As befits any diva, kōkako have an air of mystery and unapproachability.
Theirs is a venerable lineage, stretching back to an early stage of evolution. Along with distant cousins the huia (sadly no longer with us) and the saddleback, kōkako are part of the ancient wattlebird family (Callaeidae), present back when dinosaurs walked the land and New Zealand was part of the Gondwana supercontinent, some 80 million years ago. New Zealand wattlebirds have no living relatives, and their taxonomic relationships to other birds are difficult to define, even with modern DNA investigative techniques.
The kōkako, voted New Zealand’s Bird of the Year in 2016, is attractive as it is mysterious – a smoky blue-grey in colour, with black legs and bill, and a black Zorro-like “mask”. The North Island kōkako are distinguishable by cobalt blue wattles under the throat, while their South Island relatives have orange wattles. South Island kōkako, are believed to be extinct – though some swear they have heard their haunting song in the bush.
Similar to the other wattlebirds, the kōkako is a poor flier, preferring to use its long, powerful legs for leaping from branch to branch. As Māori legend would have it, the kōkako provided aid to Maui as he slowed the sun, offering him water stored in its wattle. The demi-God rewarded the benevolent creature by making its legs long and slender, allowing it to bound through the forest to find food.
As with many of New Zealand’s ancient inhabitants, kōkako were affected by the arrival of humans and their attendants (such as ship rats, possums and feral cats), their population relegated to a fraction of its original range. One key to the recovery of the species by conservationists was to be a series of transfers into mainland areas where numbers of key pests such as possums, rats and stoats could be lowered, allowing kōkako to thrive. This coincided with the first steps toward pest control at Pukaha Mount Bruce. Eventually a healthy and sustainable population of kōkako became a goal of the Pukaha restoration project.
Pukaha’s project, beginning in 2003, involved a technique, previously untested for kōkako, called ‘hard release’ – where birds are released into their new habitat immediately on arrival, with no time to become accustomed to their new surroundings. This is now an integral part of kōkako management.
Research before the first kōkako release into Pukaha indicated that intensive pest control for about a decade would see a sustainable population of 25 pairs establish. As it turned out, the maths was just about spot on, with 32 pairs found in 2016, 13 years after that first release.
These days, Pukaha positively rings with the kōkako’s distinctive call – easily the bird’s most enchanting characteristic. These calls have been described with a baffling array of words: “majestic”, “haunting”, “mournful”, “organ-like”, “flute-like” would be among the more common. None of these does justice to the reality of a sound that can fill the air and seem to arrive from all directions. Ever the diva, the kōkako begins a dawn chorus performance by opening its wings, and fluffing its tail. It will then make some quiet buzzing sounds, before beginning its song. As the notes hang in the air, another kōkako will answer. As part of their “pair bond” and to defend their territory, the male and female will sing together, often in perfect harmony, for up to half an hour. And they say romance is dead!
With a voice of such strength and purity, it is no surprise Dame Malvina Major agreed to be patron of the national Kōkako Recovery Programme, an initiative so successful that North Island kōkako are no longer a threatened species. The Department of Conservation’s latest threat classification places them in the “Recovering, conservation dependent” category.
Even now, more people have heard kōkako at the Westpac Stadium than in its natural home. During the Wellington Sevens, each new game was heralded with its call. Though the Sevens, and likely its bird call, met the oblivion that kōkako so narrowly missed, we’re lucky to have that magnificent sound greet each dawn in Wairarapa.
Story by Tony Silbery and Erin Kavanagh-Hall
You can read more Wairarapa Wildlife stories here.