From a distance, you may find yourself asking – ‘pūkeko or takahē?’ But upon closer inspection, the striking shades of blue, turquoise and olive-green plumage, their ,much larger size, and inability to fly are a dead giveaway. Today we are celebrating all things takahē, from their famous rediscovery in 1948, after they were presumed extinct for around 50 years, to their growing population of nearly 450 birds alive today.

Zoo-keeping is a very niche set of skills, skills which are used to help save, monitor and discover everything we can about New Zealand’s most endangered species – from invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, to birds and marine mammals, and even species far and wide all over the globe. Auckland Zoo bird keepers Devon and Chris, have been honing those special skills for a combined total of 17 years, and have chosen to use them to help save the nationally vulnerable takahē.


We're helping to safeguard the rare takahē!

Follow our bird keepers Chris and Devon as they perform health checks, vaccinations, and transmitter changes on Motutapu Island

“Working at the zoo we’ve gained experience with lots of bird handling skills, on a regular basis we use those to check the health of our own birds. It’s a nice skill to be able to transfer out into the field and use with the populations out here,” Devon said.

On what would usually be a late-Summer’s morning, (but instead due to the Covid-19 pandemic, on a colder, mid-July morning) Chris and Devon ventured out to the stunning Motutapu Island for three days, to perform health checks, vaccinations, and transmitter changes on the rare takahē. This predator-free island is one of a number of sanctuary sites with a monitored takahē population, helping to ensure the genetic security of the species. The aim is to process as many birds as possible, with a focus on the juveniles that have never been checked before.

“Over our trip we want to get hands on with as many birds as we can. We’ll give them a full once over, make sure they’re sensible weights, we’ll be taking a few blood samples and we’ll also take faecal samples to do some further health testing,” Devon said.

Catching the birds is half the work – pens are created of green shade cloth with an inviting ramp laden in the takahē’s favourite pellets. Department of Conservation (DOC) Ranger Hazel Speed spends a lot of her week living on this island, monitoring the takahē, and priming them for this very occasion. Filling up hoppers with their favourite pellets, getting them used to the shaking sounds and hopper lid sounds, and recognising Hazel as a friendly face. Once an individual takahē has walked themselves into the pen, and finds themselves unable to leave, Devon and Chris come in with their bird-handling, and health-checking skills, to process the birds in a place where they will be most comfortable, and as quickly as possible to keep the stress to a minimum.

“The reason takahē are able to be on islands like this is because they are predator-free, and that’s something that New Zealand is hoping to be country-wide, but until that point they need to remain on islands like this, so one thing we can do is everybody can be trapping, everybody should be wanting to eradicate all these mammalian pests so we can give all the wild places back to our native and endemic species,” Chris said.

The days spent on these islands are a combination of ‘all go’, and silently, patiently playing a waiting game – there isn’t really much of an in-between. They can be challenging long days, but the joy of doing something you’re good at, and feeling privileged to be involved in – well, the passion is simply palpable.

“I wanted to become a zookeeper in order to help the animals that we look after in the zoo, out in the wild, I never thought I’d be able to do something like this, but it’s happened and it’s awesome,” Chris said.

“Being able to come out to places like this is really motivating, it’s the sort of thing I was really keen to get into since I was little, helping out our endangered endemic species, giving them an extra boost to their population and being able to see our work make a difference. It’s lovely to be able to come back every year and see those numbers getting bigger and bigger,” Devon said.

DOC’s Takahē Recovery Programme has a vision – to see takahē exist in growing numbers in large areas of their former natural range as a functioning element of natural ecosystems. This means – an intensively managed breeding programme, genetic management, research, monitoring, wild releases and island translocations, and predator and pest control. Auckland Zoo is proud to be involved in monitoring and health checking takahē from their managed breeding programmes and northern ‘sanctuary’ sites as well as assisting with veterinary care at our Auckland Zoo Vet Hospital.