National Geographic : 1952 Mar
Finding an "Extinct" New Zealand Bird Rediscovered by a Persevering Doctor, the Flightless, Colorful Takahe, or "Wanderer," Struggles to Survive BY R. V. FRANCIS SMITH IN New Zealand's rugged Fiordland a bird thought extinct for fifty years is struggling for survival. Behind the rare species in its fight for life is all the protective power of the Dominion Government. Rediscovery of this flightless bird, the large, brilliant-hued native rail which the Maoris called takahea, meaning "wandering at large," excited almost as much interest in New Zea land as discovery of a living passenger pigeon would arouse in America. To zoologists and bird lovers throughout the world, reappearance of takahea, now called the takahe, was a notable event. They had a scientific name for the creature-Notornis hochstetteri, the first half of which means "bird of the south"-but they knew tantaliz ingly little about it and had considered it lost in the limbo of vanished species. To the rediscoverer, Dr. G. B. Orbell, a physician of Invercargill, New Zealand, the dramatic sight of a takahe alive came as the reward of years of patient and systematic search. Only four of the birds were known to science when he made his discovery on the shore of a lake in what is now called Notornis Valley (map, page 394). Since August, 1898, there had been no authentic report of one being caught, or even seen. Futile Wings Have Three-foot Span A primitive type of large moor hen found only in New Zealand, the takahe is unlike any other member of the world-wide rail family to which it belongs. For example, despite its membership in an aquatic family, it avoids swamps and rivers. It does, however, share some of the clan's characteristics, such as a large frontal shield (page 396). The full-grown takahe stands some twenty inches high and weighs about six pounds. The wings, though incapable of flight, may have a three-foot span. The adult bird is vividly colored. Head, neck, breast, and flanks are an iridescent in digo blue, becoming brighter on the shoul ders and changing to a malachite green on the mantle. The dark rump and upper tail coverts are olive green, the abdomen and thighs purplish black, and the under tail coverts white. The powerful beak is scarlet at the base, fading outwards to a wax pink. Legs and feet are red, eyes reddish brown. This brilliant color scheme is seen to full advantage only when the bird is approaching the observer or passing at right angles to him. In contrast to its showy parents, the young takahe wears only a uniform, soft black down (page 395). The black beak is white-tipped, and the disproportionately large legs are a pale purple. In New Zealand's ornithological history, ex tinction, or near extinction, has been the lot of many species as a result of settlement. Originally, native birds had no enemies, and the vegetation which affords them cover was not subject to browsing by animals. Under these favorable conditions many unusual forms of life, including birds of little or no power of flight, were able to survive and thrive. Vanished Birds Include 12-foot Moa Before the arrival of Capt. James Cook in 1769, birds were the dominant land verte brates. The only land mammals were the dog, a Polynesian rat, and two species of bats. The dog and rat had been introduced by the Maoris on their second migration, about A. D. 1150.* After the Maoris had caused the extinction of the huge flightless moa, one species of which was twelve feet high, European settlement brought about more extensive changes. Fer rets, stoats, and weasels were introduced to control a plague of rabbits, and these, with cats, dogs, and other predators, virtually sealed the fate of numerous native species, among them the takahe. The first living takahe known to Europeans was purposely killed and eaten. It was caught by a sealing gang on Resolution Island, near the southwest end of South Island, in 1849. Two years later a party of Maoris caught a second bird in Thompson Sound, about forty miles farther north. Luckily, the skins of both birds were ob tained by Mr. W. D. B. Mantell, who in 1847 had discovered the semifossil remains of the North Island variety (duly named Notornis mantelli by Sir Richard Owen, of London). The skins were sent to the British Museum. Twenty-eight years passed before another specimen appeared. A rabbiter's dog caught it near the south end of Lake Te Anau. The bird was destined for the cooking pot when * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "The Columbus of the Pacific: Captain James Cook," by J. R . Hildebrand, January, 1927; and "Tuatara: 'Living Fossils' Walk on Well-Nigh Inaccessible Rocky Islands off the Coast of New Zealand," by Frieda Cobb Blanchard, May, 1935.