Once found throughout the North island, by the 1990s the hihi, or stitchbird, was restricted to just one remnant population on Little Barrier Island. Thanks to successful conservation management and research, it has now been successfully transferred to several other locations around the North Island.
Endemic species classified as ‘nationally vulnerable’.
The hihi is a medium-sized songbird recognisable by its very upright, almost wren-like cocked tail. Males and females differ, with males having a black head with white ear tufts, a bright yellow neck and shoulder band with a distinctive and obvious white wing-bar. The rest of the body is a grey/brown colour. Females are greyish-brown all over, apart from the white wing bar. Juvenile birds are similar in all aspects to the female. The hihi’s bill is black, slender and down-curved, like that of most other honey eating species. Adults reach about 18cm in length and weigh 30-36g.
Hihi feed on nectar, fruit and invertebrates. Until only recently, it was thought the stitchbird belonged to the family of honey (nectar) eaters Meliphagidae, which includes the tui and bellbird. However, genetic studies now show that the stitchbird belongs to a family of its own, Notiomystidae, which is closest to the New Zealand wattlebirds such as the saddleback and kokako.
Breeding occurs in the summer months and hihi nest in a deep woven cup lined with tree ferns, moss, lichen, old spider webs and feathers – all of which is built on a solid base of twigs and sited inside a natural tree cavity.
Hihi have a very unusual mating system in that males copulate with more than one female and compete for copulations with other males.
Even more fascinating is that to support such activity, male stitchbirds have testicles four times larger than other birds of similar body size and produce a large amount of sperm.
Clutch sizes average three eggs with up to four clutches produced each season. Females incubate the eggs alone but males assist with chick rearing.
In a natural and wild state, stitchbirds prefer to inhabit mature native forest but can be maintained (by supplementary feeding) at intermediary sites during the translocation process. Today, Little Barrier Island holds the only naturally surviving population of hihi.
There are now small managed populations of stitchbird on Tiritiri Matangi and Kapiti islands,as well as Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellington, Bushy Park near Wanganui, Maungatautari (Waikato) and more recently, Rotokare (Taranaki). They are often curious and regularly approach people for a close examination usually accompanied with loud warning calls.
Hihi copulate in two different positions – the common and more usual male-on-female’s back but also face-to-face where the female lays on her back on the ground. No other bird in the world is known to use this method.
Males emit many variations of a two or three note whistle call and both sexes produce a single note ‘titch’ warning, a quiet warble and a repetitive single-note alarm call.
During the breeding season when males are chasing females, the female lets out a single loud repetitive and fast alarm call.