Hungry Takahē and Happy Ambassadors

Department of Conservation —  30/04/2021

Have you seen a takahē before? If so, you are one very lucky person. There are just under 450 takahē on the planet, making them an endangered species! Brittany Florence-Bennett and Elizabeth Werner, the 2020-2021 BLAKE Department of Conservation Takahē Ambassadors, managed to meet around 50 of these rare manu (birds) in just over five days. Read what they got up to in their first few days at DOC’s Takahē Recovery Programme’s Burwood Takahē Centre below.

📷: Elizabeth was closely watched by a hungry pair of takahē (chick on the right and parent on the left). They patiently waited for their hoppers to be cleaned and refilled.

Feeding takahē

The Burwood Takahē Centre is the hub of the Takahē Recovery Programme. The Centre was established in 1985 to incubate eggs and hand rear chicks from the wild. It is now home to up to 23 breeding pairs and their offspring, the majority of which will be released into the wild.

During our first day at Burwood we were able to assist with some of the supplementary feeding. Although the breeding pens closely approximate their wild habitat in the Murchison Mountains, takahē are also provided pellets (specially formulated by Massey University) to ensure they receive sufficient nutritious food throughout the year and don’t browse the tussock in their pens too heavily. These pellets supplement their natural diet of starchy bases of tussock and sedge plants, grass seeds, and fern and sedge rhizomes.

Before we entered the takahē enclosure (takahē home, surrounded by a predator-proof fence) we sterilized our boots in a foot bath. As there are multiple large pens across the centre cleaning our boots eliminates the risk of bacteria or viruses spreading between the enclosures, and reduces the risk of disease to the takahē.

On entry we were greeted by a family of takahē; two parents and a chick. Each enclosure at Burwood is sectioned off so every takahē family has their own space. We visited every internal pen inside these enclosures and cleaned the hoppers (bird feeders), and then replenished them with takahē pellets. Our favourite takahē family was the largest family, two foster parents and four chicks (busy parents), they were very welcoming and were unashamedly impatient for food!

📷: A DOC150 trap guarding the predator-proof fence at one of the original Downhill Pens.

Re-baiting traps to protect takahē

After assisting with feed out, we had our first taste test of re-baiting traps. There are two lines of defence at Burwood: (1) the predator-proof fence, custom built to keep out any climbing stoats; and (2) an active network of internal traps ready to capture any gymnasts that make it inside.

Although takahē are larger than your average native bird, they are still vulnerable to stoats (and feral cats). It is important to keep the network of traps inside the takahē enclosures active in order to catch any mammalian predators looking for a snack. On this particular day we were tasked with re-baiting the internal traps of three of the original enclosures located close to base (known as the Downhill Pens). Each wooden trap box was armed with either a DOC150 or DOC200. We serviced each box by shutting the trap manually or setting it off with a short length of hose. Once these were safe for our hands to be around, we placed a fresh cube of rabbit meat (acts as a smell lure), and a fresh egg in each box (visual lure). Traps were reset and lids safely screwed shut.

Another important task of the Burwood DOC Takahē Rangers is regularly checking the predator-proof fence to ensure there are no holes present that predators may sneak through. During our time at Burwood we were tasked with checking the fence of the Top Pen. This is one of the larger takahē enclosures at Burwood. We completed this task by walking the external perimeter of the fence whilst keeping a sharp eye on the wire netting and plastic strips that prevent animals from climbing over. The Top Pen boasts an updated fence design, resulting in a fence almost twice the height of that seen in the original Downhill Pens, and the move away from electric fencing to plastic strips that animals are unable to climb. During our check we discovered a hole that was a biosecurity risk. The hole was patched up promptly that same day.

📷: One of the disused takahē chick monitoring boxes. The hand painted wall art depicts an adult takahē sitting on a red tussock nest. In the bottom left of the picture is a takahē-shaped incubator

attached to a rope pulley system. In the past, small fuzzy takahē chicks would have been kept underneath this warmer.

Old takahē hand-rearing unit

Early in our stay were shown the old takahē hand-rearing set-up, where chicks were raised by DOC staff using puppets and models. This methodology of removing one of the two eggs produced by takahē in the wild was used to stimulate population growth. Wild takahē would lay two eggs, however only one egg tended to survive. To bolster population growth, DOC Rangers would remove this extra egg and bring it to Burwood to be incubated and hand-reared before returning the chicks to the wild at one year of age. This allows the takahē parents to concentrate all their time and energy into successfully hatching and raising a single chick. 

At the Brooder Unit we were shown the metal takahē-shaped models, each with a hidden heat lamp and a speaker producing “takahē-mum” sounds, that were used to incubate chicks. Also present were the takahē puppets that were used to feed the chicks to stop them from imprinting on their human feeders. What was impressive about the entire rearing set-up was that each incubation unit was hand painted to look like a different red tussock environment (how cool is that?!). Red tussock grasslands are where takahē tend to live in the wild as they provide a major source of food. This hand-rearing methodology is no longer in use, with chicks now preferentially being raised by their own parents or by foster parents.

📷: Elizabeth (left) and Brittany (right) tackle the invasive Scotch broom, Cytisus scoparius, inside Base Pen.

Broom weeding

On our last day at Burwood we were tasked with removing the invasive Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) both inside and outside the takahē pens. Weeding is another important role in a Burwood Rangers’ job, as it helps to maintain and encourage native flora growth within the takahē pens and stops invasive species from establishing. Removing invasive broom from inside the takahē pens is crucial because it is a very hardy species that, once established, is very difficult to remove. There is a buffer zone along the outside of the fence lines that is also weeded to decrease the chance of broom coming to seed and blowing inside the pen.

We started our day weeding around the outside of the Summer Pens where we were able to target some of the larger and more established broom trees located further from the fence line. We were able to dig out most of the broom within the buffer with shovels, or even pull it out with our hands, but the established trees required hand sawing and pasting. Once we had walked and weeded the entire perimeter, we moved on to weeding the internal pens at Base Pen. After removing a pile of broom nearly as wide and tall as us we feel like C. scoparius weeding experts, and we are ready to tackle more back home in Wellington! 

If you are looking to do some of your broom weeding, make sure you do your research! Many New Zealanders are unaware that we actually have 23 endemic species of broom, which are only found here, in Aotearoa. While we were removing C. scoparius at Burwood we came across two endemic broom species ourselves but we were unfortunately too focused on our task to properly identify them. Rest assured they were not pulled out. We would highly recommend looking up our country’s native broom species because you’ll be shocked by their unusual beauty. Many native species of broom are declining and need our help so being aware of what they look like, and knowing how you can support each species is key to their population growth. Removing competing species such as C. scoparius is a great way to help out.