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South Island on the left, North Island on the right.

Endangered (IUCN 3.1)[1] (North Island)

Critically endangered, possibly extinct (IUCN 3.1)[2] (South Island)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Clade: Inopinaves
Order: Passeriformes
Suborder: Passeri
Family: Callaeidae
Genus: Callaeas
J.R. Forster, 1788

Callaeas cinereus cinereus
Callaeas cinereus wilsoni

The Kokakos (Callaeas cinerea) is an endangered forest birds which are endemic to New Zealand. It is slate-grey with wattles and a black mask. It is one of three genera of New Zealand wattlebird, the other two being the near threatened saddlebacks and the extinct Huia. Previously widespread, kōkako populations throughout New Zealand have been decimated by the predations of mammalian invasive species such as possums, stoats, cats and rats and their range has contracted significantly. There are two species of kōkako, North Island and South Island, although the South Island species may be extinct. In the past this bird was called the New Zealand crow: it is not a crow at all, but it looks like one from a distance.


The kokako was first described by German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin in 1788. Its species name is the Latin adjective cinereus "grey". Two species have been described. The species from the South Island is likely to have become extinct.

The kokako appears to be a remnant of an early expansion of passerines in New Zealand and is one of three New Zealand wattlebirds of the family Callaeidae, the others being the endangered saddlebacks, and the extinct Huia. New Zealand wattlebirds have no close relatives apart from the Stitchbird, and their taxonomic relationships to other birds remain to be determined.[3]



North Island kōkako, closeup of head showing blue wattles

The North Island Kokako, Callaeas wilsoni has blue wattles (although this colour develops with age: in the young of this bird they are actually coloured a light pink). The South Island Kokako, Callaeas cinerea, by contrast has largely orange wattles, with only a small patch of blue at the base.


The kōkako has a beautiful, clear, organ-like song. Its call can carry for kilometres. Breeding pairs sing together in a bell-like duet for up to an hour in the early morning. Different populations in different parts of the North Island (if any populations of the South Island kōkako remain they are at present unknown) have distinctly different songs which many people consider analogous with human "dialects" of a given language.

The kōkako is a poor flier and seldom flies more than 100 metres. The wings of this species are relatively short and rounded. It prefers to hop and leap from branch to branch on its powerful grey legs. It does not fly so much as glide and when seen exhibiting this behaviour they will generally scramble up tall trees (frequently New Zealand podocarps such as rimu and matai) before gliding to others nearby. Its ecological niche is frequently compared to that of a flying squirrel. Its diet consists of leaves, fern fronds, flowers, fruit and invertebrates.

Kōkako and humans

In Māori and modern New Zealand culture

Māori myth refers to the kōkako in several stories. In one notable story, a kōkako gave Māui water as he fought the sun by filling its plump wattles with water and offering it to Māui to quench his thirst. Māui rewarded kōkako for its kindness by stretching its legs until they were lean, long and strong, so that kōkako could easily leap through the forest to find food.

The kōkako appears on the reverse side of the New Zealand $50 note.

Threats and conservation

File:Kokako in a new home.jpg

A kōkako about to be released in the Hunua Ranges near Auckland

North Island Kokako

In the early 1900s the North Island Kokako was common in forests throughout the North Island and its offshore islands. Primary causes of kōkako decline were forest clearance by settlers and the introduction of predators such as rats, stoats and possums. The North Island kōkako is now endangered, with an estimated 750 pairs in existence (January 2009).[4]

Unlike many of New Zealand's most vulnerable birds, kōkako survive in low numbers in several North Island native forests. However, research has shown that female kōkako are particularly at risk of predation as they carry out all incubation and brooding throughout a prolonged (50-day) nesting period. Years of such predation have resulted in populations that are predominantly male and with consequent low productivity rates.[5]

Government-funded pest control programmes, and captive breeding programmes are critical to helping maintain population numbers on the mainland. A "research by management" approach has demonstrated that the kōkako decline can be reversed and populations maintained in mainland forests by innovative management of their habitat. Current research aims to increase management efficiency to ensure long-term kōkako survival. The use of biodegradable 1080 poison has been particularly beneficial in reversing population decline. For example, between 1991 and 1999 the breeding population of kōkako increased tenfold in Mapara Wildlife Reserve (Waikato) thanks to a series of four aerial 1080 operations.[6] A population of kōkako has also been re-established at the Otanewainuku Forest in the Bay of Plenty.[7]

New populations are also being established through releases on predator-free offshore islands. As a result, conservationists are hopeful of the species' long-term survival.

