Review: Takahē: Bird of Dreams

Reviewed by Alex Eagles

Author: Alison Ballance. Reviewer: Alex Eagles. ‘Like the birds, Takahē: Bird of Dreams is colourful and heavy-duty; its glossy pages filled with fascinating information and beautiful photos…’ June 2023 release

Takahē are magnificent birds and the memory of my first encounter is still vivid. I had just stepped off the ferry on the wildlife sanctuary, Tiritiri Matangi, when a strange sound reverberated through me, like the low boom of a bass beat. Mystified, I began searching for the source and, to my astonishment, found a pair of takahē and chicks beside the track. The sun was out and the stout adults shone in a rainbow of colours - feathers from deep indigo to blues of many hues and turquoise to emerald and olive green, with a bright red bill and dark pink-orange legs finishing the colour scheme.

Like the birds, Takahē: Bird of Dreams is colourful and heavy-duty; its glossy pages filled with fascinating information and beautiful photos. This, the latest book from the author of Kākāpo, Alison Ballance, details the takahē's tumultuous journey from being declared extinct, not once but twice, through their rediscovery and, finally, their inspiring recovery.

The book is particularly timely as November 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of Dr Geoffrey Orbell's incredible rediscovery of takahē and the Takahē Recovery Programme (TRP) formation. The longest-running conservation programme in New Zealand, the TRP has been used by conservation managers worldwide as a pioneering guide to endangered species recovery.

As with any new initiative, the TRP has experienced trials and errors while honing strategies to increase takahē numbers. After many setbacks over the decades, the takahē population is expected to pass the exciting milestone of 500 birds before the end of the year. A wonderful anniversary gift.

Ballance undertook the mammoth task of condensing 75 years of documents including unpublished TRP files to impart the highs, lows and interesting research findings. Although slightly disjointed at times, Ballance has done an amazing job of collating the massive amount of information into a very readable format, with plenty of nuggets of information throughout.  For example, takahē spend 90 per cent of each day feeding and produce nine metres of poo!  

The book discusses the takahē’s interesting evolutionary history from when they had their own unique genus, Notornis, to new genetic evidence placing them in the African swamp hen Porphyrio genus. It is thought the takahē’s ancestors arrived from Madagascar 2.5 million years ago while the moho (North Island takahē) descended from similar ancestors who immigrated around a million years later.  Sadly, by the time Europeans arrived, moho had been hunted to extinction. Looking at the birds, it is obvious that takahē share the African swamp hen’s colourful plumage, unlike the pūkeko with its uniformly black back, whose ancestors came to Aotearoa via Australia 500 years ago.

Another fascinating part of the takahē story is how their notorious elusiveness led scientists to repeatedly believe they were extinct. After being scientifically described in 1848 when bones were discovered in a midden, they were declared extinct only a few years later. However, this title was removed when a takahē was killed by a dog near Te Anau, after a 30 year absence. Another takahē was not seen for the next 20 years until another hunter's dog caught one in 1898.

The stuffed remains of this bird, seen in the Otago Museum by a ten-year-old Geoffrey Orbell, was responsible for igniting his dream to rediscover takahē living in Fiordland. And, to the astonishment of the world, in 1948, 50 years after they had been declared extinct for the second time, this dream became a reality.

Like Ballance, I feel privileged to have had 'Orbell moments' with a takahē. And I also share her dream that one day, any New Zealander could have their own encounter with these truly amazing birds.

Takahē: Bird of Dreams is a truly comprehensive history of this intriguing bird, the world's largest living species of rail, and will make an excellent addition to the 'Birds of New Zealand' section of any home, secondary school or public library for readers wanting in-depth information.

Reviewed by Alex Eagles