Week in Review

Can a ghost be Bird of the Year?

There hasn't been a confirmed sighting in decades, but that hasn't stopped lovers of a bird once considered extinct from entering it in the annual native bird popularity contest.

This year for the first time the public can vote for a ghost bird to take out the coveted Bird of the Year title.

The South Island kōkako hasn’t been seen for 12 years and was at one point declared extinct. A sighting near Reefton in 2007 helped reverse its extinct status to being 'data deficient' instead.

The Department of Conservation’s threat listing says while it’s likely the birds are functionally extinct and unlikely to be able to form a thriving population, “we are not convinced beyond reasonable doubt” all individual birds are dead.

The North Island kōkako has electric blue wattles as opposed to the South Island birds which has mostly orange wattles. In the North Island, birds have slowly been returning to forests, but can only survive in areas with intensive predator control. 

Rats and possums raid the nests of birds, eating the eggs, chicks, and sometimes even the mother birds attempting to defend their young.

South Island kōkako (rear) have orange and blue wattles, while adult North Island kōkako (front) have all blue wattles. Image: J. G. Keulemans Public Domain

The South Island bird is so elusive it’s referred to as the grey ghost, and a sighting with photographic proof comes with a $10,000 reward.

The reward has been in place for some time, according to tourism directory southproud.co.nz CEO Jen Branje.

“It’s really helped to encourage people to keep their eyes and ears out, especially on the Heaphy Track where most of the sightings have been logged, as well as most of the calls.”

She hopes the additional profile from the Bird of the Year competition will help raise awareness in the tourism industry so more eyes and ears are searching.

The most tireless of the searchers is Rhys Buckingham, who has been looking for the birds for 40 years.

He was unavailable for an interview, said Branje, because he was out on the Heaphy Track.

“There’s been some calls heard out there last week so he’s out kōkako-hunting.”

His search involves the use of camera traps and lures at suspected kōkako hotspots such as the Heaphy Track, Lake Moeraki and Granville Forest.

If birds can be found, then additional conservation efforts could be undertaken.

Forest & Bird’s spokeswoman Megan Hubscher said there was a discussion held around allowing the ghost bird as an entrant. 

Bird species need to pass three criteria to enter the competition. They need a volunteer to campaign for it, they need to be native species, and they can't be extinct. 

The reversal of the extinct ranking to 'data deficient' meant the South Island kōkako was eligible.

“Bird of the Year is about raising the profile of all birds and the conservation issues they face in our forests. If South Island kōkako are out there then there’s no reason not to include them in the competition.”

She hopes the competition raises awareness. 

“Miracles do happen. I guess that’s the hope for the South Island kōkako.”

Voting opens October 28 and closes Sunday November 10. Last year kererū took the honours with a lead of more than 2000 votes. This year's winning bird will be announced Monday, November 11.

Entrants are already campaigning. 

“One of the reasons New Zealanders love Bird of the Year so much is because of the passion, quirky originality, and light-hearted trash-talking that goes into promoting our native birds. Everyone involved has a lot of fun.” 

Last year, birds ended up on Tinder hoping users would swipe right in what's becoming a repeating pattern. Passionate bird fans attempted to cheat by rigging voting. This year Hubscher hopes website security will ensure a fraud-free competition. 

Biologist Mike Dickison has long threatened to enter the enormous yet extinct Haast's eagle. He jokingly maintains if it won it would abolish the competition and "rule forever as a cruel dictator." As far as he's concerned, the news the South Island kōkako will be included paves the way for the eagle.

For Hubscher, the definition of what ghost bird is eligible is clear and it's unlikely the public will be able to vote on his preferred ghost eagle. 

“Until Mike can prove the Haast's eagle is only data deficient they’re going to have to come up with their own strategy. Perhaps a competition for extinct bird of the year?”

Read more:

Kōkako singing after 1080 court case

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