Saddleback

Easily identified by the copper-coloured 'saddle' on its back

English name: North Island saddleback

Māori name: Tīeke

Scientific name: Philesturnus rufusater

NZ Status: Endemic (only found in NZ)

Conservation Status (NZTCS): At Risk / Recovering

Found: Taranga (Hen) Island has the only remaining natural population; translocated populations now on offshore islands and mainland sanctuaries.

Threats: Predation

Did you know? Māori named tīeke​ (pronounced te-eh-keh) for their loud, staccato-like calls.

North Island Saddleback
Photo Credit: Janice McKenna

The tīeke or saddleback, is a member of the Callaeidae family comprised only of the tīeke, kokako, and the extinct huia. This family are also called wattlebirds, for their characteristic fleshy wattles found on either side of their beak, however they are not related to the Australian wattlebirds. There are two separate species of tīeke, the North Island saddleback (Philesturnus rufusater) and the South Island Saddleback (Philesturnus carunculatus).

The tīeke is a glossy, black, medium-sized bird with a distinctive copper ‘saddle’ on its back and red fleshy wattles at base of its bill. Tīeke are poor flyers and mostly bound along branches or hop around the ground like a squirrel. They feed mainly on invertebrates pulled out from under bark, rotten logs, or the forest litter.

These birds are one of New Zealand’s greatest conservation success stories. Once widespread throughout the mainland and offshore islands, they declined in the 1800s following the spread of rats and feral cats. By the early 1900s, the North Island tīeke was extinct everywhere except for tiny Taranga (Hen) Island.  From the 1960's onwards, small tīeke populations were translocated to many predator free offshore islands around the country.  In 2002 ZEALANDIA recieved the first translocation of tīeke to a mainland sanctuary site. The birds bred succesfully and in October 2014 volunteers discovered a nest outside of the sanctuary’s predator proof fence. This was the first sign of tīeke nesting outside a sanctuary, on mainland New Zealand, for over a century.

According to Māori tradition, the saddle marking on the tīeke was caused by the demi-god, Māui. Made thirsty by the heat of the sun, Māui asked the tīeke to fetch him some water but the bird ignored him. This irritated Māui and he seize the bird with his hot hands, singeing the feathers on its back.

Look for them: The best way to find tīeke at ZEALANDIA is to listen for their distinctive, laughter-like calls and try to spot them bounding from branch to branch.