What’s In Your Garden: Tītipounamu
by Helen Cordery
Imagine this: you are walking through the forest on a cool, damp day. There is dew hanging from the fern fronds, a deep ‘squelch’ underfoot and nothing but the distant screech of kākā and flapping of heavy kererū wings in the distance. Suddenly there is a parting of branches and a stream of sunlight shines down in a long golden arc. It lands on the smallest bird you have ever seen, no larger than your thumb, with a stub of a beak and finely-painted green wings. Meet the tītipounamu, or rifleman, New Zealand’s smallest bird.
Endemic & ancient
The beautiful tītipounamu is one of only two surviving members of New Zealand’s wren family, with some academics believing that they have no close living relatives at all. The rifleman can be found across both the North and South Island’s of New Zealand, while only the luckiest of trampers can spot the rock wren in high, alpine areas of the South Island.
The tītipounamu is considered a poor flier and forms lifelong, monogamous bonds. It grows to between 7-10cm in length, and the female is often slightly larger than the male. They only eat insects such as moths and spiders.
How to recognise a rifleman
Males have bright green on their heads and backs, while females are yellow-brown with dark specks on their heads and backs. Their bill is slender and black and angles upwards at the end.
Tītipounamu makes lots of contact calls while foraging for insects and when they get scared they make a rapid very high-frequency call, often unheard by people.
Look for them in the forest canopy as well as near tree trunks. They don’t fly well and make lots of short burst journeys.
The story of Lyall’s wren
This tiny, flightless relative of the rifleman had only ever been seen alive twice by Europeans before it disappeared from human record. Although it’s remains have been found in ancient middens of the similarly deceased, laughing owl, it is generally accepted that the Lyall’s wren was hunted off the mainland by the introduction of kiore, Polynesian rat.
It was last seen on Stephen’s Island, 3.2km from the mainland (believed to have made its way across before the island separated from the mainland), alongside the now-extinct Hamilton’s frog. In 1879 forest was cleared to make way for a lighthouse, followed by the introduction of cats to keep mice populations down. One cat begins to bring wren carcasses inside, raising the attention of David Lyall, the assistant lighthouse keeper. While the wren attracts international attention, Lyall eventually finds that “…the cats have become wild and are making sad havoc among all the birds.”
By 1895 the bird is nowhere to be found and is proclaimed by the Christchurch newspaper, The Press, to be extinct. In 1897 the lighthouse keeper requests shotguns to take care of the by-now feral cats with the last eradicated from the island in 1925.
Tītipounamu at Pūkaha
We do not breed rifleman, though we do love them. We have lots of nesting boxes dotted around the Reserve which we monitor for rifleman activity – any changes to normal habits and we investigate the cause.
“The tītipounamu is my favourite bird of all,” Kylie, our Visitor Centre team leader, says, “I am always looking out for them when I’m leading a tour around Pūkaha. There is just something so special about them, it’s just so special for our visitors and our locals when we find one”.
Your best chance of spotting tītipounamu is on a Guided Tour, departing from the Visitor Centre every day at 11:00am and 2:00pm. Good luck!