the grey ghost of the forest - by Nic Toki

Kōkako – The Grey Ghost of the Forest
There’s something soulful, haunting and stirring about the song of the kōkako. The first time I heard one I almost cried, for the beauty of the song, and for the sadness that there are not many of these birds left. While our tui, bellbirds and even kaka make lively, sometimes melodic sounds – the kōkako’s song seems to come from another place entirely.

Kōkako are one of New Zealand’s ‘wattlebirds’, ancient and found nowhere else in the world. The other two (named for their colourful fleshy cheek wattles) are the tieke (saddleback) and the extinct huia. Kōkako are fascinating birds to watch, since they are not real ‘fliers’, instead preferring to hop and glide throughout the forest canopy. They have lovely long legs for dancing across the treetops, and they are a sight to behold as well as providing a beautiful soundtrack to your native bush experience.
In Māori mythology, the kōkako brought Maui water in his cheek wattles, when Maui was battling the sun, and as a reward, Maui gave the kōkako his beautiful long legs. Sadly kōkako are a threatened species these days, and the South Island subspecies (which had striking orange wattles instead of blue) was declared extinct in 2007 (although there have been reports of people hearing them over the years, and some diehard individuals have dedicated their lives to rediscovering the South Island kōkako). 

The reason that kōkako numbers are so low is due to predation by rats and possums in particular, who dine out on eggs and chicks.  However, the good news is that when you get the predator numbers down low enough, it gives the kōkako a chance to hatch their chicks. There are some great examples of this throughout the North Island, including the Nga Whenua Rahui project near Te Kaha on the East Coast, where local iwi worked to rid the forest of pests, as well as reintroducing kokako, and anchoring them with an outdoor speaker set up.

The reason for the outdoor speakers is that kōkako have different ‘dialects’ or accents depending on which area they come from. In order to encourage them to stay in one area, community conservation projects often play the songs of related kōkako so that they might think this is their place to be and hang around.

This anchoring technique has worked well in many places, including right on Auckland’s back doorstep, where thanks to thousands of hours of pest control by Forest & Bird volunteers in the “Ark in the Park” part of the Waitakere ranges, kōkako were released back into the park two years ago. It only took a single year for them to start breeding, and they have fledged chicks again this year.

The Kaharoa Kōkako Trust is another outstanding example of dedicated individuals working to restore the melody to the bush. In just 15 years, their dedication to pest control has seen kokako numbers more than quadruple. These groups are an inspiration and a reminder that we can all do our bit.

And if we do, who knows? Perhaps the kokako’s song will no longer be a ghost story.

Nic Toki
Threatened Species Ambassador at The Department of Conservation