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Takahē: Bird of Dreams by Alison Ballance

A beautiful photograph of a handsome takahē, adorned with purple-blue feathers, and with a startlingly large red bill, fills the cover of Takahē: Bird of Dreams.

For 50 years, from 1898-1948, there had been no official sighting, so the takahē, one of our precious native birds, was declared to be extinct.

When Dr Geoffrey Orbell rediscovered a small population of takahē in a remote valley in the Murchison Mountains in 1948 he was elated. His dream of finding them had come true! Shortly after this, the Takahē Recovery Programme started.

2023 is a special anniversary year. It marks 75 years of the Takahē Recovery Programme. These 75 years have been a rollercoaster ride of loss, rediscovery, hope, disappointment, perseverance and hard-won successes. But the struggle over decades to increase takahē numbers has paid off. The number of takahē will reach a milestone of 500 this year!

To mark this anniversary, Alison Ballance, well known zoologist, writer and broadcaster, has written a brilliant new book. In Takahē: Bird of Dreams she charts the history of the Takahē Recovery Programme, investigates the species’ place in the bird world and reminds us how close the takahē came to extinction.

To do justice to the Takahē Recovery Programme, the longest-running species conservation programme in New Zealand, and perhaps even in the world, and to this unique bird, deserved a big book. Takahē: Bird of Dreams is over 300 pages long and is richly illustrated with beautiful photographs of takahē in a variety of locations, and of the team action.

She starts her book, in a highly creative way, with a piece of avian historical fiction in which she lets Takahē tell their story from a birds’ eye point of view eye. Hāpara and her mates and offspring live their lives in the Murchison Mountains from the early 1970’s to the mid 1980’s. Their struggle to survive and breed will touch readers’ hearts.

Then, in four parts, she charts the history of the Takahē Recovery Programme. From the moment of rediscovery, there were different opinions about what approach to take: a hands-off approach, leaving the birds to live and breed in the remote Murchison mountains, or more intensive management such as captive breeding or translocation to an island.

By the end of 1952 there had been 10 expeditions into the Murchison Mountains. It was realised that takahē were struggling to survive due to bitterly cold sub-zero winter temperatures, predation by stoats, and grazing red deer who threatened their food supply.

In 1985 The Burwood Takahē Centre was established, an incubation and hand rearing facility famous for initially using puppets and models to rear takahē chicks (these days eggs are left on the nest, rather than in artificial in incubators and takahē parents rear the chicks themselves).

When Burwood became very good at breeding takahē in captivity, some of the surplus birds began to be moved to predator free offshore islands and to Zealandia from the 1980’s on.

Alison Ballance likens the Recovery Programme at the present time to a 3-legged stool.

The Fiordland population is the wild heart, but equally important are the captive breeding programme at the Burwood Takahē centre, and the insurance populations on islands and in sanctuaries across the country.

At Tiritiri Matangi it is always a wow! moment when a takahē family makes an appearance. Takahē are breeding successfully there. But they also perform an advocacy role. One of the best ambassadors the takahē ever had was the gregarious Greg. He loved to mingle with visitors. Greg has passed now but many visitors remember him very fondly and would enjoy reading the chapter devoted to him.

Alison Ballance’s book will be a great resource for guides to share the takahē story with the public.

Takahē: Bird of Dreams also needs to be in every secondary school library as a resource for science students. As well as the history of the Takahē Recovery Programme they will find excellent information about the biology and lifestyle of the takahē and on the steps being taken to minimize inbreeding of these captive birds in order to maximise their genetic diversity. And anyone with an interest in ornithology would find this dramatic story of rediscovery and recovery a great read!

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Potton & Burton


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