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"The Most Melodious Wild Musick I Have Ever Heard"

That was Sir Joseph Bank’s description of New Zealand’s dawn chorus of birds, which he heard on a January morning a quarter of a mile off the coast of New Zealand, on Captain Cook’s first circumnavigation of the south seas. Over the course of its evolutionary history, New Zealand had become an extraordinary center of bird endemism, with birds filling evolutionary niches occupied in other places by mammals. Ten species of moa, huge wingless birds, were hunted into oblivion by the Maori, and, as Tim Flannery explains in The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, the arrival of Europeans was likewise devastating. His description of the silencing of the dawn chorus is one of the most haunting ever written about extinction: “I would gladly remain ignorant of the joy of the Haka, or even the heart-stopping beauty of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa singing Songs of the Auvergne, for the privilege of waking to a symphony of ‘the most tuneable silver sound imaginable’. [New Zealand’s] multitudes of birds performed that symphony each dawn for over 60 million years. It was a glorious riot of sound with its own special meaning, for it was a confirmation of the health of a wondrous and unique ecosystem. To my great regret, I arrived in New Zealand in the late twentieth century only to find most of the orchestra seats empty. Walking through the ancient forest, whose still-living trees were once browsed by moa, I heard nothing but the whisper of leaves blowing in the wind. It was like the rustle of the last curtain fall on an orchestra that will be no more.” One of five kiwi species, the Great Spotted Kiwi survives thanks to intensive conservation efforts that include trapping of invasive species (chiefly stoats, but also dogs and cats) and monitoring. But it is still in decline, listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. In 2008, the BNZ Save the Kiwi Trust estimated the population at 16,000, found in three main populations on New Zealand’s South Island, but the group emphasizes that more research is needed to identify all causes of the decline. Meanwhile, the group’s Operation Nest Egg has brought together researchers, volunteers, and communities in an effort to remove kiwi eggs from the wild, raise the chicks until they are big and hearty enough to defend themselves against stoats, and then return them to the wild: The project has raised survival rates from 5% to 65%. While New Zealand’s spectacular dawn chorus may never be heard again, the Great Spotted is still making its distinctive calls. You can hear them here. You can also make a donation to fund kiwi protection and restoration.
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