With electric blue wattles hanging beneath its beak, and a song described as hauntingly beautiful, the North Island kōkako is one of New Zealand’s most ancient flying birds.
Its South Island counterpart hasn’t been seen for decades and its wattlebird relative, the huia, has been extinct since the early 20th century. But predator control efforts to protect North Island kōkako in small pockets of native forest mean the species is now deemed to be “at risk – recovering”.
One such pocket is the Kaharoa Forest, north of Rotorua. In the 1990s the population fell as low as 21 birds. But today the forest is home to 173 kōkako which is nearing the maximum capacity the forest can hold. Each breeding pair is territorial and take up 8ha of space, calling out to one another to defend their boundaries. However, a genetically sustainable kōkako population requires at least 250 breeding pairs spread over 2000ha of bush.
To ensure the kōkako population keeps growing and thriving, they need more habitat. And so the Kōkako Ecosystem Expansion Programme (KEEP) was established.
The KEEP coalition comprises 16 different entities including Tapuika iwi, foresters, farmers, private landowners, local government and volunteer conservation groups like the Kaharoa Kōkako Trust who have spearheaded local conservation efforts for the past 25 years.
KEEP spokesperson and Port Blakely Regional Forester, Alfred Duval, says the goal is to expand the kōkako population beyond Kaharoa Forest by creating habitat corridors to link it to nearby Ōtanewainuku Forest in the Western Bay of Plenty.
“Ōtanewainuku also has a population of kōkako, albeit no-where the numbers that Kaharoa Forest does. The distance in a straight line is about 6km, so it’s far – but it’s not too far. There are existing patches of native bush, gullies, and all sorts of areas that could provide some sort of linkage between those two populations of kōkako. So if we can create a kōkako corridor that goes between these two areas, the birds will have more area to nest in and more genetic diversity to prevent in-breeding issues,” Alfred explains.
BayTrust has granted $351,000 of multi-year funding to KEEP spread out over the next three years towards this important conservation work.
A part-time Project Manager will now be employed to handle all the administration and communication tasks, as well as helping to identify areas suitable for restoration planting and pest control to help in-fill the corridor itself.
“It’s been amazing to see the number of private landowners, farmers and foresters who have already come on board to support this and really buy into the vision of trying to protect the native bush remnants they have on their land and carry out pest control. By doing so, it means they might get kōkako in their backyard,” Alfred says.
“But up till now KEEP has been really organic in its spread and ability to reach out. This grant is going to really help us get some structure around formally managing what we want to achieve and getting more pest control and new plantings underway.”
Alfred says kōkako are a large bird with long, slender legs which allows them to bound up large trees. From there, they can glide short distances. Their ideal habitat comprises a mix of established trees and lower canopy trees with a range of different heights, providing a wide variety of food year-round.
Today there are believed to be over 3400 North Island kōkako living in our forests. This is a substantial increase from the 800 or so birds recorded in 1999.
“This money is going to make a significant difference to the long-term survival of this species. That’s the goal,” Alfred says. “It’s hard to put it into words how excited we are. No-one has created a habitat corridor specifically for kōkako before. I view this as a really important test case and we’re going to learn a huge amount from it. Hopefully it will also benefit other conservation groups in the long-run, and other populations of kōkako around New Zealand.
“For an outfit like BayTrust to view our project as an important avenue for funding is the most incredible vote of confidence for what we’re trying to do.”
Photo credit to Neil Robert Hutton