The South Island Saddleback (Philesturnus carunculatus) is the poster child of what is possible for wildlife restoration – from Nationally Critical (Almost Extinct!) to Recovering in less than 60 years. A truly remarkable story.
There are two distinct species: North Island Saddleback (Philesturnus rufusater) and South Island Saddleback. According to the Department of Conservation the more endangered of the two species is the South Island Saddleback, with only around 650 birds in existence.
They are a member of the endemic New Zealand wattlebird family the Callaeidae, other members of this family are the endangered North Island kokako (Callaeas cinerea wilsoni), the near-extinct South Island kokako (Callaeas cinerea cinerea ) and the extinct huia (Heteralocha acutirostris).
The Saddleback is medium sized (25 cm) and is forest dwelling. Adults of both sexes have similar plumage, the main feature of which is the conspicuous chestnut-coloured saddle on the bird’s back. Males have larger wattles than females. Young birds less than 15 months old have quite different plumage to adults. They are entirely dark brown and have small wattles. The imprint of the saddle forms by the end of the birds’ second moult.
Saddlebacks were once widespread throughout New Zealand’s mainland and island forests. Their decline began in the mid-19th century, caused by forest clearance and introduced predators such as ship rats, feral cats and stoats.
By this century, both species were close to extinction. South Island Saddlebacks were limited to three islands: Big South Cape, Pukeweka, and Soloman Islands (near Stewart Island), while the North Island species was restricted to Hen Island in the Hauraki Gulf.
By 1964 there were only 36 South Island saddlebacks left in the world. The Department of Conservation translocated these birds to predator free islands and saved the South Island Saddleback from extinction.
In Marlborough South Island Saddlebacks can be found on Motuara Island as part of the successful translocation project. They have bred so successfully that in April 2021 30 birds were able to be translocated to Nelson.