Bird O'clock

10 Fascinating Facts About the Endangered Black Stilt Bird

The black stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae) is a unique and endangered bird species that is endemic to New Zealand. Also known as kaki in Mori, this bird has distinct physical features and plumages, making it a fascinating subject for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts.


The black stilt is a medium-sized bird, measuring around 40 cm in length and weighing approximately 225 g. It has a long and slender black bill, which is slightly upturned at the tip.

The legs are also long and black, extending beyond the tail. During breeding season, both sexes have a dark black plumage, which fades to grey-brown during the non-breeding season.

The eyes are bright red, which contrasts with the black plumage.



The black stilt can be easily identified in the wild by its long bill and legs as well as its unique plumage.

It is often seen wading in shallow waters, especially in braided riverbeds. When feeding, it searches for insects, crustaceans, and mollusks in the water.

Similar Species

The black stilt is similar in appearance to the white-faced heron and the pied stilt. The white-faced heron, however, has a white face and a grey-blue plumage, while the pied stilt has black and white plumage and a shorter bill than the black stilt.


The black stilt has a distinct breeding and non-breeding plumage. During the breeding season, both sexes have a glossy black plumage, which extends to the head, neck, back, and wings.

The feathers on the wings have a greenish sheen, which contrasts with the bright red eyes. The non-breeding plumage is grey-brown, with a white belly, and lacks the greenish sheen on the wings.

The young birds have a brown plumage, which gradually fades to black as they mature.


The black stilt undergoes a complete molt once a year, which occurs after the breeding season. The adults undergo a partial molt during the non-breeding season, replacing some of the feathers on the wings and tail.

The young birds undergo a similar molt during their first year, replacing their brown feathers with black ones. In conclusion, the black stilt is a unique and fascinating bird species that is endemic to New Zealand.

Its distinct physical features and plumages make it an easy bird to identify in the wild. However, due to habitat loss and predation, this bird is endangered, making conservation efforts crucial to preserving its existence.

Systematics History

The black stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae) is a species of bird in the family Recurvirostridae, which also includes the avocet. The first scientific description of the species was made by the English ornithologist John Gould in 1841.

The species was later placed in the genus Himantopus based on morphological and behavioral characteristics, which distinguish it from other members of the family.

Geographic Variation

The black stilt is endemic to New Zealand, and its distribution is limited to the South Island and a few islands in the Mackenzie Basin. However, the species historically had a larger distribution that extended to other parts of the country.

The species is known to occur in two different populations, the northern and southern populations, that are separated by the Southern Alps.


There are two recognized subspecies of the black stilt: the North Island black stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae st impennis) and the South Island black stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae novaezelandiae). The North Island black stilt was formerly distributed throughout the North Island, but is now confined to the Egmont National Park and Mount Taranaki area.

The South Island black stilt is restricted to braided riverbeds located in the Mackenzie Basin, Tekapo, Pukaki lake fronts, and a few other areas.

Related Species

The black stilt belongs to the genus Himantopus, which includes six other species of stilt that are found in different parts of the world. These species share similar physical characteristics, such as long legs and bills, and are adapted to life in wetland habitats and areas with shallow waters.

The black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), for example, is found in North and South America and has a similar black and white plumage to the black stilt.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The black stilt’s distribution was considerably larger in the past. Fossil records indicate that the species was once found throughout the North Island, but today it is restricted to a small area around Mount Taranaki.

The reduced distribution is due to habitat loss and modification, as well as the introduction of predators such as the stoat, ferret, and feral cats. The South Island population of the black stilt has also undergone significant changes to its distribution.

Historically, the species was distributed across various river systems throughout the South Island, including the Canterbury Plains and the Central Otago area. However, with urbanization, agricultural development, and the construction of hydroelectric dams, the species has seen a significant decline in its population.

Today, the black stilt’s distribution is limited to a few isolated braided riverbed systems in the Mackenzie Basin.

Conservation Efforts

With such a limited distribution and small population size, the black stilt is considered an endangered species. The Department of Conservation (DOC) of New Zealand has implemented various conservation measures to protect and increase the population of this species, such as controlling introduced predators, habitat restoration, and captive breeding programs.

The captive breeding program, initiated in the 1980s, has been successful in increasing the population of the species, with over 100 birds being released back into the wild. The program is ongoing, and the DOC continues to monitor the species to ensure its survival and protection.

In conclusion, the black stilt is a unique and fascinating bird species that is endemic to New Zealand. With its limited distribution and small population size, the species is endangered and requires conservation efforts to ensure its survival.

