safeguard for the species should some disaster threaten the wild populations but the sanctuary sites have limited available habitat.

As takahē numbers rise, the challenge is to identify more suitable sites with low predator numbers to establish more wild populations in the bird’s natural South Island tussock lands home.

Background Information:

Takahē had been considered extinct until two were famously rediscovered by Dr Geoffrey Orbell in Fiordland’s Murchison Mountains in 1948.
The Takahē Recovery Programme has been running for more than 30 years and is the longest-running species conservation programme in New Zealand. It has pioneered many techniques that have gone on to guide conservation efforts for other species.
Takahē moved two places along the threat classification system from nationally critical to nationally vulnerable in 2017.
The takahē census is carried out on October 1 when the previous breeding season’s chicks are a year old and are added to the total population count. The previous count was 376.  

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