South Island Kokako

File:Buller Kokako.jpg

Illustration of the two species

In the early 1900s the South Island kōkako was widespread in the South Island and Stewart Island. It has fared worse than the North Island subspecies and was formally declared extinct by the New Zealand Department of Conservation on 16 January 2007.[8] However in November 2013 the Ornithological Society of New Zealand changed its classification from extinct to "data deficient", after they accepted as genuine a reported sighting near Reefton in 2007.[9] The last accepted sighting before this was in 1967.[10] Unconfirmed sightings have also occasionally been reported.[11][12][13]

In the 1990s, Timberlands, the state owned enterprise tasked with managing the former New Zealand Forest Service's west coast forests found some evidence of kōkako in the research into native forest ecology it conducted as part of its sustainable management program.[14]


As at 2010, North Island kōkako were present in Pureora Forest Park,[15] Whirinaki Forest Park,[16] Mapara Wildlife Reserve,[17] the Hunua Ranges,[18] Ngapukeriki,[19] Kaharoa Forest,[20] the Te Urewera National Park,[21] Puketi Forest,[22] the Waitakere Ranges [23] and the Waima/Waipoua Forests of Northland.[24] Kōkako can be seen relatively easily on a number of publicly accessible offshore island sanctuaries, including Tiritiri Matangi and Kapiti Island where the regenerating forest is low enough to provide close views. Captive birds can be seen at Mount Bruce Wildlife Centre and Otorohanga Kiwi House.

See also

  • Birds of New Zealand
  • List of extinct New Zealand animals


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2013). "Callaeas cinereus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ BirdLife International (2013). "Callaeas cinereus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  3. ^ Ewen, John G; Flux, Ian; Ericson, Per GP (2006). (fulltext) "Systematic affinities of two enigmatic New Zealand passerines of high conservation priority, the hihi or stitchbird Notiomystis cincta and the kokako Callaeas cinerea" Check |url= value (help) (PDF). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 40 (1): 281–84. PMID 16527495. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2006.01.026. 
  4. ^ Ian Flux, North Island Kōkako Recovery Group:
  5. ^ North Island kōkako recovery plan 1999 - 2009 (pdf):
  6. ^ DOC's work with kōkako:
  7. ^
  8. ^ Atkinson, Kent (16 January 2007). "DoC declares South Island kokako 'extinct'". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 13 October 2011. 
  9. ^ Downes, Siobhan (27 November 2013). "Extinct kokako may be alive". Retrieved 4 February 2014. 
  10. ^ Morton, Jamie (27 November 2013). "'Extinct' South Island kokako could still be alive". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 4 February 2014. 
  11. ^ Grey Ghost website for South Island kokako sightings:
  12. ^ Fresh signs of long-lost kokako in Fiordland - 29 Mar 2006 - NZ Herald
  13. ^ Angela Gregory and NZPA (17 January 2007). "Expert refuses to give up 20-year search for kokako". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 13 October 2011. 
  14. ^ N.Z. Forestry , May 1996
  15. ^ Wildlife Extra website:
  16. ^ Tourism New Zealand media release:
  17. ^ Mapara Wildlife Reserve factsheet:
  18. ^ Auckland Regional Council website:
  19. ^ Mangaroa/Ohotu kōkako relocation:
  20. ^ Kaharoa Kokako Trust newsletter:
  21. ^ Sanctuaries of New Zealand website:
  22. ^ YouTube video of pest control to save Puketi Forest's last kōkako:
  23. ^ Rare kokako to sing in the Waitakere Ranges once again: on the North Island
  24. ^

Further reading

  • Murphy S.A., Flux I.A. and Double M.C. (2006) Recent evolutionary history of New Zealand's North and South Island Kokako (Callaeas cinerea) inferred from mitochondrial DNA sequences. Emu 106: 41-48.

External links

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