Posted by: Loren Coleman on January 16th, 2007
Extinct? Which one?
In less detailed media reports you may hear today or over the weekend, the New Zealand Ko¯kako has been declared extinct. Sad news indeed, but let’s be specific. It is not an entire species that is being declared extinct. Once again, also, there are hints that this may be another subspecies, despite recent sightings, which is being declared extinct too early.
The one with the orange wattles is allegedly gone. But is it? Is the Ko¯kako the New Zealand version of the ivory-billed woodpecker?
The South Island Ko¯kako is the subspecies that is now being declared extinct. It was last seen on the South Island in 1967. There had been further reports on Stewart Island in 1987 and other more recent sightings, but these had not been corroborated, say the news reports. The Ko¯kako is being declared extinct, via a press release.
But the entire species is not extinct. The subspecies with the blue wattles is making a comeback.
Indeed, there are over 60 breeding pairs of the North Island Ko¯kako subspecies. There are fewer than 400 pairs left throughout their range, but they are increasing in numbers. "A census of the threatened Ko¯kako population in the Kaharoa Forest has revealed an increase from 12 breeding pairs to over 30 over the past eight years," mentioned a recent New Zealand news dispatch.
For your clarification of the media stories you will begin to see appear on this extinction news, here is an extraction from the Ko¯kako Wikipedia entry, to assist you with noting the differences between the two bird subspecies:
The Ko¯kako (Callaeas cinerea) is a forest bird which is endemic to New Zealand. It is slate-grey with a black mask and wattles. It is one of three New Zealand wattlebirds, the other two being the endangered Tieke (saddleback) and the extinct Huia. Previously widespread, the birds were decimated by the introduction of non-native predators such as possums, stoats, cats, rats and mice. There were two sub-species of Ko¯kako, although one of these may now be extinct.
North Island Ko¯kako
The North Island Ko¯kako, Callaeas cinerea wilsoni, with blue wattles (although this color develops with age: in the young of this bird they are actually colored a light pink ) , is endangered, with less than 400 pairs in existence (September 2004). It survives in low numbers in several mainland native forests with the help of government-funded pest control programs, and captive breeding programs help maintain population numbers. New populations are being established through releases on predator-free offshore islands. As a result, conservationists are hopeful of the species’ long-term survival. As at 2005, the Ko¯kako has been sighted in Pureora Forest, Whirinaki Forest Park and the Te Urewera National Park. Recently, 20 Ko¯kako from Urewera were translocated to Ngapukeriki, a forest area under intensive predator control. Ko¯kako can be seen relatively easily on Tiritiri Matangi Island, where the regenerating forest is low enough to provide close views.
South Island Ko¯kako
The South Island Ko¯kako, Callaeas cinerea cinerea, with orange wattles, was formally declared extinct by the New Zealand Department of Conservation on 16 January 2007. A confirmed sighting has not occurred in several decades, though unconfirmed sightings are very occasionally reported, the most recent being in 2006 in Fiordland.
Recent Sighting: Ko¯kako Now A Cryptid
The reference article on why this bird is now a cryptozoological case comes from New Zealand’s fall of 2006. "Fresh signs of long-lost kokako in Fiordland" was published on March 29, 2006. Part of the article is about the new sighting:
For the veteran searchers seeking signs of the long-lost South Island kokako, a valley east of Puysegur Point in Fiordland National Park sounds like a breakthrough.
The bird was believed extinct in the 1960s, a tuneful victim of predators and loss of habitat.
But the South Island Kokako Investigation Team has kept compiling reports of the grey bird with distinctive orange wattles at each side of the beak. The North Island kokako has a bluish wattle.
And now an offshoot of January’s hunt for more kakapo in Fiordland has led to hopes that the team has another valley to check in detail, with a community of the supposedly extinct birds living there.
For Christchurch researcher Ron Nilsson, the breakthrough has come after more than 20 years of collating reports and checking regions in Nelson, the West Coast, Fiordland and Stewart Island.
He went to the other valley, on the South Island’s south coast, when the search for more kakapo had ended without success.
A team was dropped in by helicopter to check out reports they heard from a geologist remapping Fiordland. The map maker had provided grid references.
"We landed at 1pm and by 2pm we had heard the first of the calls," said Mr Nilsson. The calls kept coming in sequences of about five, and up to 10. They heard at least 50 calls in the first afternoon.
Some recordings were made and better gear was set up next day, but it proved to be the hottest day of the summer in Fiordland and the forest went silent.
Mr Nilsson believes the concentration of calls in such a confined area indicates a possible viable breeding population. The abundance of calls indicates the birds are actively calling to mates and marking out territories.
In recent years, searches for the South Island kokako have been in Granville State Forest in the West Coast’s Grey Valley and further north in the Paparoa Range near Charleston.
"In those places there may be one or two birds in 5000ha of forest. This one is different. I think there is a small group of birds there. You have got a sense that it’s very important."
The group was in the area for just over a day, but accomplished a lot in that time. Now the pressure is on to convince the Department of Conservation – or a sponsor – that an urgent return visit is necessary.
There has been a tussock mast and a beech mast – a year when those plants produce much more seed than normal. That will bring a rise in the number of mice, and then an increase in the predators that feed on the mice.
When the mice run short as a food source, the predators – rats and stoats – may start eating native birds and the fragile group of kokako may be vulnerable.
The concentrated activity near the landing site meant the second grid reference point nearby had not yet been checked.
"These were very encouraging signs," said Mr Nilsson.
The slow movement from nearly extinct, to probably extinct, to cryptid seems to have been a long time coming for the South Island Ko¯kako. Craig Heinselman writes me to mention there is an older list of sightings of this subspecies here, and that a 1998 article in Crypto (Vol. 1, No. 2) has an article about the status of this bird a decade ago.
The world’s most prominent searcher in pursuit of this bird is Rhys Buckingham who calls the New Zealand bird, the "most beautiful songbird in the world." He likens its resonant call to the ringing of Tibetan bowls, or the tolling of a cathedral bell. I wish him much luck in re-discovering the South Island Ko¯kako.