Takahē: The World’s Largest Living Rail

Just before Tom and I set off on our journey back to the UK for the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, we decided to visit Zealandia Eco-Sanctuary in Wellington, New Zealand.

Zealandia is the world’s first fully-fenced, urban ecosanctuary covering 225 hectares. They have reintroduced 18 species of native wildlife back into the area, 6 of which were previously absent from mainland New Zealand for over 100 years. The rarest species to be introduced to the sanctuary is the critically endangered South Island takahē, the feature of our post.

Takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri)

The South Island takahē, also known as simply ‘takahē’ (Porphyrio hochstetteri), was introduced as an analogue species for the extinct North Island takahē , also known as ‘mōho’ (Porphyrio mantelli). Like our extant takahē, the mōho was flightless, but perhaps even larger in size. The one other extant Porphyrio species native to New Zealand is the pūkeko (Porphyrio melanotus), which can fly and is widespread throughout the country. These three species all belong to the family, Rallidae, a group of small to medium-sized ground living birds. Our takahē can claim the distinction of being the largest living species of rail in the world.

It is thought that the flying ancestors (a pūkeko-like bird) of these species were blown over in storms from Australia on three separate occasions.  The takahē and mōho possibly arrived during the Miocene-Pliocene 5 to 20 million years ago. Since then, they diverged considerably from their original form, becoming totally flightless due to lack of ground-based predators.  The pūkeko, however, arrived more recently during the Holocene a thousand years ago or less, and hasn’t changed much. In fact, it is not distinguishable from Australian forms. You can see the difference between the takahē and pūkeko in the following two photos.

Click to zoom-in

Adult takahē can weigh over 3 kg, stand 50cm tall, and are about the size of a large chicken. Their weight is something that really surprises you if you are used to handling flighted birds. I remember this from the post-mortem lab when one came in for examination. They may be the size of a large hen, but they certainly weigh a lot more than one! As for the pūkeko, they are more comparable to a chicken, being up to 50cm tall, and reaching about 1kg in weight.


Takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri)

The takahē’s story is quite amazing. Between 1849 and 1898, only four individuals were ever sighted. Then, with no more birds having being seen, by the early 1900’s takahē were considered to be extinct. That was until in 1948 when they were rediscovered in the tussock grasslands of the remote Murchison Mountains, Fiordland. What a find! They had managed to hold out in this remote location, but only just. Their survival was still being threatened from heavy grazing by introduced deer competing for their tussock grass habitat, and nest and chick predation by stoats.

Since then, the Department of Conservation has done some great work consisting of an intensive captive breeding programme, translocations, stoat control and deer culling taking the takahē population from a low of 118 birds in 1981 to the current population of just over 300. In the annual census completed in September, 2016, the Department of Conservation estimated that there were a minimum of 106 birds remaining in the Murchison Mountains. The rest were found in predator-free locations across New Zealand, including Zealandia, which are home to 200 more takahē – bringing the total population to 306.

Takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri)

Zealandia Eco-sanctuary is home to a “retired” breeding pair of takahē named ‘Puffin’ and ‘T2’. They used to live on Mana Island, but hadn’t produced chicks for some years so were removed from the breeding population to create room for younger birds. Not many people have the opportunity to go to the remote Murchison Mountains, or even some of the predator-free offshore islands where takahē are located, so having this pair so accessible to the public is wonderful for takahē advocacy. It certainly promotes awareness of their plight and their recovery programme.

If you would like to see Puffin and T2, check out the wetlands area at the top of the lower lake, about 20 minutes wander from Zealandia’s entrance. They are quite unafraid of people. Tom realised he might have brought the wrong camera lens for this particular occasion as the birds kept on coming too close! In fact, even the humble camera-phone sufficed…

Click to zoom-in


References and Further Reading

Department of Conservation Website – Takahe – http://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/takahe/
(Retrieved 24 April, 2017)

Department of Conservation Website – Takahe Population Crosses 300 Milestone – http://www.doc.govt.nz/news/media-releases/2016/takahe-population-crosses-300-milestone/
(Retrieved 9 May, 2017)

IUCN Webisite – Porphyrio mantelli (Moho) – http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22728833/0
(Retrieved 8 May, 2017)

New Zealand Birds Online Website – Pukeko – http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/pukeko
(Retrieved 8 May, 2017)

New Zealand Birds Online Website – Takahe –   http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/south-island-takahe
(Retrieved 24 April, 2017)

New Zealand Geographic – Pukeko the Indomitable Swamphen – https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/pukeko-the-indomitable-swamphen/
(Retrieved 8 May, 2017)

Official Takahē Recovery Website – http://takaherecovery.org.nz/
(Retrieved 24 April, 2017)

TerraNature Website – Takahe – http://terranature.org/takahe.htm
(Retrieved 8 May, 2017)

Wikipedia Website – North Island Takahe (AKA Moho) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Island_takah%C4%93
(Retrieved 8 May, 2017)

Wikipedia Website – South Island Takahe – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Island_takah%C4%93
(Retrieved 24 April, 2017)

Zealandia Eco-sanctuary Website https://www.visitzealandia.com/
(Retrieved 8 May, 2017)


3 Comments Add yours

  1. kiwinana says:

    Thank you, I enjoyed learning more about the Takahe. 306 birds not many but better than none. Thanks for sharing, loved the photos you took, you sure got very close to them.


    1. Thank you very much, @kiwinana! Yes, the takahe at Zealandia are so comfortable around people, it was amazing how close you could get :D.


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