The stitchbird (Notiomystis cincta), or hihi, is one of New Zealand’s rarest birds. It was traditionally thought to be a member of the honeyeater family, a group of birds that possess a characteristic brush tongue adapted to feed on nectar. However, recent studies suggest that it may actually be the sole representative of another bird family found only in New Zealand (4).
The stitchbird is a sexually dimorphic bird, with the male the larger and more colourful sex. It has a velvety-black back, upper breast and head, with white erectile tufts behind the eyes. This black ‘hood’ is separated from the rest of its body by a vivid yellow band, and the rest of the underparts are pale brown. The blackish wings have golden-yellow shoulder patches and a white wing bar. Females are greyish brown, lack the yellow parts of the male and have much reduced erectile ear tufts, but still retain the distinctive white patch on the wings. Juveniles appear very similar to the female. Both sexes have a short, slightly curved beak, with whisker-like bristles at the corners, and relatively large eyes (5) (6) (7).
Another distinctive feature is the way they hold their tail tilted upwards. The name of this bird comes from its ‘tzit’ or ‘stitch’ call, which has also been likened to the shortened sound of a cicada, or the sound of two stones being struck together (4) (7). They also have a penetrating yeng-yeng-yeng alarm call (3).
- Also known as
- Length: 18 cm (3)
- Male weight: 40 g (3)
- Female weight: 30 g (3)
The stitchbird mostly forms socially monogamous breeding pairs, but occasionally forms larger breeding groups, where up to two males and two females may breed in the same nest or territory. These breeding bonds are only social as there is frequent promiscuous behaviour and high levels of extra-pair parentage (9). The nest, situated within the tree hole, is a platform of sticks, with a cup constructed from tree-fern rhizomes placed on top and lined with tree-fern scales and feathers (3). The stitchbird has the unusual distinction of being the only bird known to occasionally mate face to face (7). A clutch of three to five eggs are laid between September and March, which the female then incubates for around 15 days. Both parents feed the chicks, which fledge after about 30 days (3).
Nectar is one of the major food types utilised by the stitchbird, and they have a long tongue, divided at the tip and frayed at the edges like a brush that allows them to reach deep into flowers (7). They also eat a wide variety of fruit and pick invertebrates from tree leaves and bark (3). Stitchbirds face strong competition for this food from other species, (the tui and the bellbird), which may prevent the stitchbird from feeding on many kinds of nectar and fruit. When these birds are present the stitchbirds tend to feed on less desirable nectar lower down in the canopy (5). Stitchbirds are strong fliers, known to travel extensively for food, and may travel up to several kilometres in a day between good feeding sites, without leaving the cover of the forest (3) (5).
Found only in New Zealand, the stitchbird used to be found across the North Island and its offshore islands, but now the last natural population is found only on Little Barrier Island. Stitchbirds have been translocated to the islands of Kapiti and Tiritiri Matangi, along with two mainland sites, Karori Wildlife Sanctuary and Ark in the Park, but these populations are not yet self-sustaining (6) (7) (8).
The stitchbird can inhabit most types of forest with a variety of fruit and nectar sources, providing it is mature forest, as it requires tree holes for nesting (6).
The stitchbird is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (2).
The stichbird’s extinction on the mainland and adjacent islands in the past is thought to be due to disease brought into the country by introduced birds, predation by introduced mammals, primarily the black rat Rattus rattus, and habitat loss (5) (6). Today, the only self-sustaining natural population exists on Little Barrier Island, which puts the fate of the stitchbird in a very precarious position. Feral cats posed a threat to stitchbirds on Little Barrier Island until they were eradicated in 1980, and although numbers of stitchbirds on Little Barrier Island appear good today, studies have shown large fluctuations in past population size (5).
Little Barrier Island was declared a bird sanctuary in 1894 and later a Nature Reserve, meaning that human impacts are kept to a minimum, and tremendous care is taken to keep the island free of introduced animals and plants (10). However, despite this protection, large population fluctuations on Little Barrier Island suggest that chance events could devastate this population, and therefore further self-sustaining populations need to be established to ensure the species’ survival (5).
The New Zealand Department of Conservation has drawn up and implemented a Stitchbird Recovery Plan, with a long term goal of increasing the number of self-sustaining stitchbird populations to five (4). Early attempts to establish birds on Hen, Cuvier and Mokoia Islands were sadly not successful. Transfers to Ark in the Park, Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, Tiritiri Matangi and Kapiti Islands were more recently attempted using new management techniques, and populations now persist at these sites with the provision of supplementary food and nest boxes. A small number are also held in captivity at Mount Bruce wildlife Centre near Wellington, which enables important research to be undertaken on these rare birds (4).
Find out more
Find out more about the stitchbird and its conservation:
- Extra-pair parentage
- The female mates with another male, outside of the monogamous relationship, resulting in one or more of the offspring being fathered by a male that is not the female’s mate.
- Animals with no backbone.
- Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
- Thickened, branching, creeping storage stems. Although most rhizomes grow laterally just along or slightly below the soil's surface, some grow several inches deep. Roots grow from the underside of the rhizome, and during the growing season new growth sprouts from buds along the top.
- The movement of a species, by people, from one area to another.
- Any of various ferns, with a woody trunk-like stem and large divided fronds.
Driskell, A., Christidis, L., Gill, B.J., Boles, W.E., Barker, F.K. and Longmore, N.W. (2007) A new endemic family of New Zealand passerine birds: adding heat to a biodiversity hotspot. Australian Journal of Zoology, 55: 73 - 78.
IUCN Red List (January, 2007)
Heather, B. and Robertson, H. (1997) The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
New Zealand Department of Conservation (May, 2007)
Rasch, G., Boyd, S. and Clegg, S. (1996) Stitchbird (Hihi), Notiomystis cincta Recovery Plan. Department of Conservation, New Zealand.
Birdlife International (May, 2007)
Karori Wildlife Sanctuary Trust (May, 2007)
Ark in the Park (June, 2007)
Ewen, J.G., Armstrong, D.P. and Lambert, D.M. (1999) Floater males gain reproductive success through extrapair fertilizations in the stitchbird. Animal Behaviour, 58: 321 - 328.
Department of Conservation, Little Barrier Island (May, 2007)