Commonly called notornis from its scientific name, Notornis mantelli, the takahe first became known to science in 1847 when fossil bones were found near the mouth of the Waingongoro River on the southern Taranaki coast. Two years later a bird was taken alive in Dusky Sound, another in Thompson Sound in 1851, a third some 9 miles south-east of Te Anau township in 1879, and a fourth on the southern shore of the Middle Fiord of Lake Te Anau in 1898. No more living birds came to light until November 1948, when G. B. Orbell, of Invercargill, discovered a small colony in an old glacial valley at the eastern end of the Murchison Mountains, which lie between the Middle and South Fiords of Lake Te Anau. The place is now known as Takahe Valley, and the range of the South Island takahe has been found to extend over much of the Murchisons and part of the Kepler Mountains immediately to the south. The North Island race had almost certainly become extinct well before the European era. Originally, the species must have had a geographical range which included a great deal of the southern half of the North Island and most of the South. However, bones of an edible species are not a fully reliable guide to its distribution.
The present habitat is areas of snow tussock and subalpine scrub between about 2,500 and 4,000 ft above sea level. Beech forest is usually close at hand and this affords cover and a feeding area, especially in winter when snow blankets the species of Chionochloa grasses, the fleshy bases of which are the species' main food. As with the moas, takahe are primarily grazing animals, though young chicks feed mainly on insects.
In spite of fairly large wings, takahe are flightless, unlike their extremely close relatives, pukekos. A bowl-like nest of snowgrass leaves is made on the ground beneath the shelter of tussocks or scrub, and the clutch of one or two eggs is incubated by both birds of a pair for about four weeks. The young are first clad in thick black down, and about a year is needed before the full adult colouration of wax-pink bill and legs, metallic olive-green back, and indigo-blue throat, breast, and thighs, and white under-tail feathers is assumed. Sexes are alike, but males are slightly larger than females. The two most characteristic calls are a short high-pitched yelp in the male, which is more of a honk in the female, and an alarm note which has a deep and resonant gulping quality.
by Gordon Roy Williams, B.SC.(HONS.)(SYDNEY), Lecturer in Agricultural Zoology, Lincoln Agricultural College.