Our Wellington

News | 2 December 2020

Plotting a new history for the hihi

If you want to find out facts about the hihi, it’s easy. Just Google it.

“The stitchbird or hihi (Notiomystis cincta) is a honeyeater-like bird endemic to the North Island and adjacent offshore islands of New Zealand,” is how Wikipedia puts it.

A hihi in the forest.

But if you want to find out what makes the little birds special, and why we should care about them, then searching the web probably isn’t going to cut it. 

“They just streak through the forest. It really is a flash and then it’s gone,” says Rachel Selwyn, ranger at Zealandia in charge of managing the hihi population. 

“Or you’ll be standing there and you’ll just notice that it’s there, right next to you. It’s a very inquisitive and very curious bird. 

“The males also do this thing at the feeders where they flair their ear tufts, and I know this isn’t a scientific term, but they do this little dance, posturing to the other males.” 

The hihi, it turns out, is a bit of a character. 

Once found all over the North Island, deforestation, disease, and the introduction of predators led to its eventual exclusion to Te Hauturu-o-toi/ Little Barrier Island. 

There are now seven wild populations of hihi across New Zealand, with estimates of upwards of 2000 across the country, making it one of our rarest birds. 

Photo of Zealandia ranger Rachel Selwyn who is passionate about the hihi.

Zealandia ranger Rachel Selwyn is passionate about the hihi.

Wellingtonians have the opportunity to see the bird up close at Zealandia, where there is about 80 “that we know of for sure”, says Rachel. 

The team has both short and long-term goals to see hihi prospering without our assistance. 

Short-term involves achieving high population numbers with an appropriate gender ratio, and a healthy population in terms of genetic variety and disease resistance. 

Longer term it means monitoring the hihi population to better understand what they need to thrive – looking at things like feeding, nesting, temperatures in the environment, and bird relationships. 

Ultimately it also means reducing the active management – being able to take away or reduce the numbers of nest boxes and feeding stations because these needs are being met by their habitat around them. 

“By finding out the answers to these questions, we can work these answers into our active management.  

“Because our hihi population is all banded, it gives us the ability to really understand what is happening with the birds in the valley.” 

One day – and we’re talking perhaps a century away – the team would love for hihi to be a common sight all over the capital. 

A hihi in a tree.

Photo credit: Tony Stoddard.

Rachel started at the Karori wildlife sanctuary in September, and says her analytical skills will complement the expertise and experience of the hihi that the team already has. 

She’s also tapping into the knowledge of the many keen volunteers, some of whom have been working with the hihi for 15 years. 

Gini Letham, Zealandia ranger in charge of science communication, says the hihi is a nectarivore, feeding off flowering native trees, while also eating some insects.  

Zealandia provides feeding stations that supply sugar-water to supplement the hihi’s food. 

She says there are a lot of ways the Wellington public can help the hihi, but providing your own sugar-water isn’t one of them. 

Instead people could donate, do some pest trapping, or – best of all – plant some native trees, especially flowering ones. 

“You can bring back all the birds you want but if they don’t have the habitat then it’s just not going to work.” 

Photo of sun filtering through the forest canopy at Zealandia.

The runaway success that is Zealandia’s kākā programme shows a way forward for the smaller and more vulnerable hihi, Gini says. 

“It shows what can be done. It shows hope.” 

Rachel says the hihi are currently laying their eggs, but with a little help. 

“One of the reasons they’re still struggling is that compared with other species they really rely on the very large tree cavities for building their nests inside. 

“These are really hard to find, and the forest is still too young here.” 

Instead, Zealandia has made about 150 nest boxes throughout the valley, where the birds build high stacks of material on top of which they make their nests. 

Yet another reason why the hihi are so special, Rachel says.  

“It’s also special because it’s a reminder of what New Zealand should look like, and what it did look like, before Pākehā arrived here, and before the damage was done.” 

Damage that Zealandia is reversing, slowly but surely, in its little corner of the capital.