Photo: Michael Hamilton
The Karori Sanctuary Experience

Birds

Hihi / Stitchbird

Hihi male with raised ear tufts

Photo By Steve Attwood

Hihi female feeding on wharariki flowers. Note pollen stain to head and upright tail

Photo By Steve Attwood

Family history

The hihi, one of New Zealand’s rarest birds, has traditionally been placed in the Meliphagidae (honeyeater) family along with the bellbird and the tūī.
But, apart from diet, hihi share few qualities with tūī and bellbird and recent DNA analysis confirms that hihi are the sole representative of another bird family Notiomystidae found only in New Zealand, whose closest relatives are the iconic wattlebirds that include kokako, saddleback and the extinct huia.

Hihi, like many native New Zealand birds, did not cope well with the arrival of humans and the habitat changes and animal pests they brought with them. Their habit of nesting in tree cavities makes them especially vulnerable to rats, stoats and cats and  bird diseases carried by introduced exotic species might also have contributed to their rapid decline. By the 1885 they were extinct on the mainland, surviving only on Little Barrier Island.

Hihi are a North Island species only, originally found throughout the North Island and offshore islands such as Kapiti, Great Barrier and Little Barrier Islands. There is no record of them ever having been in the South Island.

Hihi have been re-established on Kapiti Island by transfers from Little Barrier Island, and successfully transferred to Tiritiri Matangi Island, and more recently to Maungatautari mainland island. Transfers to Hen Island, Cuvier Island, Mokoia Island and the Waitakeres have failed.

Zealandia history

In 2005 Zealandia made history by becoming the first mainland site to host wild hihi in at least120 years! The birds are one of the sanctuary’s success stories, with a stable population persisting to the present time despite dispersal over the fence being a risk. They use nest boxes in the valley which provides staff and volunteers easy access for monitoring purposes and all chicks are banded before they leave the nest so their survival, dispersal and future reproductive success can be monitored. Supplementary food is also provided to encourage them to forage within the safety of the perimeter fence, to help with monitoring survival of birds and allow visitors to see this special bird.

Look for hihi at the supplementary feeders, especially in the discovery area. They are also readily seen and heard as they forage throughout the valley on nectar, fruit and insects.

Recognition/distinguishing features and behaviour

Sparrow-sized with white wing bars. Females are drab olive. Males are more brightly coloured, with black heads, white ear tufts and bright yellow shoulders. Both male and female hihi have a short, slightly curved beak. They also have whisker-like bristles at the corners of their beak and perch with their tail held very erect.

Their call is distinct and gives them their English name. But as well as the “stitch” note, hihi also have a collection of whistles and warbles and a penetrating alarm call described as ‘yeng yeng yeng’. Males also have a distinctive ‘see-si-ip” call.

Hihi feed on nectar, fruit, and invertebrates. Like New Zealand’s other nectar-drinking birds hihi have a long tongue that is divided at its tip and frayed at its edges like a brush. This helps them reach deeply into flowers to get as much nectar as possible. But hihi are at the bottom of the nectar eating pecking order in the forest, easily bullied away from the best flowers by the more aggressive tui and bellbird.

Hihi travel extensively for food, and have been known to fly several kilometres a day between good feeding sites. They are sometimes seen in urban gardens near the sanctuary, which unfortunately places them at great risk from cats and mustelids outside the sanctuary fence.

Hihi on Little Barrier Island and Kapiti Island make their nests in tree holes, high up in live mature trees such as pohutukawa, pukatea, rata, kamahi, and hīnau. But at Tiritiri Matangi island and here at Zealandia they nest in boxes.  The nest is a platform made from sticks, with a ‘cup’ on top constructed from tree-fern rhizomes and lined with tree-fern scales, often interwoven with lichens and feathers. New hihi nests are often built on top of old ones.

Did you know?

Hihi are the only birds known to occasionally mate face-to-face.

References

DOC: http://www.doc.govt.nz/conservation/native-animals/birds/land-birds/stitchbird/

Hihi conservation website: http://www.hihiconservation.com/

The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand – Heather and Robertson – Penguin Books: ISBN 978-0-14-302040-0.