With its bold brown saddle and distinctive orange-red wattle the saddleback or tīeke is one of New Zealand’s most recognisable birds but also one of the rarest.
South Island saddleback belong to an ancient group of wattlebirds or Callaeidae that are found only in New Zealand and include the endangered kōkako and extinct huia.
The rather naïve habit of roosting and nesting close to the ground make saddleback extremely vulnerable and they were one of the first species to disappear from mainland New Zealand following the arrival of rats.
They were saved from extinction in 1964, when 36 birds were translocated from rat-infested Big South Cape Island (off Stewart Island) to nearby Big and Kaimohu Islands. This was the first time that a rescue translocation had prevented a species from becoming extinct anywhere in the world.
South Island saddleback now only exist on predator-free offshore islands. In September 2014 the Abel Tasman Birdsong Trust transferred 40 birds from Motuara Island in the Marlborough Sounds to Adele Island in the Abel Tasman National Park. It is likely to result in the establishment of a species that has been absent from the national park for probably 150 years.
Saddlebacks are most common in coastal forest and regenerating native forest so are ideally suited to Adele Island.
Māori legend has it that the tīeke got its name after Māori demi-god Maui got angry when the saddleback wouldn’t bring him water while he was lassoing the sun to slow it down. Maui grabbed the tīeke with his fiery hand and burnt its feathers. From that day the saddleback wore a brown ‘saddle’.