It’s been a 200-hundred year exile, but, finally, the world’s rarest duck, the Campbell Island teal, has returned to its rightful home.
Fifty of these critically endangered ducks have been successfully reintroduced to the sub-Antarctic island, the Department of Conservation says. “It has been the perfect ending to more than 17 years of hard work,” says DOC’s Pete McClelland.
The Campbell Island teal was thought to be extinct for more than a hundred years, but a small population, which had survived on Dent Island, a tiny rat-free refuge just off the coast of Campbell Island, was rediscovered in 1972.
The recovery for the birds, which still number less than 100, started in 1984 when four birds were brought back to New Zealand from Dent Island. But it wasn’t until more than ten years later in 1995 that the first breeding occurred. And only one female from Dent Island, a bird named Daisy, ever bred. Daisy, who died in 2002, produced a prodigious 24 ducklings which in turn produced another 39. By March 2000 the captive population had risen to 60. The captive breeding had started none too soon; by 1997 the wild population on Dent Island has declined to just three birds.
The Campbell Island teal is one of only three ducks in the world that does not fly. According to DOC’s website, the birds have distinctively long claws and short, stiff tail feathers, which enable them to climb up steep cliffs and crawl through dense vegetation. The bird is also nocturnal and survives in the inhospitable environment that is Campbell Island. The island is surrounded by 200-metre high cliffs and is battered by wind and rain almost all year round, and has an average temperature of just 6 degrees Celsius.
Returning the teal to their original home was always part of DOC’s plans, but for many years, the island remained infested with the rats that had wiped out the teal in the first place
So, the next stage of the teal’s story came in the winter of 2001 when DOC undertook an ambitious project to eradicate Campbell Island of the rodents. In May 2003, a survey confirmed that all rats had been removed from the sub-Antarctic island, making Campbell Island the biggest island yet to be rid of rats.
“While the rat eradication was a major undertaking in its own right, it was simply another step in the restoration of this unique island” said Pete McClelland. “Most of this recovery is now taking place without any further input from people, including the recovery of the unique vegetation and invertebrates, and the recolonisation of the main island by a range of smaller seabirds that had been wiped out by the rats.”
A DOC team has spent five weeks on Campbell Island preparing and then monitoring the teal after their release. The birds were under the care of aviculturalist Helen Gummer who has worked with the teal for many years and Auckland Zoo vet Dr Richard Jakob-Hoff who assessed the disease risks to and from other wildlife on the island. A follow up monitoring visit is planned for February 2005 to check on how the teal are settling into their new home.