North Island saddleback -- 北岛鞍背鸦 (Philesturnus rufusater)

North Island saddleback calling
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North Island saddleback fact file

North Island saddleback description

GenusPhilesturnus (1)

This distinctive bird of New Zealand is easily recognised by the iconic hazelnut-coloured ‘saddle’ straddling the back, which contrasts with the glossy black body, head, bill and legs. On either side of the beak is a fleshy orange appendage known as a wattle (2). Young North Island saddlebacks have chocolate brown plumage when they first hatch, which is paler on the underparts with reddish-brown tail coverts (3), but develop the saddleback marking before leaving the nest (2). The North Island saddleback is a very vocal bird; the male has a repertoire of melodious calls that are used during mating and in territorial disputes (2).

The North Island saddleback was once considered conspecific with the South Island saddleback (Philesturnus carunculatus), but they are now considered by many to be separate species, based on differences in their songs and calls, plumage, size and genes (4) (5).

Also known as
Length: 25 cm (2)
Male weight: 80 g (2)
Female weight: 70 g (2)

North Island saddleback biology

The North Island saddleback forages during the day in pairs or family groups (7). Although primarily insect-eating, it also eats fruit and occasionally nectar (8). It is typically found on or near the ground, as it is not a strong flier, and bounds between branches or along the ground rather than taking long flights (6).

The North Island saddleback roosts and nests in natural cavities situated close to the ground (7). A monogamous species, it usually raises one brood during the period between October and January, but will nest up to four times at recently colonised sites where there is abundant food (6). The female incubates the eggs for a period of around 20 days and, after the eggs have hatched, the male gathers food to be distributed between the chicks and the female (8).The North Island saddleback is a relatively long-lived bird, with individuals known to live for up to 20 years (7).


North Island saddleback range

The North Island saddleback was once widespread over the North Islands of New Zealand, and some offshore islands, but by the early 1900s this species was extinct on the mainland (6), and restricted to just a single population on 500 hectare Hen Island (4). Thankfully, the actions of conservationists who moved the saddleback to predator-free islands, saved this species from extermination (2) (6). The North Island saddleback is now found on 13 large islands and in 2 wildlife sanctuaries on the mainland (4).  


North Island saddleback habitat

The North Island saddleback survives in a broad range of habitats, from coastal scrub to tall forest (7).


North Island saddleback status

This species is considered by some to be a subspecies of Philesturnus carunculatus, which is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).


North Island saddleback threats

The accidental and intentional introduction of mammalian predators to New Zealand has been a long standing threat to the saddleback (2). The fact that it roosts and nests close to the ground makes the saddleback particularly vulnerable to predation (4). Predation by rats, feral cats and stoats, combined with forest clearance, caused this bird’s demise on the mainland by the 20th century, leaving just a single population remaining on Hen Island (2) (4). Although the North Island saddleback has been found to be able to coexist with the Pacific rat (Rattus exulans), it cannot persist on islands with the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus). Thus, the accidental introduction of the brown rat (or another predator) to further islands is an ever-present threat to the saddleback (6).


North Island saddleback conservation

Since the first translocation of the saddleback from Hen Island to nearby Whatapuke Island in 1964, many more saddleback populations have been established on predator-free islands. However, the conservation work is not yet complete; vigilance is required to ensure that established populations are kept safe from a reinvasion of predators (2).

While the North Island saddleback is currently secure on offshore islands, its reintroduction to the mainland is also desirable (7). In June 2002, 39 North Island saddlebacks were released into the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, a 250 hectare patch of native forest surrounded by a predator-proof fence on the New Zealand mainland (6), and in 2006, 36 birds were released into a similar mainland site at Bushy Park (4) (9).


Find out more

To learn more about the conservation of the saddleback see:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:



Authenticated (28/09/10) by Kevin Parker, Institute of Natural Sciences, Massey University, New Zealand.

This species information was authored as part of the Arkive and Universities Scheme.


Group of young.
Belonging to the same species.
Previously domesticated animals that have returned to a wild state.
Keeps eggs warm so that development is possible.
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
An attempt to establish a native species back into an area where it previously occurred.
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
Describes an animal, a pair of animals or a colony that occupies and defends an area.
The movement of a species, by people, from one area to another.


  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2010)
  2. Department of Conservation, New Zealand (May, 2010)
  3. Heather, B. and Robertson, H. (1996) The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Viking, Penguin Books, Auckland.
  4. Parker, K. (2010) The Impacts of Translocation on the Cultural Evolution of Song in the North Island Saddleback or Tīeke (Philesturnus rufaster). Unpublished PhD Thesis, Massey University, New Zealand.
  5. Holdaway, R.N., Worthy, T.H. and Tennyson, A.J.D. (2001) A working list of breeding bird species of the New Zealand region at first human contact. New Zealand Journal of Zoology, 28: 119-187.
  6. BirdLife International (May, 2010)
  7. Hooson, S. and Jamieson, I.G. (2003) The distribution and current status of New Zealand saddleback Philesturnus carunculatus. Bird Conservation International, 13: 79-95.
  8. Falla, R.A., Sibson, R.B. and Turbott, E.G. (1974) A Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  9. Reintroduction Specialist Group, Oceania Section (September, 2010)

Image credit

North Island saddleback calling  
North Island saddleback calling

© Michael Hamilton

Michael Hamilton


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