There is a notion, invoked if rarely uttered, in Department of Conservation corridors: ‘No species left behind’.
Right here, on this arrow of asphalt, shot straight through the ryegrass of mid-Canterbury, it seems to me that we’ve already left one little bird far, far behind. Straggling, struggling, it is surely the species that will, if we don’t go back for it, be our next extinction.
I’m on my way to one of the bird’s last toeholds—the Hawdon Valley, just east of Arthur’s Pass. In the early 1800s, when New Zealand’s forests still stood, settlers were just about tripping over orange-fronted parakeets, and nowhere more so than here. Every few years, when the foothill forests masted—producing a higher-than-normal crop of seeds—the birds would breed up large, serially, until the cornucopia was spent. Then they would raid the lowlands. Orchardists shot them in droves.
The orange-fronted parakeet, Cyanoramphus malherbi, has already been extinct twice. By the end of the 19th century, they were still “fairly represented” in the plundering flocks, but by then, noted locals, they were “nowhere as common” as their yellow-crowned or red-crowned kin. In 1919, Otago naturalist Alfred Philpott was the first to fret for the orange-fronted parakeet.
“The three species of Cyanoramphus which were once so common in Otago are now seldom seen or heard in the small forests. Cyanoramphus malherbi … which was never so abundant as the other two, is in all probability extinct.”
It wasn’t, but there were just six more sightings that century. In 1965, one was spotted in the D’Urville Valley near Nelson. After that, the species suffered the further indignity of being declared extinct again.
No one’s really sure, but the suspicion is that orange-fronted parakeets were once birds of the Canterbury forests, ranging from the high, humid beech terraces of Springfield to the tōtara and mataī stands of the Waimakariri. Those forests are gone, and the birds now linger, quite possibly by historical accident, in just three beech valleys: the Hawdon and Poulter in Arthur’s Pass National Park and the south branch of the Hurunui in Lake Sumner Forest Park.
Andy Grant, who is DOC’s recovery group leader for orange-fronted parakeets, remembers walking through the sunlit beech forest of the Hurunui in 1999.
“There were parakeets everywhere, and half of them were orange-fronts. But within just a few months, after rats plagued that summer, the population disappeared. Now, it’s practically impossible to find parakeets in there. That really opened my eyes to just how quickly a bird can decline, especially these vulnerable boom-and-bust species.”
Whatever their hue or highlight, all our Cyanoramphus parakeets are in some kind of peril. The red-crowned kākāriki prospers only on offshore islands. Yellow-crowns are safest on islands, too, although they are also still holding on in some mainland forests.
Grant thinks the three species once occupied discrete niches on the mainland.
“The red-crowns used to occupy the forest floor and lower canopy, the yellow-crowns were in the high canopy, while the orange-fronts, we think, were mid-canopy, understorey feeders. If you look at what’s happened on the mainland after the predators arrived, there are no red-crowns left, because being ground-feeders, they were the most vulnerable. Orange-fronts were next to go, because they were in the understorey and because deer browsing got rid of a lot of their habitat. But the yellow-crowns are still out of the way of predators high in the canopy, which is still pretty much intact. That’s why we think there’s been that differential survival, and why red-crowns are only thriving on predator-free islands, because they can safely fossick around on the ground.”
For much of its brush with the human race, the orange-fronted parakeet has struggled for its own validity. It was introduced to science as a distinct species in 1857, by ornithologist Charles de Souancé at the Metz Museum in Metz, north-eastern France. Remembering where his pay cheque came from, Souancé named the corpse Cyanoramphus malherbi, after his boss, Alfred Malherbe. Taxonomists have bickered over the bird’s identity ever since. In 1869, Walter Buller, apparently cocking a snook at Souancé, described the species all over again, calling it Platycercus alpinus, the alpine parakeet. The name didn’t stick, but until the late 1980s, many researchers insisted the parakeet was simply an orange flush on the yellow-crowned spectrum.
