Story: Small forest birds

Page 3. Saddlebacks and stitchbirds

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North and South Island saddlebacks

The North Island saddleback (Philesturnus rufusater) and South Island saddleback (Philesturnus carunculatus) are both known as tīeke to Māori. They belong to an old endemic family, Callaeidae (New Zealand wattlebirds).

Both species are glossy black with a chestnut-red saddle and rump, and red fleshy wattles hanging from the base of the bill. The North Island saddleback has a buff-coloured line at the front edge of the saddle. They hop on long, strong legs, and fly noisily for short distances. Their main call is an insistent, raucous ‘tee-kekeke’.

Saving the saddleback

The South Island saddleback would be extinct if the birds had not been rescued by being moved to rat-free islands by the Wildlife Service in 1964, after ship rats invaded Taukihepa/Big South Cape Island. It was the first example internationally of a bird species being saved from extinction by human intervention. Rats were eradicated from Taukihepa in 2006, and saddlebacks were reintroduced there in 2011–12.

Decline and partial recovery

Saddlebacks were very common when European settlement began. But as rats, stoats and ferrets spread they declined rapidly, until they were left on only a few rat-free islands. They roost and nest in holes, often near the ground, so are easily caught. The removal of predators from islands and fenced mainland sanctuaries has allowed many new populations of South and North Island saddlebacks to become established. Where food is plentiful, they raise several broods a year.


Saddlebacks eat insects, fruit and nectar. Their specially adapted jaw allows them to open their bill forcefully, and prise open decaying wood looking for grubs, wētā and other large invertebrates. Like parrots, they sometimes hold food with one foot and tear it apart with their bill.


The stitchbird or hihi (Notiomystis cincta) was once thought to belong to the honeyeater family, but a recent genetic study suggests it is closer to the Callaeidae (New Zealand wattlebirds). However, it feeds in a similar way to the honeyeaters.


The English name describes the bird’s short clicking call, which sounds like machine stitching. The Māori name, hihi, means rays of the sun or feelers. It refers to the male’s yellow breast plumage, or to the bird’s facial whiskers – which also earn the brown female the name mata-kiore (rat-face).

Stitchbirds are 18 centimetres long. The male weighs 40 grams and the female 30 grams.

Males and females have quite different plumage. The male has a black head, chest and back, with white ‘ear’ tufts that stand erect during displays. The black edge is bordered with rich yellow, and wings are contrasting yellow and black with a white wing-bar. The female is greenish brown with a white wing-bar. Stitchbirds usually hold their tails erect when perching, in a similar posture to the related saddlebacks. Their bills are short, and they have very long, brush-tipped tongues.


Stitchbirds feed on nectar, berries and invertebrates.


Stitchbirds nest in tree holes, which makes it difficult for them to escape from predators. They occasionally mate face to face – something not seen in any other bird. Some are monogamous, while others (male or female) have more than one mate. In monogamous pairs, males help feed the chicks. The oldest known stitchbird lived seven years.


Stitchbirds were common around the North Island until the 1870s, but by 1885 were found only on Little Barrier Island. Since 1980, some have been moved to other islands and sanctuaries. This has sometimes been successful, but their food needs have not always been met, partly because of competition from tūī and bellbirds. Supplementary feeding with sugar water helps overcome this problem.

How to cite this page:

Christina Troup, 'Small forest birds - Saddlebacks and stitchbirds', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 May 2024)

Story by Christina Troup, published 24 Sep 2007, reviewed & revised 17 Feb 2015, updated 1 Aug 2023