Takahē is a big and beautiful flightless bird, endemic to New Zealand, and the largest living member of the rail family. Thought to have become extinct in the late 1800s’, they were dramatically rediscovered on 20 November 1948 by Geoffrey Orbell, a New Zealand doctor, near Lake Te Anau, in an isolated valley in the South Island’s Murchison Mountains in the Fiordland National Park.
Although the location was declared a special area and was closed to public access, soon it became evident that they were in need of special management for survival. Finally, due to the continuous effort of the Department of Conservation and different community groups, the takahē found protection in Fiordland National Park, where their population has a successful degree of reproductive output.
With an average length of around two feet and weighing 2.7 kg in males and 2.3 kg in females, the takahē is the largest living member of the family Rallidae. With a standing height of around two feet, it is a stocky and powerful bird, with short strong legs and a massive bill. Although flightless, the takahē sometimes uses its reduced wings to help it clamber up the slopes. Adult takahē is a colourful bird with silky plumage, mostly brilliant blue on the head, neck, and underside, peacock blue on the wings, and white under the tail. It has a large red bill, surmounted by a bright scarlet frontal shield, protruding from the forehead. While the immature takahē has a duller version of adult colouring, the chicks are covered with jet-black fluffy down when hatched and have very large brown legs with a dark white-tipped bill.
The takahē is a sedentary and noisy bird. Their main calls are loud shrieks, while the contact call is a quiet hooting which is comparatively resonant and deeper, and a non-directional muted boom indicating alarm. They feed on alpine grass species called snow tussock and use their strong beaks to cut and strip seeds from the tough blades. They can often be seen plucking a tall and slender snow grass stalk, taking it into one claw, and eating only the soft lower parts, which appears to be its favourite food.
However, they opportunistically also consume protein in the form of large insects like moths, beetles, weta, lizards, even rarely ducklings. During the harsh winter days when snow covers the tussock, takahē move down to forested areas for shelter and to feed on fernrhizomes. Again, with the advent of spring, when the snow melts, takahē return to the grasslands to make nests among the tussocks.
The takahē is monogamous, lives in pairs, and builds a bulky nest under bushes and scrub. Pairs instinctively defend their breeding territory by calling or fighting if necessary and usually return to the same areas each year.
In the lower altitude sites nesting begins in September, when one to three buff coloured eggs with reddish-purplish blotchesare laid two days apart. Although the male and female share incubation and chick-rearing equally, unfortunately, the chick survival rate is between 25% and 80%, depending on location. The black and downy chicks stay in the nest for about a week, and as they become stronger, they climb out and follow their parents, begging for food. During cold or wet weather, the chicks are confined in the nest, while the parents provide them the tussock shoots with the tougher outer leaves peeled off. Usually, the young stay with their parents until just before the next breeding season or stay for a second year.
The formerly widespread takahē was on the verge of near extinction due to the loss of habitat, over-hunting, and introduced predators. Due to competition from Fiodrland domestic deer, the population of the bird dwindled from 400 to 118 in 1982. Although it found protection in the Fiordland National Park, the largest national park of New Zealand, the recovery efforts were mainly hampered especially by the low fertility of the remaining birds. However, the result of the management development reflected a positive effect, when the population of 263 at the beginning of 2013 rose to 347 in 2017 and became 418 in 2019.