In 1980, the argument suddenly stopped being academic. The bird was rediscovered—in some numbers—in North Canterbury’s Hope Valley.
Modern DNA mapping finally delivered selfhood. It turned out that the orange-front is most closely related to the Antipodes Island parakeet.
“It looks as though there were two streams of parakeet invasions into New Zealand,” says Grant, “one from the top and one from the bottom. And orange-fronts are part of that southern invasion.”
Last year, the bird’s chance of survival was reclassified to the most pessimistic, ‘nationally critical’.
For Andrew Legault, science adviser to the recovery programme, it’s a heavy responsibility. This quiet-spoken, pensive Canadian must somehow wrest the kākāriki karaka from the teeth of oblivion—and every now and again, you get an inkling of the weight upon him.
At the wheel of a little Honda side-by-side, he picks a line through tongues of old, wet snow as we lurch up the Hawdon, bouncing in and out of streambeds. At the valley’s head, the Polar Range is smudged by the white noise of a frontal flurry. Legault points out the difference in the beech forest that cloaks these foothills: the silvery grey of the mountain beech, riven by tracts of olivine red beech. Orange-fronts will frequent both, but they prefer red beech, he tells me, because it’s a lavish setter of seeds many times bigger and more nutritious than mountain beech. But no one knows if this is where the parakeets have settled by choice, or whether it’s just a third-rate port in a storm that may yet wipe them from the face of the Earth.
The Honda saves us a 90-minute walk to the trail’s end, where DOC has installed a bivvy to house the field teams that work here. Within minutes of arriving, I’m excited to hear, plain as day, a kākāriki call, but Legault and Grant don’t even look up from their work. I alert them to the sound, and they try, and fail, to subdue grins. Ranger Simon Elkington cups his hands to his mouth and lets go another dead ringer for the chatter of a parakeet.
Grant, who’s done this since the days of the Wildlife Service, is pointing out the natter of brown creepers overhead, then, promisingly, the calls of two mōhua. In the days before Rattus rattus, forest birds of many species used to forage in superflocks. Orange-fronts still like to, and while two mōhua are a sad apology for a flock, surely enough, there comes a flash of verdant green following behind.
Binoculars are raised as one, and decades of collective field experience confirm it’s an orange front.
“White-orange, yellow-metal,” says Elkington, while I’m still trying to find the bird in my binoculars. Those bands tell him this was once a captive bird, raised at the Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust just outside Christchurch. I’ve seen the creature I came here for. More than that, I’ve seen one of the most vexing problems with managing this species—it’s little more than a silent silhouette, high in the canopy, glimpsed briefly.
“It’s a really tricky species to study,” says Legault. “The fact that it hangs around with yellow-crowned parakeets makes it difficult to know which one you’re looking at. If you’re not 100 per cent sure, it puts a question mark around your observations.”
The few remaining wild orange-fronts don’t have leg bands, because in the past, parakeets have died of stress when caught in mist nets. This brings a whole other set of research hurdles.
It’s all but impossible to know how many survive—Legault thinks there are “fewer than a hundred” left on the mainland. “We’re getting to the point where we don’t have many wild birds left to study,” he says.
He’s concerned that we have no idea if, or where, the birds roam outside of the breeding season. DOC’s pest-control efforts are concentrated only on the birds’ known haunts, meaning that if they fly one valley over, they won’t be protected.
Even here, amidst this phalanx of traps, some predators won’t be thwarted. Nearby is an old red beech, no longer in any kind of prime, but a pilot line draped from a bough leads my eye to a nest hole where one pair of parakeets successfully nested over 2007–2008. The line is there so that rangers can clip a heavier rope to it, then climb with mechanical ascenders to remove any eggs for the captive breeding programme.
“The trouble is,” says Legault, “that they’ll often nest in old trees that are quite rotten, so you can’t climb them.”