The historical changes to the species’ distribution demonstrate the impact of human activities on the environment and the need to implement conservation measures to protect endangered species.


The black stilt has specific habitat requirements that are essential for its survival. This bird is typically found in the braided riverbeds of New Zealand’s South Island, where it feeds on invertebrates such as crustaceans, mollusks, and insects.

The bird’s long legs and bill make it well-suited to wading through the shallow waters of these rivers, searching for food. The black stilt’s nesting habitat is usually located on the gravel bars of these braided riverbeds, where the birds construct nests hidden among the pebbles.

The braided riverbeds that the black stilt inhabits are formed by the continual shifting of gravel deposits that create a complex network of channels, islands, and gravel bars. These riverbeds are characterized by fast-flowing water, and it is the constant movement of the river that is critical to the formation of these habitats.

The black stilt depends on these habitats for its survival, and the conservation of these braided riverbeds is crucial for the species’ continued existence.

Movements and Migration

The black stilt is a non-migratory bird, and its movements are typically limited to local movements within its breeding and non-breeding habitats. However, the species is known to disperse from its breeding habitat to nearby non-breeding habitats following the completion of the breeding season.

Research has also shown that some juvenile birds may disperse over longer distances, and one individual has been recorded dispersing around 120 km from its natal area. One interesting behavior exhibited by the black stilt is “nomadism,” in which individuals move between braided riverbeds within its range in response to variations in food availability or the availability of suitable breeding habitat.

Nomadism is exhibited by a small percentage of the population, and it is believed to be an adaptive mechanism that allows the birds to survive and reproduce in areas where food and suitable breeding habitat are scarce.

Conservation Efforts

The black stilt is a critically endangered species, and as such, conservation efforts are underway to protect and conserve its habitat. The Department of Conservation (DOC) of New Zealand has implemented various conservation measures, such as predator control, habitat restoration, and captive breeding programs, to protect and increase the population of the black stilt.

Predator control is essential for the survival of the black stilt as introduced predators such as stoats, ferrets, and feral cats are major contributors to the decline of the species. Predator control measures include the use of traps, bait stations, and hunting dogs to eliminate predators and prevent them from entering the breeding habitat of the black stilt.

Habitat restoration programs aim to increase the availability of suitable breeding and foraging habitats for the black stilt. These programs often involve the use of river management techniques such as gravel augmentation, to increase the size and availability of gravel bars, which are critical nesting habitats for the birds.

Lastly, captive breeding programs have been implemented to increase the population size of the black stilt. These programs involve the capture of wild individuals, which are then kept in captivity and bred to produce offspring.

The offspring are then released into the wild, where they help to increase the population size of the species. In conclusion, the black stilt’s habitat and movements are critical components of the species’ survival.

The braided riverbeds of New Zealand’s South Island are essential habitats that the black stilt relies on for food and breeding. As a non-migratory bird, the species’ movements are usually limited, except for local dispersal.

Conservation efforts aimed at protecting and conserving the black stilt’s habitat are essential to ensure the species’ survival, and predator control, habitat restoration, and captive breeding programs are some of the measures currently being implemented to achieve this goal.

Diet and Foraging


As a long-legged shorebird, the black stilt has a unique feeding behavior, and its feeding style is often described as “run and pick.” This bird forages along shallow water edges, probing their long bills into sand and mud, searching for small invertebrates, such as crustaceans, mollusks, and insects. Once the bird detects its prey, it picks it up and ingests it whole.


Due to its feeding behavior, the black stilt’s diet consists mainly of invertebrates found in and around its habitat, such as shrimp, worms, and insects. The bird’s diet varies according to the availability of prey items, and it is also affected by the bird’s breeding and non-breeding plumages.

During the breeding season, the bird’s diet is richer in protein, which helps to support egg production and chick rearing. Metabolism and Temperature Regulation:

The black stilt has a high metabolic rate, which is essential for its feeding behavior and its ability to maintain a high body temperature.

The bird’s high metabolic rate allows it to consume a substantial amount of food relative to its body size. The bird’s ability to regulate its body temperature is also crucial, as it lives in an environment with fluctuating temperatures.

It accomplishes this through behavior and physiology, such as reducing its activity during the hottest part of the day and by increasing its respiratory rate to dissipate body heat.

Sounds and Vocal



The black stilt has several distinctive vocalizations, which birds use to communicate with each other. These vocalizations vary in tone and pitch, used for different purposes such as courtship, territorial marking, and alarm calls.

