The rifleman, or tītipounamu, is one of two surviving species within the ancient New Zealand wren family. Māori refer the little birds as messengers to the gods, specifically as one of the messengers of Tāne, god of the forest. Tītipounamu is a derivative of two words: “tītiti” which means “a mirage or vision of”, and “pounamu”, which is greenstone, referencing their greenish plumage.
Male tītipounamu are smaller than females and have a bright green head and back, whilst females are more subtle in colour with yellow-brown speckles on the head and back. Both sexes have pale grey chests. Their wings are noticeably short and rounded when they fly- as a result, rifleman are relatively poor flyers with limited capability to fly across wide water or open habitats. Being an acrobatic bird, they can hang and hold themselves upside down in precarious angles, clinging onto branches with their strong hooked claws.
Tītipounamu are often mistaken with the riroriro/grey warbler, pōpokotea/whitehead, and tauhou/silvereye. However, their short and stubby tail sets them apart from other smaller birds. Their bill is pointed upwards to help them lift lichen and tree bark in their search for invertebrates, which make up around about 90% of their diet. They most often feed high in the canopy, often hopping up and down tree trunks with their wings flicking in quick, repeated movements. Tītipounamu are often seen in cooperative groups which raise broods together. Unrelated, unpaired helpers, particularly males, may also assist in caring and breeding for the nestlings, and may have pairing opportunities with them in the future.
60 riflemen were translocated into ZEALANDIA from Wainuiomata Mainland Island in early 2019. In the past, tītipounamu were found in abundance in mature North and South Island, beech and podocarp forests. They survive as geographically isolated populations, mainly confined to higher altitude throughout both the North and South Islands. Rifleman were found to be widespread during the time of European settlement, but populations decreased with the loss of lowland forest and are now patchily distributed.