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. However, 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.
The hihi is a sparrow-sized bird with white wing bars. Females are drab olive. Males are more brightly coloured, with black heads, white ear tufts and bright yellow shoulders. They have whisker-like bristles at the corners of their beak and perch with their tail held very erect. Their call is a distinct “stitch” and gives them their English name, stitchbird. But as well as the “stitch”, 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, 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. Diseases carried by introduced exotic species might also have contributed to their rapid decline. By 1885 they were extinct on the mainland, surviving only on Little Barrier Island.
To Māori, ‘hihi’ was a term used for the healing rays of sunlight. The shoulders of the male hihi would light up in a burst of yellow as these birds darted through the trees and were said to be carriers of the sun - capturing the healing rays and spreading light through the forest. As one of the first species to vanish from mainland bush, these sensitive birds can be an indicator of forest health and test of ecological restoration. For these reasons, hihi symbolise life, vigour, and health of the forest.
In 2005 ZEALANDIA made history by becoming the first mainland site to host wild hihi in at least 120 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.