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  • Jasmine Starr

Bird of the Year

Called by Jasmine Starr | In partnership with Forest and Bird

What makes a truly magnificent bird? Is it their call? Their legginess? Their behaviour? How majestic they are, how gracefully they move? Is it how long, after they sneak into Jim Henson’s studio, they could pass for a muppet? Well, Matuku-hūrepo, also known as the Australasian bittern, fulfils all of these categories. It is a majestic muppet of a creature, and yet it hasn’t won Bird of the Year even once. It’s a complete and utter travesty, and you all should be ashamed of yourselves.

The matuku is a long-legged and long-necked bird, beautifully striped with various shades of brown and white to blend in with the grass and rush of their wetland habitats. They have a light stripe by their yellow eyes, giving the impression of perennially confused eyebrows. When threatened the matuku will freeze, stretching their long, long neck straight into the air, higher than you’d ever think possible. This makes the stripes running down their neck vertical, helping them blend completely into the rushes and sedge.

A matuku’s diet consists mainly of fish, but they also feed on various insects, spiders, molluscs, worms, crayfish, and even frogs, lizards, and eels. Matuku live in densely vegetated freshwater wetlands of southern Australia, Tasmania, New Caledonia, and Aotearoa. All the bird guides say you can find them in Northland, Waikato, the east coast of the North Island, and the west coast of the South Island, but they’re known for their mysterious nature, brilliant at camouflage and living in impenetrable wetland, so good luck trying to spot one. 

You may, however, be able to hear their call—a deep, thrumming tone that sounds somewhere between a human humming and a vibrating cell phone. Each individual bird has its own pattern of calls, between one and ten calls per sequence, although most birds average at around three. 

In South-Eastern Australian Aboriginal mythology, unfamiliar calls were often attributed to the mysterious and dangerous swamp-dwelling bunyip—often our little muppet matuku. During mating season, the deep, vibrating ‘booms’ of the matuku are something to behold.

Around 20% of the total population resides in Whangamarino wetlands in the Waikato, a wildlife refuge run by the Department of Conservation. But 20% of our country’s matuku population is, sadly, still not a large number of birds. Their species is critically endangered. There are less than 1000 total matuku remaining in Aotearoa, and around the same number in Australia. The current estimated population in New Caledonia is less than 50 birds.

The presence of matuku is a great indicator of freshwater wetland health, as they cannot live in a habitat without sufficient biodiversity, thick and native vegetation, and good water quality. Matuku love a good, dense wetland, filtered and shaded by native plants with plenty of room for foraging and nesting. The health, size, and native plants of these habitats are dwindling, and the population of the matuku is declining alongside it.

Humans have not been especially good at preserving freshwater wetlands. We have now rendered over 90% of the matuku’s habitats in Aotearoa New Zealand uninhabitable, clearing them for farming and agriculture. Of the remaining wetlands, many have been salinised, drained, eroded, or filled with runoff from nearby farms. The native plants matuku depend on for shelter and camouflage can get overrun and destroyed by invasive species. Changes in water levels, a big problem for the ground-nesting matuku, affect even the Whangamarino conservation wetlands. These factors also drive out the creatures these birds feed on. To tack on yet another problem, introduced predators—the usual suspects of rats, stoats and cats—eat the eggs of the matuku. This problem is only worsened by increasingly shrinking habitats, and the resulting loss of hiding and camouflage spots provided by dense native vegetation.

With this beloved bird facing all these plights, it’s no wonder they’re critically endangered. The good news is, we can help. It’s not too late for the matuku. 

You don’t have to wait for the government to make changes—although protesting and political publicity is always important, it’s tiring to feel like all the change lies out of your reach. You can do so much good for the matuku and the rest of our creatures with your own two hands. You can participate in trapping for Predator Free 2050, by joining your local community group, or backyard trapping egg-eating pests such as mustelids and rats. You can keep your cats indoors, or find them collars that prevent them from munching on the native fauna. Participate in rubbish  cleanups! Raise money! Join a conservation group such as (ahem) Forest and Bird!

If you live near a wetland, you can greatly help the matuku’s habitat by weeding, getting rid of invasive ‘temporary fix’ species such as grey willows, and sowing naturally filtering native plants, such as the matuku-favourite rushes and sedges, that improve water quality. Even simply putting a fence around a wetland helps significantly. There is funding available, from the Department of Conservation and some regional councils, to financially support your wetland restoration. Matuku will travel long distances to find a suitable habitat. Who knows? You might start to hear a ‘booming’ call from your very own neighbourhood.

If you don’t have the time or energy for hands-on work, you can help by donating money to conservation efforts, helping out Give a Trap, or giving these efforts publicity, even just through social media, so others can trap and donate, too. Something as simple as voting for Bird of the Year later this year helps bring awareness to birds that desperately need our attention, help, and donations. We all love a good kākāpō, but there are so many underrepresented endangered birds that also need the support that comes with public recognition, donations, and habitat restoration. 

Critically endangered birds need our help, before we lose yet another glorious feathered member of Aotearoa to extinction. So why not, this year, choose to support the magnificent muppet matuku?


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