For 65 million years, New Zealand sat alone in the ocean, cut off from its neighbor, Australia, and the many animals that grew and diversified there. Only those animals that could fly or swim settled on the island, where they flourished, creating an ecosystem unlike any other on Earth, an island of birds.
Before the arrival of humans, there were 196 species of birds native to New Zealand and only a few bats and seals to represent the mammals. The birds ranged in size from the 8-cm rifleman to the 12-foot moa, filling every ecological niche: foragers, predators, and scavengers. Where most birds around the world took to the air to evade predators, many birds in New Zealand gave up their ability to fly and settled down to earth for a long, laid-back life.
The kiwi, for instance, is a flightless, nocturnal ball of fuzz and the national symbol of New Zealand. Famed for laying the largest egg in the world in relation to its body size, the kiwi is actually a distant relative of the ostrich and emu. Each night, it dines on worms and fallen fruit, which it sniffs out with its sensitive nostrils unusually placed at the tip of its beak.
The kakapo is the world’s only flightless parrot and a most dedicated lover. During the breeding season, males will spend 8 hours a night for 2-4 straight months, singing “boom-ching” to attract a mate. They are also known for climbing on humans, grooming them, and trying to mate with their heads. Totally land-bound, the closest a kakapo can come to flight is by “parachuting” out of a tree.
The tawaki, or Fiordland crested penguin, is one of the world’s rarest penguins and the only that nests in the rainforest, either close to the coast or near the shore of a freshwater lake. With bright yellow tufts of feathers over their eyes, these penguins are beloved for their comic antics.
The brilliantly colored takahe was considered extinct until 1948 when a small group was found living in the Murchison Mountains, feeding on tussock. How it came to this high alpine habitat, no one is sure, but it may have been to evade the strange predators that invaded their home.
None of these adorable birds has had an easy go of it. Around 1300 AD, the Maori arrived with dogs and rats and made short work of the mighty moas and the world’s largest eagle. Settlers from Europe brought livestock that ate through the forests and pets that ate through the flightless birds. Dogs and stoats devoured them. Rats and sheep ate their food. Populations dropped, and the kakapo in particular fell to its all-time low of just 18 individuals.
After centuries of decimation and degradation, the Kiwi people are waking up to the plight of their adorable flightless birds. Efforts are being made to eradicate the invasive pests and restore habitat that had been eaten by sheep. While it is immensely difficult to remove all of the dogs, cats, stoats, and rats, it is possible to move the birds somewhere safer. New Zealand has pioneered the idea of ecological islands, building on an idea by conservationist, Richard Henry, in the 1890s.
Now, there are at least three successful ecological islands: Codfish, Anchor, and Little Barrier Island, where kakapos, kiwis, and Fiordland crested penguins, can live outside the swimming range of rats and stoats. Unauthorized landings are not permitted, which keeps away livestock, cats, and dogs. Kapiti Island hosts takahe and is now the only place in the world to find the little spotted kiwi.
The islands are small, so it is difficult to say for sure how these programs will affect total populations, but they are having an impact. For example, the world’s population of kakapos has grown from just 18 to 124 since the 1970s. Recent stoat clearings from the more spacious Resolution Island have also paved the way for larger scale bird recovery. There’s a long way to go, but as conservation efforts become more sophisticated, there is hope that the bird island will once again ring with song.