Habitat Tours' bird of the month: The Saddleback
This month, the bird of the month is the saddleback, also known as the tieke. This species belongs to the wattlebird family, and actually has two distinct species – the North Island and South Island saddlebacks.
Fun facts about the saddleback
The saddleback is an extremely easy bird to recognise thanks to the bright burnt red colour splashed across its back, on the tip of the tail and on the wattles.
If you don’t see them first, you will likely hear them, as the tieke is known for being quite vocal. The males in particular are very noisy when sorting out disputes and during mating season.
You can see the saddleback in only a few places on the mainland or out on one of the protected islands. The best place to spot one in the wild is likely at Tawharanui behind the predator-proof fence. We visit this area during many of our day tours from Auckland, and occasionally get a glimpse of this rare bird.
Like many of New Zealand’s species, the saddleback has struggled with its population. There was a time when there were no tieke to be found anywhere on the mainland, when both the North and South Island species were endangered almost to the point of extinction. At that time, you could only find them on three small islands off the coast of the South, and in limited places off the coast of the North. Much of the threats to the species come in the form of pests such as rats.
Fortunately, the NZ Wildlife Service undertook a bold move by translocating the remaining birds from Hen Island to Whatapuke Island in the North, and from similarly rat-infested islands to predator-free ones in the South. As a result, there are now more than 700 saddlebacks in New Zealand – all of which stem from just 36 individuals back in the 1960s.
The stuff of legend
One thing we particularly love about the saddleback is that it even has its own place in Maori legend. The most well-known character from Maori legends is Maui, and as the story goes, Maui had a pet tieke.
The tieke would sit on Maui’s shoulder and keep him company as Maui made plans to make more sunlight hours each day by crafting a net and using it to catch the sun as it passed overhead.
When the time came to capture the sun, Maui’s pet tieke was there once again. However, as the heat from the sun become too hot and started to burn Maui’s hands, he repeatedly told the bird to go home, as he feared its feathers would catch fire. When the tieke refused to listen, Maui used his burned hands to grab the tieke and throw him back to earth.
That’s why, to this day, the saddleback has a distinct red patch across its back.
Tristan Cullen - Passionate Conservationist