Plucking a victim from the wreckage, Tony Collins

The Black Robin: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Bird
David Butler and Don Merton,
Oxford University Press, $49.95

The story of the black robin’s rescue from the brink of extinction has been told more than once in recent years by specialists who had been directly involved in the study and management of the species. Former fieldworker Dick Veitch collaborated with an English artist to produce for the popular market in 1985 Black Robin Country, a much less focused and demanding account than the present one. It is only four years since the Wild South television documentary series was complemented by a book of the same title, co-authored by Rod Morris, who was associated with the black robin as a Wildlife Service trainee and later as a voluntary worker and TVNZ director. His chapter on Petroica traversi was enriched by photography that married the natural and human dramas, most notably in a spectacular shot of a pair of birds being transported down a cliff face of Little Mangere Island in the Chathams group for relocation to neighbouring Mangere Island. It is an image that Butler and Merton obviously could not resist re-using. Morris’s book was sharper in focus than Veitch’s, but also appropriately limited to translating the efforts of wildlife officers to the small screen.

What we have now is on an altogether grander scale, scholarly in its approach without being so dry as to deprive the reader of repeated vicarious adrenalin rushes, and covering in depth the 120 years from the first documented awareness of the Chatham Island black robin as a distinct species to the 1991/92 breeding season. Don Merton’s name is pre-eminent among those responsible for the bird’s recovery and he has undoubtedly brought to this book the ordered command of detail for which he is renowned and to which the black robin in no small part owes its present existence. The principal author is Department of Conservation scientist David Butler, whose penchant for full stories has diminished not at all since the appearance of his Quest for the Kakapo in 1989. For the most part what he has written will be accessible to the general reader. Aviary owners accustomed to keeping meticulous breeding records and knowing their pairings by ring colours and numbers should appreciate the complicated trackings of matings, reproduction and cross-fostering. Others could at times be excused bewilderment, for thinking perhaps that it is all rather like the re-telling of some overly exuberant wife-swapping party.

Generous in its acknowledgement of local assistance and personal sacrifice by those seeking to pluck a severely battered victim from the ‘wreckage of an avifauna’ that is New Zealand, the text nevertheless indicates that chance often played as big a role as human calculation. It was purely fortuitous that a colour band on Old Yellow, the crucial two-year-old male who was to leave productive progeny, should have caught up his hind toe at precisely the time when the 1979 expedition was present to relieve his misery and not in any of the preceding 22 months. It was similarly fortunate that the Chatham Island tit, so tolerant of human interference, was available on South East Island as an alternative foster-parent when fostering upon warblers proved to have major drawbacks. Indeed, fate could be even more kind to the black robin than were humans, when instances of bureaucratic parsimony and inflexibility are thrown into the scales.

The intricate intermeshing of factors that has enabled the re-establishment of a viable black robin population is unlikely to be replicated elsewhere, even in New Zealand. That does not reduce this book’s significance. Such a comprehensive, richly illustrated work cannot but provide inspiration to conservationists engaged on other tasks and spiritual uplift to a country whose conscience over its treatment of nature stands in desperate need of some healing.


Tony Collins is an Auckland teacher who has been a keen aviculturist since childhood.



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Posted in Natural History, Non-fiction, Review
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