The nation’s most important election – Bird of the Year – is currently in full swing. I was delighted to hear that it has already been rocked with scandal – someone cares enough about our manu to cheat on their behalf! And it made the national news. Birds in the news! Eclipsing the latest celebrity scandal even. That is encouraging. Birds are such an important part of what makes Aotearoa the special place it is – don’t miss your chance to vote for one. You can vote for any of the 55 species of native birds in the running, so long as it is the kakī (or black stilt, Himantopus novaezelandiae).
Way back in 2005, when I was still but a nestling undergrad student, I set off for Twizel to spend a summer studying the alarm response behaviour of kakī chicks, and – because learning about a species inevitably brings you closer to it – they now occupy a special place in my heart. So naturally, I have some bias. But let me share some insights that will leave you with no choice but to vote black, red, and stilty.
All hail Their Grace, the Kakī, of the Order Charadriiformes, First of Their Name , Wader of the Woven Rivers, Fierce Protector of Nests, Destroyer of Very Little (except a few freshwater invertebrates), The Shadow on the River, the Emo in Red Stockings, the Red Bird Painted Black (but they missed a bit), the Big Stilton Cheese, the most elegant Badass Bird of Aotearoa.
How you doin’?
Not good, mate, not good. The kakī is critically endangered. At the 2016 count, only about 106 adults remained. There are probably more cats on your street than that, more cocopops in your bowl, more lone socks in your drawers. In 1980 there were only 23 kakī left. Intensive management has boosted the population, a little, but they are still in dire straits (or dire braided river channels as it were). We have 13 kakī specimens in our collection including eggs, bones, skins, and mounts. Four of these specimens were collected in the Auckland region (Mangere, Manukau, and Kaipara), and one in the Waikato – a poignant reminder that this species used to be common and widespread.
( Don’t panic, it’s no longer the done thing to go out and collect living birds for museums). While museum collections are an important resource for scientific research, nothing beats seeing the birds in the wild – I hope that one day they will be a common sight in this region again.
Tell me baby, what’s your story?
Most kakī babies now come from broken homes – torn from their mothers and fathers before they’ve even left the egg, to be raised in captivity. Yes, this is a deliberate and unashamed ploy to tug at your heart strings… But seriously, why this trauma? Well the alternative is infinitely worse. Aotearoa is a swirling mass of introduced mammalian predators that seek out and destroy our sheltered and somewhat naïve native birds. There are the usual culprits – cats, rats, and mustelids (stoats, ferrets) – which will all kill eggs, chicks, and sometimes adults.
But on the braided rivers of the Mackenzie Basin, the last breeding ‘hood of the kakī, there is another danger lurking – Mrs Tiggywinkle. European hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) hide behind a cutesy reputation garnered in childrens’ books, but the sobering truth is that they are killers… *dun dun duuuuuun!* They are one of the main predators of kakī nests, voraciously devouring the beautifully speckled eggs. There are big efforts to control mammalian predators in these systems, but it is not enough. Every year, the dedicated DOC team down at Twizel must collected the kakī eggs from wild adult pairs to reduce the risk of predation during their most vulnerable time, hatching and looking after the chicks until they are old enough to be released back into the wild.
Who loves who the most?
There are also a number of adult kakī in the captive breeding programme, and they need help finding their soulmates. PhD researcher Stephanie Galla from the University of Canterbury (Twitter @sgalla32) is currently trying find the best kakī matches based on how related they are vs. how compatible their personalities are – basically the bird version of match.com. This is the real ‘Married at First Sight NZ’ – when there is only 106 of you, there ain’t much choice! Faced with so few potential suitors, kakī have a tendency to look further afield – hybridisation with another closely related species, the pied stilt (Himantopus himantopus), is another threat to the kakī recovery programme.
It’s so fluffy!
Kakī chicks are arguably cuter than all the cat (*argh predator!*) videos you’ve seen on the internet. They are definitely cuter than anything you’ve seen in the last five minutes, and quite possibly the cutest things ever to exist. If you get a pom pom, stick it on two straws, and poke a tooth pick into it for a bill, you’ve got a kakī chick. Utterly, irrevocably, cute. And their inherent cuteness is not just about their gangly legs or their fluffy little bodies, they are quite the comic geniuses. A little crazy hiccup jump–run here, falling asleep in your food there. A full backflip? Sure give it a go (it’s ok if you don’t land on your feet, no one is judging). And if a blow fly happens to intrude, it is only right to chase it around like a lunatic.
Call me loyal
Still not convinced? No other native bird is more kiwi than the kakī. They wear an all black jersey, and every day is Red Socks Day. Not even the kiwi (and here I do mean actual members of the Apteryx genus) can boast as much. What do you have to say for yourself, national symbol? Kakī is totes throwing shade.
So you see, you absolutely must vote for kakī. The beautiful long-legged ballerina of the braided rivers. Our biggest national sports fan. A species on the brink that we could lose all too easily. Let’s not let that happen, eh?
Post by: Auckland Museum
Auckland War Memorial Museum tells the story of New Zealand, its people, and their place in the Pacific.