“They can hover like great bees or humming birds in front of blossoms. With the sunlight falling full on the splendid gold of the outspread wings, or the deep blacks and pure whites of head and neck, the male then appears not a bird but a huge brilliant tropical butterfly — a magnificent creature indeed.”
Guthrie–Smith spent some three months on Little Barrier Island in the 1920s in order to observe the nesting and mating habits of the stitchbird: “The first nest of a species, about which no field naturalist facts are available, is always difficult to locate. In our search for the stitchbird’s nest we were ignorant whether perchance it was to be discovered on the ground or high in the air; amongst bunched green twigs of kanuka, often favoured by the whitehead; in thicker scrub, such as is preferred by the Tui and bellbird; in deep holes in timber like the parrakeet; in rifts and chinks like the rifleman; in hollowed knees and elbows of trees like the tit; on shaded shelves like the robin.... We were ignorant even of the date of the breeding season.”
Guthrie–Smith found that Hihi are cavity nesters, a rarity in the honeyeater family and a characteristic that has made them particularly vulnerable to predators. All recorded natural nests are in cavities located in mature or semi mature forest trees. Guthrie–Smith found, as Maori had said, that they do indeed build their nests and conceal their eggs in the moss of the Puriri tree. He found that they return year after the year to the same nesting hole.
The Tui and the bellbird are the dominant honeyeaters and in the forest feed on the canopy while the Hihi feeds on the lower undergrowth and it is this competition for diminishing nectar supplies which may have hastened the Hihi’s decline. The Hihi would be particularly vulnerable as, according to Guthrie–Smith, the principal food of the Hihi is nectar. “The hen while sitting is probably fed on it alone ... the nestlings were reared on the same ethereal food; the male himself almost exclusively lived on it.”
Mona Gordon records that these exquisite birds were so sought after by Maori not only for food but for the brilliant canary yellow breast feathers that they had disappeared from the South Island on the arrival of Europeans and were known only in a few heavily forested North Island localities.
She also says that its remarkable call rendered “stitch stitch” which has given rise to its European name conveys nothing of its extreme beauty to the thousands who will never see it. It is the note it repeats as it comes to investigate any intruder in its domain.
Note: Driskell et al., 2007 — Australian journal of zoology 55, 73–78, are now suggesting that hihi split from the Callaeidae about 33.8 million years ago, during the Oligocene, and should be placed in its own endemic monotypic family, Notiomystidae. This is the eighth endemic family of New Zealand birds, along with Dinornithidae & Emeidae (moa), Apterygidae (kiwi), Aptornithidae (adzebills), Acanthisittidae (NZ wrens), Callaeidae (NZ wattlebirds), and Turnagridae (piopio).
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»»» Song of Hihi
Other common names: —
18 cm., male, 40 g., female., 30 g., male has white tufts behind the eyes, black head, upper breast and back, golden yellow band across breast and wings, rest of underparts pale brown; female greyish brown with white wing bar.
Where to find: —
Little Barrier, Tiritiri Matangi, Kapiti Islands, Kaori Wildlife Sanctuary (Zealandia).
Illustration description: —
Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1888.
Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1873.
Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.
Guthrie–Smith, H. Bird Life on Island and Shore, 1925.
Gordon, Moana, Children of Tane, 1938.
Department of Conservation
Page date & version: —
Saturday, 9 October, 2010; ver2009v1