New Zealand's rare Hihi birds to be protected using eavesdropping technology

The devices eavesdropping on the reintroduced birds are a welcome breakthrough in conservation.

In a technology that's been heralded as a breakthrough in conservation, a remote recording device is 'eavesdropping' on one of the rarest birds in New Zealand to monitor how they're adjusting after being released back into the wild.

The 'conversations' that the endemic hihi birds have with one another are recorded by scientists and assessed for how successful their conservation efforts have been. The scientists were also using the bird calls to track the movements and health of individual birds, which is the first effort of its kind in conservation.

For instance, a happy hihi call sounds like marbles clanging together, known as a 'stitch' call. Scientists traced the hihi calls from what was once a random distribution to what is now a more settled home range. This makes the reintroduction of hihis in the wild, and the new method that was used to monitor them a hooting success.

A male Hihi bird.

A male Hihi bird.

The hihis are now a "locally extinct" species that have disappeared from most of their former range. From habitat loss, fragmentation and spread of mammal predators, there are just a few thousand adults left in highly protected reserves.

As a conservation strategy, neither tracking individual animals in the field, nor using radio-trackers embedded in their skin is ideal. These are also expensive and have a risk of influencing the animal's behaviour or survival. In turn, it could drastically influence decisions about whether reintroduction programs like these are successful or not.

"Using acoustic recording devices enabled us to remotely monitor the birds we released, giving us a true understanding of how they settled post-reintroduction — this has really exciting implications for the reintroduction programmes of many other difficult to monitor endangered species globally."

By recording and listening to hihi calls, the researchers managed to track, but also understand how they used the area they were reintroduced to. After a small adjustment period, the birds seemed to be in a "settlement phase", where each bird found a territory of its own. "Or in other words — a sure sign of a happy hihi," Oliver Metcalf, one of the study's authors from Manchester Metropolitan University, said in a statement.

The acoustic recording devices positioned around the hihi habitat in Rotokare Scenice Nature Reserve. Image credit: Simon Collins

The acoustic recording devices positioned around the hihi habitat in Rotokare Scenice Nature Reserve. Image credit: Simon Collins

Hihi translated to 'first ray of sunshine', and are associated with health in Maori culture.

"They're an age-old indicator of a healthy forest. Not only are they important to protect, but have proved to be a unique and ideal model to study the effectiveness of this new technique... (it) has huge potential for reintroduction programmes for other species."

Researchers from the international conservation charity Zoological Society of London, the Imperial College of London and the Rotokare Scenic Reserve Trust are part of the new study, which was published this week in Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

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