The stitchbird is one of the three representatives of the family Meliphagidae (honey eaters) native to New Zealand. The other two are the tui and bellbird. Unlike these, which have a New Zealand wide distribution and are, in general, fairly common in most suitable habitats, the stitch-bird (Notiomystis cincta) was always confined to the North Island and its off-shore islands, but is now probably extinct, except on Little Barrier Island where a small but apparently stable population persists. The common name does not refer to any weaverlike habit but is an attempt to put into a word the sound of the common call – a staccato, high-pitched “tzit”. A common Maori name was hihi – probably also imitative.
The male is very brightly coloured – head and neck are black; a tuft of snow-white erectile feathers is on each side of the head, and a bright yellow band lies across the breast and extends on to the upper parts of the wings. The rest of the upper surface of the body tends to be dark greenish-brown and the under surface a light yellowish-brown. The female is much duller, lacks the dramatic colour contrasts, and has just a touch of white on each side of the head.
Stitchbirds are forest dwellers and their diet consists of nectar, berries, and insects. Breeding takes place in November and December and up to five white eggs are laid in nests made in tree holes 10 to 50 ft above the ground. In the days when the species was common in the North Island, the Maori took it for food and used the yellow feathers for making ceremonial cloaks.
by Gordon Roy Williams, B.SC.(HONS.)(SYDNEY), Lecturer in Agricultural Zoology, Lincoln Agricultural College.