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Taiko recovery shows promise

After a long hike through muddy trails carved by feral pigs in a forest of tree ferns, we sat in the damp peat and waited in the darkness, for what I wasn’t sure. It was 1:30 in the morning.

We were on the Chatham Islands, a few specks of land in the ocean 600 miles east of Christchurch, New Zealand. After a bit, the biologist I was with started howling and moaning. This was both unexpected and more than a little unnerving. It sounded like an animal in great pain. I did not know that this was the courtship call of a critically endangered seabird, the taiko or magenta petrel.

There is nothing magenta about the black and white seabird. The name “magenta” was taken from the name of the ship where the first individual was collected in 1867. The bird has a wingspan of about three feet and a black hood and back. It spends nearly all of its time soaring over the open ocean foraging for squid and small fish.

We were hoping to lure individuals looking for mates. This was in 2006 when only about a dozen breeding pairs were known to exist in the world, and the total population was estimated at just over 100 individuals.

This once-abundant seabird was hunted for food by the Moriori, the people who colonized the islands about 500 years ago. The reduced population was further decimated by rats, pigs and especially feral cats and was thought to be extinct until 1978.

A teacher, hearing rumors that the taiko may still exist in the forested southern part of the main island, finally discovered two individuals with spotlights as they returned from the ocean in the darkness.

Another nine years passed before the first nest was discovered, and in 1994 only four nests were located despite an intensive search. There was great concern as the few breeding individuals appeared to be of advanced age.

I had the privilege to visit this remote corner of the world as a volunteer with New Zealand’s Department of Conservation to assist with the recovery efforts of eight endangered species, including the taiko.

After several minutes of the disturbing howling, there was a soft crash through the tree ferns. A taiko cruising over the forest canopy in search of a mate plummeted through the canopy. Headlamp now on, I scrambled through the vegetation toward the noise and gently grabbed the bird dazzled by my light. It was a young female possibly returning to land for the first time since fledging five years previously. It was unbanded and represented great hope for the species.

Intensive predator control efforts and fences have helped protect the few remaining breeding birds. More recently, an alternate, more secure breeding site has been established, and the transplanted birds have readily accepted the new home.

I just learned that there are now 35 breeding pairs, and last year 27 young were reared. They are not to the point where we can let them fend for themselves, but the trend is very positive. Genetic testing revealed further good news in that, amazingly, genetic diversity is still high, suggesting a healthy population that has not suffered severe inbreeding.

At a time when we are experiencing declining populations in many species and extinction of far too many, there are heartening success stories — among which is the taiko.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.