Saddleback (bird)

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Saddleback tiritiri.jpg
North Island saddleback (Philesturnus rufusater)
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Callaeidae
Genus: Philesturnus
I. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 1832

P. rufusater
P. carunculatus

Saddleback in dead ponga.jpg
Vigilant saddleback.jpg

The saddlebacks (Māori: tīeke) are two species of New Zealand bird of the family Callaeidae. Both are glossy black with a chestnut saddle. Its taxonomic family is also known as that of the (New Zealand) "wattlebirds" and includes the two subspecies of the kōkako (the extant North Island kōkako monitored on island sanctuaries, and the extinct South Island kōkako) as well as the extinct huia. All members of the family Callaeidae have coloured fleshy appendages on either side of the beak, known as wattles; Saddlebacks' wattles are a vivid red.


The saddleback's common name derives from the demarcated brown plumage on its back, which resembles a saddle. The Māori name, tīeke, is onomatopoeic and comes from one of the species' calls: "ti-e-ke-ke-ke-ke".

There are two species:

The saddlebacks appear to be a remnant of an early expansion of passerines in New Zealand, and are two of five New Zealand wattlebirds of the family Callaeidae, the others being the extinct huia, the endangered North Island kōkako, and the possibly extinct South Island kōkako. New Zealand wattlebirds have only one relative: the stitchbird. No taxonomic relationships to other birds have been determined.[1]


Saddlebacks are larger than other arboreal insectivorous birds in New Zealand forests. They measure as much as 25 cm (10 in) in length and can weigh up to 75 grams (somewhat larger than a common blackbird). They will tear pieces of bark from tree trunks to find insects beneath, which are then dispatched and consumed with their short, robust, and unusually strong beaks. They will also feed on the ground in leaf litter. However, their diet is not strictly insectivorous: they have been observed eating fruit and drinking nectar. Like their close relative the kōkako, saddlebacks are poor fliers and mostly bound from branch to branch, but can fly short distances.

Territorial birds, the saddlebacks display antagonistic behaviour in this regard on three levels of intensity, singing out at dawn to mark their territory, making threat displays, which can include head bobbing, tail fanning, and warbling (during which the wattles dilate). When a direct challenge is made to a bird's territory, fights can occur in which combatants attempt to grapple with the wattles of their foe. Saddlebacks are notoriously fearless and noisy, and frequently enchanted 19th-century European naturalists with their behaviour.

Saddlebacks nest in epiphytes, in tree-fern crowns, and in holes in tree trunks. They have a tendency to nest near the ground, and their fledglings will leave the nest to hop around in a typically noisy fashion while they build wing strength.

Saddlebacks and people[edit]

Place in Māori culture[edit]

Saddlebacks traditionally held a strong place in Māori belief systems: their cries were viewed as good omens when they came from the right, and bad omens if from the left. Their cheeky nature is reflected in the Māori legend that tells of how the birds acquired its distinctive chestnut coloured saddle. Fresh from his battle to ensnare the sun, a thirsty Maui (a virtual demi-god in Māori folklore) asked the tīeke to bring him some water. The bird rudely pretended not to hear his request, at which Maui, becoming angry, seized it with his still fiery hand, leaving a brown scorch mark across its back.

Decline, present day conservation and recovery[edit]

Their breeding behaviour (nesting near the ground and fledglings hopping noisily around on the ground) make them especially vulnerable to predation from introduced mammals, including mustelids, Norway and ship rats. This resulted in both species swiftly disappearing from the New Zealand mainland. By the beginning of the 20th century, both species were confined to a respective island in the far north: Hen Island off Northland, and in the far south, Taukihepa / Big South Cape Island off Stewart Island / Rakiura.

Rats arrived on Big South Cape Island in 1963, accidentally introduced as they escaped from the boats of visiting muttonbirders. Only a swift rescue operation by the New Zealand wildlife service (the present day Department of Conservation) saved both species from extinction by the skin of their teeth, while the rats' predation soon condemned to extinction the local populations of the South Island snipe, bush wren and greater short-tailed bat.

Saddleback have since been relocated to island nature reserves around New Zealand, and also to mainland fenced sanctuaries. Since roughly 2015, sporadic sightings and evidence of breeding has been confirmed in Polhill Reserve, which neighbours the fenced Zealandia wildlife sanctuary. These have been the first sightings on New Zealand's un-fenced mainland since the bird was declared extinct on the mainland in 1910.[2]

The recovery of the saddleback is considered by many to be one of New Zealand's greatest conservation success stories.



  1. ^ Ewen, John G; Flux, Ian; Ericson, Per GP (2006). "Systematic affinities of two enigmatic New Zealand passerines of high conservation priority, the hihi or stitchbird Notiomystis cincta and the kokako Callaeas cinerea (fulltext)" (PDF). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 40 (1): 281–84. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2006.01.026. PMID 16527495. Retrieved 16 July 2016.
  2. ^ Wannan, Olivia (2015-12-28). "Saddleback youngster spotted outside Zealandia". Retrieved 2018-02-05.

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