The stitchbird (hihi) was both rare and poorly known until the 1990s, as few people had an opportunity to visit the single remnant population on Little Barrier Island. However, thanks to successful conservation management and research, the stitchbird is now one of the better studied New Zealand bird species, and can be seen at several accessible translocation sites. Stitchbirds are often curious, approaching people for close examination whilst emitting warning calls; yet the calls’ high pitch, and the bird’s rapid movements and colouration can make them hard to detect. Until 2006 the stitchbird was considered to be a honeyeater (Family Meliphagidae), which includes tui and bellbird and c.100 other Australasian and Pacific species. However, genetic studies showed that the stitchbird belongs to a family of its own (Notiomystidae), closest to the New Zealand wattlebirds (Callaeidae, comprising huia, kokako and saddlebacks). The stitchbird has a complex and unusual breeding system that includes pair and group nesting as well as promiscuity. They use a variety of mating positions and strategies that, when considered together, are unique in the bird world.
Stitchbirds are medium-sized songbirds recognisable by wren-like cocked tail, bold white wing-bar and fast movements in mid canopy. Males have a black head with white ear tufts, yellow neck and shoulder band, white wing-bar and greyish-brown body. Females are greyish-brown apart from the white wing bar. Juveniles resemble females. The blackish bill is slender and down-curved, resembling that of a honeyeater (e.g. bellbird).
Voice: male stitchbirds emit many variants of a whistle call with 2-3 notes (females may include some of these sounds in their warble). Both sexes produce a single note titch warning call, single-note high-pitched whistles, a quiet warble; short identification or aggressive warbles; and a repetitive single-note alarm call similar to bellbird’s. Females emit a loud single repetitive and fast alarm call when chased by males during the breeding season.
Similar species: female stitchbirds can be confused with female bellbird, which are greenish rather than greyish-brown, have a white line on the cheek and lack white wing patches. Bellbirds are also slimmer than stitchbirds, do not cock their tails, and have slower movements.
Distribution and habitat
Stitchbirds originally occurred throughout the North Island plus Great Barrier, Little Barrier and Kapiti Islands. They were first reported from the Bay of Islands in 1835, but by the 1870s they had disappeared from the mainland north of the Waikato. The last mainland sighting was in the Tararua Range in 1883, after which stitchbirds were confined to Little Barrier Island. Attempts to translocate them to Hen Island (1980-81), Cuvier Island (1982 & 1985), Mokoia Island (1994) and Waitakere ranges (2007-08) were unsuccessful. Stitchbirds have been translocated with more success to Kapiti Island (1983-84, 1990-92, 2002), Tiritiri Matangi Island (1995-96, 2001, 2010), Karori Sanctuary (Zealandia; 2005-06, 2008, 2010), Maungatautari (2009-11), Bushy Park (2013), and Rotokare (2017-18). Stitchbirds inhabit mature native forest, or can be maintained by supplementary feeding in seral habitats, which is currently required at all release sites.
The total population is unlikely to exceed 2000 birds, although the Little Barrier population alone was estimated to peak at 6000 birds following cat eradication there in 1980.
Threats and conservation
The extirpation of stitchbirds throughout the North Island and on Kapiti and Great Barrier Islands was probably due to predation by introduced rats and, possibly, introduced diseases. Their disappearance was too early for introduced stoats to have been a factor. Since 1980 the main conservation method attempted has been translocation to sites where mammalian predators have been eradicated or controlled to low densities, followed by supplementary feeding due to poor habitat quality at release sites. The conservation status of this species was moved from nationally endangered to nationally vulnerable in 2013.
Stitchbirds breed in spring and summer. They construct a deep woven cup lined with tree fern scales and feathers, on top of a stick base inside a natural tree cavity or nest box. Up to four clutches of 1-5 (average 3) eggs can be laid per season, with clutch size decreasing with later breeding attempts. Females incubate alone, but males assist with chick rearing.
Behaviour and ecology
Stitchbirds have a complex social structure that includes a variable mating system and a multitude of interactions between the members of a population. For example, several males and females have been reported visiting others nests; chicks from various nests get together in crèches after fledging and perform behaviours that have been interpreted as play; adult males form groups with juveniles during the winter time where perhaps hierarchies are being formed. Our knowledge of such structure is only in its infancy and research is needed to understand it. Variable mating systems are unusual among birds with only six passerines in addition to stitchbird having been reported as polygynandrous (i.e. multiple male partners and multiple female partners occur; also recorded in dunnock (Prunella modularis); alpine accentor (P. collaris); Smith’s longspur (Calcartus pictus); superb fairy wren (Malurus cynareus); aquatic warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola); and red-billed buffalo weaver( Bubalornis niger)).
The stitchbird’s unusual mating system means that males copulate with more than one female, and compete for copulations with other males. To support such activity, male stitchbirds have testicles four times larger than expected by body size, and produce a large amount of sperm. At the peak of the breeding season, stitchbird males’ cloacal protuberance (where birds store sperm) is three times the expected size for a bird its size.
Stitchbirds copulate in two different positions: the common male-on-female’s back, and face-to-face, with the female on her back on the ground, a position no other bird so far is known to use. In addition to storing sperm, the engorged cloacal protuberance in stitchbirds changes the angle of the cloaca, allowing successful contact with the female’s cloaca during face-to-face copulation. Face-to-face copulations are considered forced (i.e. ‘rape’), and are mostly carried out by extrapair males. Of 105 copulations observed on Tiritiri Matangi, 34 (32%) were face-to-face, with only five the male partner.
Stitchbird translocations to various island and mainland sites have not yet resulted in self-sustaining populations. Fungal infections with Aspergillus fumigatus, a fungus that grows best in disturbed habitats such as those in regenerating bush, and not enough food have been identified as reasons for failure in establishing translocated populations. Currently supplementary feeding is the main management strategy used to support stitchbird translocations, with nesting boxes provided at sites with early stages of regeneration.
Stitchbirds feed on invertebrates, fruits and nectar.
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- Social structure
- female-only incubation and brood-care
- Breeding season
- Nest type
- ground-level hollow, pedestal, raised platform, rock crevice, tree hole, woven cup
- Nest description
- A tall platform, up to 20cm, with sticks on which they build a deep and relatively large woven nest cup using fern rhizomes and sticks. Readily use nest boxes.
- Nest height (min)
- 0 m
- Nest height (max)
- 20 m
- Clutch size (min)
- Clutch size (max)
- Mean egg dimensions (length)
- 21 mm
- Mean egg dimensions (width)
- 16.4 mm
- Egg laying dates
- Interval between eggs in a clutch
- 25 hours days
- Incubation behaviour
- female only
- Incubation length (mean)
- Incubation length (min)
- 14 days
- Incubation length (max)
- 20 days
- Nestling type
- Nestling period (mean)
- Nestling period (min)
- 21 days
- Nestling period (max)
- 31 days
- Age at fledging (mean)
- Age at fledging (min)
- 21 days
- Age at fledging (max)
- 31 days
- Age at independence (min)
- 7 days
- Age at independence (max)
- 14 days
- Age at first breeding (typical)
- 0.5 years
- Maximum longevity
- Maximum dispersal