By Alison Ballance
There are just over a hundred hihi on Kapiti Island – and between them they get through three-quarters of a tonne of raw sugar each year.
Hihi, or stitchbirds, are one of New Zealand’s rarest birds. They were introduced to Kapiti Island 30 years ago, from their only naturally occurring wild population on Hauturu-Little Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Hihi were formerly widespread through the North Island and on larger northern islands, but introduced predators and habitat change saw them become almost extinct.
Hihi are 'honeyeaters', in that they eat nectar – but they are not closely related to tui and bellbird. In 2007, genetic analysis showed they were more closely related to the kokako family than to true honeyeaters, and they were assigned their own new passerine family, the Notiomystidae.
Hihi are fed sugar water to supplement their wild diet, as otherwise they struggle to breed at the five sites where they have been translocated. This is probably because the forest at these sites is either recovering from previous modification or is largely replanted, and the quality of food may therefore not be high enough. The original Hauturu population is not supplementary fed and is thriving in the island’s unmodified forests.
Department of Conservation ranger Nick Fisentzidis is responsible for the hihi supplementary programme on Kapiti Island, north of Wellington. It is a big job feeding the island’s hihi, and he says he can’t hope to cover the whole large island, so he operates a core network of feeders that he keeps well supplied with sugar water during the breeding season, as well as some outlying feeders that are topped up less regularly.
Bellbirds are also able to access the feeding stations, although the larger tui are excluded. Hygiene is critical as stitchbirds are very susceptible to disease.
Hihi are recognisable by their distinctive cocked tail. Females are brown, while the males have a striking black head and yellow chest band, and distinctive white eyebrows that they flick out when they are alarmed or acting territorially.
They make a sharp high-pitched call that is described as tzit tzit.
At the beginning of the 2014-15 summer breeding season the hihi population numbered 104 marked birds. Since then Nick has banded an additional 15 young birds from the 2013-14 breeding season that missed being banded last year.
Places to see Hihi
Hihi are now found in five sanctuaries, as well as on Hauturu-Little Barrier Island, which is not open to the general public.
Zealandia Sanctuary, Wellington – a fenced mainland island in central Wellington.
Bushy Park – a predator-free sanctuary near Whanganui
Maungatautari – a fenced sanctuary in the South Waikato.