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"Just a Cuddly Toy"

That’s how one of the great bird men of all time—Don Merton of New Zealand’s Wildlife Service—describes “Richard Henry”: “I’d talk to him and scratch him and he’d put his head back and just close his eyes, just like nursing a big Persian cat.” Richard Henry was one of the last of the Kakapo, the famous flightless nocturnal owl parrot rescued from sure extinction by Merton and other conservationists, a story told in Sir David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds and other BBC documentaries. Merton also rescued Today’s Endangered All-Star, the Black Robin, which by 1980 was down to a population of five, including a single breeding pair. In an interview in the New Zealand Listener, Merton remembers sneaking finch chicks into his grandmother’s canary cage as a boy: The canary raised the interlopers as her own. Faced with the imminent demise of the Black Robin, Merton used those insights to experiment with cross-fostering, removing the eggs of the world’s last fertile female, “Old Blue,” to be hatched and raised by other birds, a system that induced Old Blue to produce eggs more rapidly. Despite the genetic bottleneck created by that near-brush with annihilation, there are now over 250 Robins in two healthy populations on two islands, Mangere and Rangatira, and plans to introduce the bird on a third. On retiring, Merton described the connection he felt to the creatures he saved: “They are beautiful little birds to work with, they come right up into your personal space and look you in the eye. And because of Old Blue, they still survive. So it was a very special time in my life. I feel hugely privileged to have worked with them and to have helped them.”
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