Spoilt for Choice; Takahē Health Checks and Translocations!

Department of Conservation —  22/04/2021

It has been an eventful week at DOC’s Takahē Recovery Programme’s Burwood Takahē Centre...

The two BLAKE DOC Takahē Ambassadors, Brittany Florence-Bennett and Elizabeth Werner, helped the Takahē Recovery Team capture 15 takahē for a large translocation to Gouland Downs in the Kahurangi National Park. On the same day, Elizabeth spoke to Radio New Zealand presenter Jesse Mulligan about takahē and their recovery. You can listen to that RNZ interview here.

Brittany and Elizabeth were also lucky enough to carry out annual health checks on not just one, but three takahē. It was amazing to be up close and personal with these large flightless birds, all of which were declared healthy!

Elizabeth joins Takahē Recovery Rangers Lisa and James in conducting a general health check on one of the takahē at Burwood Takahē Centre.

Takahē health checks and boosters

Takahē are a taonga species in New Zealand, and following their health is an important way to ensure individuals can contribute to the long-term goal of securing self-sustaining populations in areas of their former natural range. 

You may be wondering what does a takahē health check involve? Well it is very different to seeing a human doctor because takahē are unable to vocalise how they are feeling unlike human patients. It is up to the Takahē Recovery Rangers to take cues from the physical appearance of a takahē to see if they are happy and healthy.

Takahē health checks involve:

  • Checking the beak for nostril discharge and abrasion making sure they haven’t damaged it by scraping or fighting;
  • Checking the feathers around their beak – missing feathers could indicate they aren’t getting along with another takahē and may need to be separated;
  • Checking for weeping or cloudiness in the eyes – this may indicate damage from vegetation, fighting, or infection;
  • Checking their ears – for inflammation, discharge, occlusions, or mites;
  • Checking their feet and legs – cracks, cuts, swelling, and deformities need to be watched for infection;
  • Making sure the cloaca isn’t messy, inflamed, or abnormal looking – this could indicate an internal problem, illness, or a prolapse;
  • Running a hand along their keel/ridge of breastbone – this can be used to indicate whether they are of a healthy weight or not. If the keel feels pointy they may not have excess fat or tissue around the breast bone, which can mean they are underweight and need to be weighed to check their actual weight. The normal weight range in takahē is 2- 3 kg, with males tending to be heavier.
  • Checking that transmitters aren’t too loose or too tight – we don’t want them falling off or rubbing. Transmitters are unique to each bird and help takahē rangers relocate them in the wild!
  • Checking bands – not loose or open, causing rubbing
  • Feather condition – dull/damaged feathers often a sign of ill health.
  • Listening to breathing – regular, not raspy or “wet”
  • Weight – losing weight may be the first indication a takahē is unwell

We ran through this checklist on each bird and can happily confirm that all three takahē were in great condition! 
At the end of the health check, the Takahē Recovery Rangers gave each bird a single vaccination. These booster shots are to protect against Erysipelas, which is a bacteria that can cause fatal infection in takahē. Unfortunately the bacteria is present throughout the environment, so the vaccination is the only protection against this disease. Every takahē matters, so each year all captive birds, and vulnerable wild birds, receive a single booster shot. Chicks receive two vaccination shots within a fortnight in their first year, and in subsequent years they receive a single booster shot. Additional shots are also given to birds before travel to reduce the risk of disease spread among populations. Two out of the three takahē received their pre-travel vaccinations because they were being relocated to a new environment, and this can mean new threats to their immune system.

DOC Rangers Jas and Phil place one of the fifteen takahē in a transfer box, ready to fly to their new home in Gouland Downs in the Kahurangi National Park.

Takahē translocation

Luckily for us, a large translocation of takahē due to leave the previous week was delayed due to unsuitable flying weather. Instead the translocation landed smack-bang right in the middle of our week at Burwood! A total of fifteen takahē were leaving the centre to join an established population in the Kahurangi National Park. Once captured, the birds would be driven to Invercargill to catch a flight on Air New Zealand to Nelson, where they would then be transferred into a helicopter to take the final leg of their journey to Gouland Downs. They would be joining takahē previously translocated to the region in 2018.

As this was a large translocation, the Burwood Takahē Recovery Rangers (James, Lisa, and Tommy) were joined by the rest of the Te Anau Takahē Recovery Team (Rangers Nichy, Jas, and Phil) to assist with the capturing and processing of birds. The first order of the day was grabbing the fifteen transfer boxes from the Brooder Unit to take to Base Pen, where the takahē were being held in anticipation of their transfer.

Now you may be asking, how does one capture individual takahē in large, vegetative pens? The answer is by herding them into a corner using a “clapping line”. Essentially, the DOC Rangers lined up and walked across each pen slowly clapping to herd the takahē into a chosen corner where they were then able to safely grab individuals. As the internal pens often had multiple takahē this required sharp eyesight to see where the birds were moving and if they would make it through any breaks in the line. The DOC staff were beady eyed and efficient and only a few birds required a second go! Although Elizabeth and I were not directly involved with capturing the birds, we did assist as back up to the “clapping line” to breach any gaps that the takahē may run through.

Once caught each takahē was gently placed into its own transfer box ready for travel. As the translocation had previously been planned for the week before, all takahē had already received their pre-travel vaccination and undergone a full health check. Only two of the takahē were reweighed to double check their condition before being boxed. We learnt that a healthy female should sit above 2kg, and males, as more robust birds, should sit above 2.4kg. Both of the birds passed the weight check and were placed in their transfer boxes. If the takahē had been deemed too light to participate in the translocation, they would have remained at Burwood Takahē Centre until their fatty stores had increased and their weight was less of a concern for their success in the wild.

All of the takahē translocated were raised at Burwood, and were about two years old. So this was a bittersweet goodbye for the rangers.