South Island saddleback (Philesturnus carunculatus)

Also known as: tīeke
Synonyms: Creadion carunculatus
GenusPhilesturnus (1)
SizeLength: 25 cm (2)
Male weight: 80 g (2)
Female weight: 70 g (2)

Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

This distinctive bird of New Zealand is easily recognised by the iconic hazelnut-coloured ‘saddle’ straddling the back, which contrasts with the glossy black body, head, bill and legs. On either side of the beak is a fleshy orange appendage known as a wattle (2). Young South Island saddlebacks have different plumage to adults, being chocolate brown with paler underparts and reddish-brown tail coverts (3); the bright saddle pattern only forms by the end of the second moult (2). The South Island saddleback is a very vocal bird; the male has a repertoire of melodious calls that are used during mating and in territorial disputes (2).

The South Island saddleback was once considered conspecific with the North Island saddleback (Philesturnus rufusater), but they are now considered by many to be separate species, based on differences in their songs and calls, plumage, size and genes (4) (5).

The South Island saddleback wasonce widespread over the South Island of New Zealand, and some offshore islands, but by the early 1900s, this species was extinct on the mainland (6), with just a single population remaining on Big South Cape Island. The accidental introduction of ship rats (Rattus rattus) to Big South Cape Island in the early 1960s nearly spelt the end of the saddleback there too (7). Thankfully, the actions of conservationists who moved the saddleback to predator-free islands, saved this species from extermination (2). The South Island saddleback now occurs on 19 small offshore islands (4).   

 The South Island saddleback survives in a broad range of habitats, from coastal scrub to tall forest (8).

The South Island saddleback forages during the day in pairs or family groups (8). Although primarily insect-eating, it also eats fruit and occasionally nectar (9). It is typically found on or near the ground, as it is not a strong flier, and bounds between branches or along the ground rather than taking long flights (6).

The South Island saddleback roosts and nests in natural cavities situated close to the ground (8). A monogamous species, it usually raises one brood during the period between October and January, but will nest up to four times at recently colonised sites where there is abundant food (6). The female incubates the eggs for a period of around 20 days and, after the eggs have hatched, the male gathers food to be distributed between the chicks and the female (9).The South Island saddleback is a relatively long-lived bird, with individuals known to live for up to 20 years (8).

The accidental and intentional introduction of mammalian predators to New Zealand has been a long standing threat to the saddleback (2). The fact that it roosts and nests close to the ground makes the saddleback particularly vulnerable to predation (4). Predation by rats, feral cats and stoats, combined with forest clearance, caused this bird’s demise on the mainland by the 20thcentury, and almost caused the extinction of the entire species when rats were accidentally introduced to the remaining offshore islands it inhabited (2). The South Island is not able to coexist with the Pacific rat (Rattus exulans) or the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus), thus, the accidental introduction of either of these species to further islands is an ever-present threat to the saddleback (6).

Thanks to conservation action, the South Island saddleback is now secure on 19 small islands (4). However, the conservation work is not yet complete. It is thought that the South Island saddleback needs to be established onto further predator-free islands if it is to recover fully, and vigilance is required to ensure that established populations are kept safe from a reinvasion of predators (2). Plans are also underway to release the South Island saddleback into the Rotoiti Nature Recovery area, an intensively managed and pest-controlled beech forest in the Nelson district (6).

To learn more about the conservation of the saddleback see:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

Authenticated (28/09/10) by Kevin Parker, Institute of Natural Sciences, Massey University, New Zealand.

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2010)
  2. Department of Conservation, New Zealand (May, 2010)
  3. Heather, B. and Robertson, H. (1996) The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Viking, Penguin Books, Auckland.
  4. Parker, K. (2010) The Impacts of Translocation on the Cultural Evolution of Song in the North Island Saddleback or Tīeke (Philesturnus rufaster). Unpublished PhD Thesis, Massey University, New Zealand.
  5. Holdaway, R.N., Worthy, T.H. and Tennyson, A.J.D. (2001) A working list of breeding bird species of the New Zealand region at first human contact. New ZealandJournal of Zoology, 28: 119-187.
  6. BirdLife International (May, 2010)
  7. Bell, B.D. (1976) The Big South Cape Islands rat irruption. In: Dingwall, P.R., Atkinson, I.A.E. and Hay, C. (Eds.) Ecology and Control of Rodents in New Zealand Nature Reserves. Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington, New Zealand.
  8. Hooson, S. and Jamieson, I.G. (2003) The distribution and current status of New Zealand saddleback Philesturnus carunculatus. Bird Conservation International, 13: 79-95.
  9. Falla, R.A., Sibson, R.B. and Turbott, E.G. (1974) A Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.