Undaunted, rangers instead fix a line between two solid, adjacent trees, so that they can do a Tyrolean traverse—a sort of suspended shuffle—to get to the nest.
When staff find a nest tree, they nail a slippery band of stainless steel around the trunk so that stoats, rats and possums can’t scale it. But in the season of 2011–2012, something raided this nest—rangers returned to find a single, stressed male and no eggs. As hole nesters, parakeets are pitifully vulnerable; once a predator gets inside, females, who do all the incubation, rarely escape.
This means the withered population is increasingly male. Now, the worry is that an orange-front might not be able to find a mate of its own kind. There’s evidence that some are mating instead with yellow-crowns. The species is breeding away its own essence.
At seeding times, orange-fronts feed high in the beech, but otherwise they spend a lot of time on or near the ground. It’s a habit that sets them apart from their mainland relatives. Youngsters like to prospect in stringy saplings that might recall the kānuka forests they used to call home, and they’ve even been seen in the spiky thickets of matagouri that carpet the river flats.
Their taste for terra firma has been their undoing. When colonists introduced stoats, weasels, ferrets, rats and cats, orange-fronted parakeets had never seen a four-footed mammal. They were easy pickings.
Out on the Hawdon river flats stand stacks of brand-new double traps, fitted with kea-proof stainless-steel doors. They’ll be added to an already-bristling network of DOC 200 and Sentinel traps, says Andy Grant.
“Until now, our pest-control regime has been based upon what mōhua need, which is rats and stoats down to tracking rates below five per cent. But our thinking is that parakeets need an even lower residual pest population, maybe as low as one per cent.”
But the technology to detect that handful of survivors doesn’t exist yet, which might explain the catastrophe that happened after a beech mast in the summer of 2014–2015.
A mast should be a boon to birds, and for a while, the parakeets did what they’ve done for millennia: produce clutch after clutch. In a mast year, says Legault, a pair may just keep on laying eggs, raising broods right through the winter, perhaps producing as many as four clutches. That season, it looked as though the population was going to get a much-needed boost. Then, in October, the beech seed ran out. The Hawdon was now crawling with hungry rats and stoats, which had also bred in large numbers. The following summer, a survey found just three pairs of orange-fronts. The next search found one. “The population basically collapsed,” says Legault.
Which is why the recovery programme now relies heavily on captive-reared birds. Not far from the bivvy is a bird-feeding table that has been predator-proofed. A nearby trail camera records visiting diners, which are often robins, sometimes ruru, sometimes orange-fronted parakeets. The mix on offer is mostly sunflower seeds, high-energy surrogates for the beech seed that otherwise powers breeding season. The table is identical to those at the Isaac Trust, because the orange-fronts that depend upon it were bred there. Previous ‘hard’ releases were, it turned out, just too hard for the city birds, which starved before they could learn the ways of the wild. Nowadays, they’re kept in a transitional aviary here in the forest for a few days, plied with their accustomed diet. Once liberated, the bird feeders ease them into a life of freedom.
“We just have to accept,” says Legault, “that a lot of those birds might have to re-learn how to survive from the few remaining wild birds out there.”
Those captive birds were reared by Anne Richardson, the Isaac Trust’s wildlife manager. Richardson has been rearing endangered species in captivity for 25 years, but the orange-fronted parakeet has been her sternest test.
“They’re really, really difficult,” she says. “They’re completely different to red- and yellow-crowned parakeets, in their behaviour, and in their preferences.”
And chronically accident-prone:
“They do the silliest things. They’ve chewed holes in logs, then gotten their heads stuck and died. They get their legs caught up in foliage and die. We had one that put its head behind the door as it was closing and got its head crushed. It’s amazing. The mortality rate is really high.”
Lucky, then, that Richardson has been able to harness the birds’ remarkable talent for procreation. On an optimised diet, she says, she can coax some pairs to produce six clutches a year. And some females have laid 10 eggs in a clutch, all of them viable.
