Why Hihi Conservation is Important

All the money raised by the Great Hihi Sperm Race will go towards protecting this unique New Zealand bird. The hihi recovery group are working hard to help hihi.

New Zealand's ray of sunshine

Male hihi on flax Image credit Mhairi McCready

Flax nectar is a favourite food of hihi (Image credit: Mhairi McCready)

Maori legend tells of how the demi-god Maui threw the hihi into the fire as punishment for refusing to fetch him some water. The fire burned the bird's feathers, giving them their distinctive yellow colour. Hihi means sun's rays in some Maori dialects, but many people have never seen this particular ray of sunshine becasue it's extremely rare.

Hihi were once widespread throughout New Zealand's North Island. Unfortunately the habitat loss and invasive mammalian predators that humans brought to the country were bad news for hihi, and by the 1880s they were reduced to a single population on Hauturu (Little Barrier Island) in the Hauraki Gulf.

Hihi clung on on Hauturu. The Department of Conservation has now established six more hihi populations on predator-free offshore islands and fenced mainland sanctuaries. Despite this success, hihi are not out of the woods yet, and their safety poses some big challenges for conservation managers.

The need to feed

Cheeky hihi feeding Image credit Peter Frost

A cheeky male trying to steal some sugar water (Image credit: Peter Frost)

Hihi love sugar. They mainly feed on nectar and fruit, plus some invertebrates. Thanks to the almost pristine forest on Hauturu, the hihi there have plenty of food. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of pristine bush left in New Zealand, so finding suitable sites to establish new hihi populations is tricky. At the moment, all six of the recently established hihi populations are reliant to some extent on top up food from sugar water feeders. Not only is this costly to provide, designing a robust sugar water feeder that's easy to keep clean (reducing disease risks) and can help exclude pesky tui and bellbirds who bully hihi away from the sugar at some sites. A new feeder design is currently being trialed on Tiritiri Matangi, but improving and rolling out this new feeder will require funding.

Small and isolated

Teeny hihi chicks in nest Mhairi McCready

Newly hatched hihi chicks (Image credit: Mhairi McCready)

Hauturu remains the hihi stronghold, with an estimated 3,000 birds living there. All other hihi populations are small (23-129) and all are very far apart from each other. Small populations tend to have low genetic diversity, which makes it harder for them to adapt to changing circumstances (like disease and climate change). Small populations also tend to have higher incidences of mating between relatives (inbreeding). Research has shown that inbreeding can cause issues for hihi hatching success. New populations of hihi are founded with as many individuals as possible to maximise genetic diversity and minimise inbreeding in hihi populations. 

Movement of birds between populations can help maintain genetic diversity and reduce inbreeding too. However, the current populations are too far apart for hihi to fly between them. Instead, from time to time, "top ups" are performed by moving birds from Hauturu and Tiritiri Matangi to other populations. Catching and transporting birds to new locations or for top ups requires hard work from a lot of skilled individuals and is, again, expensive. 

All the money you donate when you back a bird in the Great Hihi Sperm Race will go towards maintaining existing hihi populations and establishing new ones. To find out more about hihi conservation, visit http://www.hihiconservation.com/