For the first of The PBD’s “Conservation Success Stories”, we head 12,000 miles from the UK, to New Zealand.
The country is home to some of the world’s most remarkable birds – the kakapo, the kiwi, the takahē, the now-extinct moa. But this piece concerns one of New Zealand’s much smaller but no less endearing species – Petroica traversi – the black robin.
In 1979/1980 there were only 5 black robins left on Earth. Just 1 of those was a breeding female. The species’ revival owes itself to that sole female, known as “Old Blue”, and her mate, “Old Yellow”, as well as to the dedication of conservationist Don Merton and his colleagues at New Zealand Wildlife Services.
The black robins weren’t being directly killed off by humans like some species, but human activities were still responsible for their predicament. “Invasive species” (which arrived in New Zealand with explorers) wiped out the enigmatic kakapo on the mainland, and they nearly wiped out the black robin as well.
Don and his team spent years working to bring the black robin back from the very brink of extinction. The species’ recovery was not a smooth one. Initially, the conservationists had to identify a suitable location where they could try to save the black robin, eventually settling on New Zealand’s remote Chatham Islands (see map).
For months, the team struggled through rough seas and howling winds to monitor the remaining birds. The first signs of improvement were swiftly snuffed out, as one of Old Blue’s fledglings died, and the chick of another female, Old Green, was eaten by a predator. The black robin population had briefly surged 40%, but it was back to 5 before too long. Don’s team realised, however, that the black robins would re-nest in the same season, and they could be “tricked” into laying more than two eggs if you removed the first batch. Using Chatham Island warblers and then tomtits (the warblers having proved fairly ineffective as foster parents) to raise the young black robins, the conservation efforts gradually saw some progress. The population climbed to 9, and never looked back. Don’s team were still very much hands-on in their approach, moving eggs laid on the rim of nests to the centre, stopping the birds breeding with their own offspring, and even on one occasion apparently resuscitating a dead chick with some improvised “mouth-to-beak”!
Against all the odds, there are around 270 black robins in the wild today. They can be found on New Zealand’s Mangere Island and South East Island (Rangatira) – both part of the Chatham Islands where the initial rescue efforts took place. The black robins’ is a story of how, with a few dedicated people and a bit of luck, we can bring a species back from the very brink. Don Merton sadly passed away in 2011. But his legacy – a thriving, if still vulnerable, black robin population – lives on, 550 miles off the east coast of New Zealand.
Have a great week!