“In the wild, they don’t breed until about December or January, when there’s more food available. But because we can keep the food coming continuously, and we feed them really well, we can keep them going all year round.”
Some of these birds are machines: in an aviary next door is Gabby, who will lay a clutch in one nest box, hatch them, then fly to another and lay again. Meanwhile, her mate feeds her and both broods.
But this power-assisted proliferation has an intriguing side effect.
“The more food you give them, the more males you get,” says Richardson. “So, it’s a really fine line to tread between numbers and sex ratios.”
If only we could protect them, these birds could pull themselves out of the hole they’re in. In captivity, females can live for 15 years, laying eggs for seven or eight of them, although Richardson says their fertility begins to fail around year eight.
“But we can’t stop them—if we take their nest boxes out, they just lay eggs on the ground.”
Since 2003, the Isaac Trust has reared some 400 orange-fronted parakeets for release back into the wild, either from eggs laid here or hatched by surrogate parents. The idea has always been that DOC would gather up eggs from wild nests and bring them to Richardson, who places them under captive birds, some of them red-crowned parakeets, to hatch and foster.
“We had them going really well,” she says. “We had one pair that always laid infertile eggs, so you couldn’t ask for anything better.”
That pair eventually died, and the surrogacy job duly fell to an old orange-front, Polly—named after her native Poulter Valley.
“She’s about seven or eight years old now. She’s laying infertile eggs, but she’s a really good mum, so we use her for fostering.”
The system works, but the collapse of the Hawdon population and further losses in the south branch of the Hurunui have left the programme teetering.
“When we first started, the valleys were full [of parakeets],” says Richardson. “The plan was that we would only ever breed from wild birds, which we would mix up from the different valleys. That would make sure they were all unrelated.”
To offset the high mortality of captive birds, Richardson needs a constant supply of wild eggs, but that has dwindled.
“We didn’t get any clutches of wild eggs for quite a few years, and meanwhile, our older birds were dying off.”
Finally, last year, she got some eggs, but the foster parents let one clutch die, before raising just two chicks. Now, Richardson is forced to breed successive generations in situ, risking further inbreeding and eroding the genetic fitness of the birds she can still release.
Legault is painfully aware of the impasse. He knows the orange-fronted parakeet might have disappeared from the wild by now without the Isaac Trust. He knows, too, that without wild eggs, the bird’s last hope disappears.
“With so few pairs in the wild, it’s become increasingly difficult just to find nests, let alone accessible ones.”
Legault knows that his every decision will be judged by future generations. So he’s trying to tread a line, taking just half the eggs from wild clutches, and bringing additional wild adult birds from the Poulter Valley into captivity.
“Some people say it’s too risky,” says Richardson, “but they have to risk it or we’re going to lose them.”
You might contend that it doesn’t matter. After all, we still have two other mainland parakeet species, although they’re hardly going gangbusters either. One of them looks much the same, sounds much the same, and lives in the same places. Do we really need to sweat the loss of what, on the face of things, is a variant so subtle that most people wouldn’t even realise it was gone?
It depends on how serious we are about maintaining the ‘diversity’ of biodiversity, says Legault.
“Keeping that is a really important goal. The orange-fronted parakeet may well have genes that the others don’t, and there’s always the risk that some disease or threat might threaten those other species at some stage. Once you lose a species, that’s forever.”
Richardson looks incredulous: “Why would you give up, while there was still something you could do?”
Polly, the ageing governess, clambers with her feet and bill to a perch just above us, bringing me face to face with one of the world’s rarest birds. Above her bill there’s the pumpkin-patch, the karaka, that defines her so, but it’s the play of mutable colour that strikes me most. In the dapple of the aviary, her plumage is a lustrous wash of cyan on emerald. But when she moves into the light, she twinkles like something tropical. Her greens turn to saturated lime, and there, under her coverts, is the orange smudge a field worker would look for. Her primaries, electric blue, glow like luminescence.
Richardson is right. How could we let this bird fade to black?