Resurrecting the New Zealand Jesus Bird

The ‘Jesus bird’ is the unique name given to storm petrels, small seabirds of the family Hydrobatidae, for their characteristic ability to ‘walk’ on water. Storm petrels are remarkable creatures. With a body-weight about the same as a house sparrow, these seabirds can live for up to 30 years, and feed in the remote pelagic ocean hundreds of kilometres from land on planktonic crustaceans, only coming to land to nest.

New Zealand storm petrel at sea (Credit:

The New Zealand storm petrel (Fregetta maorianus) was first taxonomically described in the 19th century from specimens at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris and then presumed extinct since 1895 with no further collections. That was until bird watchers re-sighted the bird in 2003 and began an intensive monitoring campaign to try and locate the surviving breeding colony. Ten years later scientists last month have successfully discovered the breeding colony on Hauturu-O-Toi (Little Barrier Island) after tracking adult birds back to their colony, and once the adults had left locating one of many tiny eggs in a tiny nesting crevice in the cliff face.

New Zealand storm petrel egg
Scientists looking at the New Zealand storm petrel egg on Hauturu /Little Barrier Island. Graeme Taylor (DOC) holding egg, Dr. Matt Rayner (University of Auckland) in background by the burrow and Alan Tennyson (Te Papa) (Photo: Steffi Ismar).

The story of the New Zealand storm petrels rediscovery and ongoing undetected survival for over 100 years is a remarkable one. The prevailing hypothesis was that the birds had finally began recovering after introduced mammals, the major threat to storm-petrels, had been recently eradicated from their breeding colony. This turned out to be true, when the birds were tracked back to Hauturu-O-Toi which had only had introduced rats eradicated in 2004. Furthermore, the birds will be safe well in to the future from climate change with the high elevation profile of their breeding island, unlike many of their less fortunate relatives now restricted to small rat-free offshore islets. With the hard work of the bird-watchers and scientists over the past decade another species has been saved from extinction by pest eradication and a commitment to seabird monitoring.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Conservation biologist Dr. James Russell works throughout the world on remote islands and other sites to provide conservation solutions by applying a combination of scientific methods. Follow James on National Geographic voices for regular updates on his own work or other exciting developments in island conservation.