Black robin

The Chatham Island black robin was once the rarest bird in the world. Only an intensive management programme saved it from extinction.

The Chatham Island black robin is a small black bird standing only 15 cm high. The Chatham Islands lie 800 kilometres off the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand. Because of their size and location, strong winds, changing weather, and wild seas batter the islands. The black robin's natural habitat is in the woody vegetation of the Chatham Islands, sheltering from the strong winds in the lower branches of the tree canopy.

The black robin has strong legs for feeding on the forest floor where it finds wetas, cockroaches, worms and grubs. and other insects. It usually feeds and sings at night or in the early morning. Black robin wings are small and round, and used to flit from branch to branch, rather than fly long distances. They can live 6-13 years, and usually mate for life.


The Chatham Island black robin species had been discovered on Mangere Island and Little Mangere Island in 1871, but by 1938 the Mangere Island population had been wiped out by predators (cats and rats) and by the clearing of their forest habitat. The remaining population on Little Mangere survived for longer, but by 1976 there were only seven black robins. The Wildlife Service moved these birds to Mangere Island which had been replanted and where the cats had died. To remove the birds from the island they had to be carried in boxes down 200-metre high almost vertical cliffs to the coast. Although now in a protected environment, the black robins were slow breeders. Some new chicks were born, but older birds died so that by 1980 only 5 remained, and the species was on the edge of extinction.

Don Merton of the Wildlife Service came up with a plan to save the black robin. It involved using another species of bird as foster parents to the black robin eggs (hatching and raising them as their own chicks), so that the only black robin breeding pair would be encouraged to lay more eggs. Old Blue was the only breeding female of the 5 survivors. She was 9 years old when she first started breeding successfully, and with her mate, Old Yellow, she raised 11 chicks.
Eggs were taken from the black robins and put in the nests of the Chatham Islands tomtits and warblers. The warblers were not good foster parents, but the following year, in 1981, the tomtits hatched and raised a black robin chick.

Because the tomtit population was on another of the Chatham Islands, eggs had to be transported from there to Mangere Island, and the young birds transported back. Because of the difficulties and dangers of these trips permission was given to start a black robin population in 1983 on the tomtit's island. The black robin population today stands at around 250 birds, all descended from the last breeding pair, Old Blue and Old Yellow.

More information

Black robin resources, opens a new window in our catalogue
Rare and endangered New Zealand birds: conservation and management, opens a new window Peter Gaze
The natural world of New Zealand: an illustrated encyclopaedia of New Zealand's natural heritage, opens a new window Gerard Hutching
Black robin, opens a new window Jenny Jones
Black robin, opens a new window Department of Conservation
TeAra Robins and Tomtits

Remembering Don Merton and a bird called ‘Old Blue’ Article from Predator Free NZ

The Black Robin - A Chatham Island Story Documentary (1989) at NZ On Screen

New Zealand birds online Black Robin
Our full list of New Zealand Birds and Animals
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