Chatham Island snipe (Coenocorypha pusilla)

GenusCoenocorypha (1)
SizeLength: 19 – 20 cm (2)
Wingspan: 28 – 30 cm (2)
Weight61 – 110 g (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1).

The Chatham Island snipe is a small, rotund bird with beautifully camouflaged plumage. The body is mottled with black, brown and reddish-brown, turning creamy-white on the lower breast and belly (2) (3). The top of the head is striped with black, brown and reddish-brown (3), and the bill is long, although not as long as that of other species of snipe (4). Female Chatham Island snipes are paler than males, and juveniles have less distinct patterning than adults (2). The call of a male Chatham Island snipe has been recorded as a low ‘trerk, trerk, trerk’ and ‘queeyoo, queeyoo, queeyoo’(3).

Restricted to four small islands in the Chatham Islands, New Zealand: Rangatira (or South East Island), Mangere, Little Mangere and Star Keys (2).

The Chatham Island snipe can be found from the shore to the islands’ summits, but most commonly occurs in areas with considerable bush cover and forest of Olearia traversi (the ake ake tree), especially among sedges (Carex species) (2) (3).

The Chatham Island snipe uses its relatively long bill to probe moist soils or leaf litter for earthworms, amphipods, beetles, and insect larvae and pupae. This prey, once found, is generally swallowed without the snipe having to withdraw its bill from the soil (2).

These apparently monogamous birds breed between September and March (2). Males attract females with a night-time display flight and courtship feeding and then, as a pair, they select a suitable site in which to construct a nest (2) (5). The nest may either be a shallow cup made of Carex or Holcus leaves, or a simple, unlined scrape in the ground (6). Generally two, although sometimes three, mottled pale pinkish-brown eggs are laid and incubated for over 19 days by both parents (2) (6). The chicks are fed by the parents for the first two to three weeks of life, but are able to fly after 21 days and become fully independent at around 41 days of age (2).

This threatened bird once inhabited most of the islands in the Chatham group, but following the introduction of predatory rats and cats to Chatham, Pitt and Mangere Islands, the snipe became confined to just Rangatira and Star Keys by 1970 (7). The Chatham Island snipe had also come close to extinction on Rangatira, with a large sheep population degrading the island’s habitat (8). Thankfully, all livestock were removed from the island in 1961 (2), leaving the snipe population to recover (8). The cat population on Mangere eventually died-out after extensive hunting (7), and the Chatham Island snipe could be re-introduced to the island. Shortly after, the snipe colonised the predator-free Little Mangere Island (7) (9).

Today, the population of Chatham Island snipes is believed to be stable but, as past experience shows, it is in danger of rapid extinction if the islands on which it occurs are colonised by rats, cats, pigs, or weka (flightless ground-dwelling birds), all of which are present on neighbouring islands (2).

As mentioned above, past conservation efforts have seen the Chatham Island snipe successfully re-introduced to Mangere Island, following the eradication of feral cats (7) (9). More recently, in 2001, trials at keeping snipe in captivity were undertaken (9). The techniques learnt in this successful trial may be used in the future for a captive-breeding programme, and can be used to implement measures to secure the future of the more highly threatened Campbell Island snipe, an un-described Coenocorypha species restricted to just one tiny island (9).

For further information on conservation in the Chatham Islands see:

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  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2011)