The most commonly heard vocalization is a series of piping calls that are high-pitched and trilled. During the breeding season, black stilts become extremely vocal, with males using a variety of vocalizations to court females.

These calls are more frequent and varied than at other times of the year, and they range from soft cooing sounds to loud and excited calls. Females also vocalize during the courtship period, with a more limited range of calls.

Territorial behavior in black stilts is also marked by their vocal behavior, with calls used to defend against rivals or to keep neighbors at a distance. Alarm calls are vital for the safety of both chicks and adults; these calls are usually triggered by the presence of predators such as stoats, ferrets, and feral cats, and can attract other birds to the area to help defend against the threat.

In Conclusion:

The black stilt is a fascinating and unique bird species that has evolved to adapt to its specific habitat. Its feeding behavior, diet, metabolism, temperature regulation, and vocalizations are all distinctive features that make this bird a subject of interest for birdwatchers and nature lovers.

Understanding these features is important in devising conservation measures and implementing strategies to protect and enhance the species’ population and habitat.



The black stilt’s long legs and bill make it a proficient wader, and it moves around in shallow water with ease. This bird uses a variety of physical adaptations to maintain its balance while wading, including spreading its wings, leaning forward, and trailing one wing in the water to provide stability.

Self Maintenance:

Black stilts are extremely efficient at maintaining their plumage, which helps to maintain their insulation and flight capability. They regularly clean their plumage by preening, using their bills to align and smooth their feathers.

They also use oil secreted from a gland at the base of their tail to waterproof their feathers, which helps with insulation and buoyancy. Agonistic


Like many birds, Black stilts are territorial, and both males and females defend their territory during the breeding season.

This bird uses a variety of behaviors to establish dominance over rivals, and these can include displays such as head bobbing, wing flapping, and vocalizations. Sexual


During the breeding season, the black stilt uses a variety of vocalizations and visual displays as part of its courtship rituals.

Males use vocalizations to attract females and will often display their breeding plumage to gain their attention. Once paired, black stilts remain monogamous for the duration of the breeding season.


The breeding season of the black stilt occurs between August and February, with the most intense period occurring between November and January. During this time, black stilts establish breeding territories along braided riverbeds by displaying their breeding plumage and using vocalizations to attract a mate.

Once paired, a few days of courtship follow during which the birds engage in dances and interactions to cement their bond. Black stilt nests are rudimentary scrapes made in the gravel, often lined with grass, leaves, or feathers.

Both males and females take turns incubating the eggs, which typically number three to four. During the incubation period, which usually lasts for around 27 days, both parents take turns to care for their clutch.

After hatching, the chicks are brooded by both parents for several days, during which the parents feed the chicks small invertebrates and protect them from predators. As the chicks grow and become more independent, they will venture further away from the nest and into the surrounding gravel bars, becoming increasingly self-sufficient.

Demography and Populations

The black stilt is a critically endangered species, and as such, monitoring the populations and demographics of the bird is crucial to ensuring its survival. The population size of the black stilt is estimated to be around 100-120 individuals, with the majority of these located in the Mackenzie Basin of New Zealand’s South Island.

Studies have shown that the black stilt population has a slow rate of recruitment and growth, and the species is also vulnerable to fluctuations in environmental factors such as habitat destruction and predation. The Department of Conservation (DOC) of New Zealand has implemented various conservation measures aimed at increasing the population of the species, including habitat restoration, predator control and captive breeding programs.

In Conclusion:

The black stilt’s unique behavior, breeding habits, and demographics are all essential elements in understanding and conserving this critically endangered species. Its efficient self-maintenance behaviors, agonistic displays used to establish territorial boundaries, and sexual behavior all play a crucial role in the bird’s life cycle.

Similarly, understanding the species’ breeding, incubation periods, and chick-rearing habits is crucial for implementing effective management strategies. The black stilt’s unfortunate decline in population size highlights the importance of conservation efforts and the urgent need to protect this unique bird species.

In conclusion, the black stilt is a fascinating bird species that faces many challenges due to habitat loss, predation, and being a critically endangered species. Despite these challenges, efforts by the Department of Conservation to protect and preserve this bird’s vital habitat have shown success in the captive breeding program, which has helped increase the population size of this bird.

Its unique features such as its long legs and bill and vocalizations make it stand out and make it a subject of interest. The significance of understanding the bird’s behavior, demographics, and conservation efforts cannot be overstated.

We must continue to implement protective measures to ensure the survival and preservation of this bird and others like it.

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