New Zealand’s ‘grey ghost’, the South Island kokako, is soon to become officially extinct.

In the draft of its triennial review of the status of New Zealand’s wildlife, New Zealand’s conservation agency, the Department of Conservation, has changed the status for the South Island kokako from “nationally critical” to “extinct.”

Rod Hitchmough, species protection officer at DOC’s Biodiversity Recovery Unit, says that the bird hasn’t been seen since the 1960s, although a feather was found on Stewart Island in 1987.

“It is very likely that there were birds around into the 80s and possibly into the 90s, but they don’t live that long and even at that stage, in the 80s, everyone agreed that they were probably the last remnants of populations,” says Hitchmough.

But kokako hunter Rhys Buckingham remains confident that the South Island kokako is not yet extinct. “I agree that it is more prudent for DOC to put the funds into saving the North Island subspecies, but [it is] still disappointing that they list the South Island kokako as extinct rather than admit that it is in the ‘too hard basket’,” he writes on the Kokako Search bulletin board. “DOC have not given South Island kokako more than cursory attention, and now we may never know whether they have the ability to save this bird.”

Buckingham points out that there have been remarkable returns from the supposedly dead. The takahe was rediscovered in Fiordland in 1948; the Campbell Island teal was found in the 1970s sheltering on a small sub-Antarctic island and just last year two British birdwatchers photographed the New Zealand storm petrel in the Hauraki Gulf, a bird last seen in 1850.

The South Island kokako and its North Island cousin belong to a family of birds found only in New Zealand, according to the Kokako Recovery website. The South Island kokako was distinguished by its orange or yellow wattles; the North Island bird has blue wattles.

The kokako is known for their distinctive and beautiful songs. For New Zealand farmer John Mackintosh, hearing New Zealand’s songbird on his North Island farm only reinforced his decision to ensure that part of his Bay of Plenty farm remained bush clad and a home for these indigenous birds. “I remember the first time I heard it. There are wild deer in the area and I used to go out early in the morning to watch these deer — they were coming into one of our flat paddocks. I heard this absolutely superb sound and I didn’t know what it was. It was just amazing.”

And even if the South Island kokako is extinct, its North Island cousin is responding to DOC’s care. While at unmanaged sites, the birds are still under threat, but at managed sites, the North Island kokako are recovering. This year, for the first time in more than 60 years, kokako chicks have been hatched in the wild at the Mount Bruce Scenic Reserve and in Hawke’s Bay the new kokako chicks that hatched this year were thought to be the first born there in more than a hundred years.

That gives New Zealand conservationists hope, says DOC’s Rod Hitchmough. “They do responde Wells to active management.”

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