‘Old Blue’ an antidote to conservation fatigue

By SciBooks 21/02/2014


by Sophie FernUntitled2

REVIEW: Black Robin Country: The Chatham Islands and its wildlife.
by David Cemmick and Dick Veitch

Hodder and Stoughton, 1985

The story of the survival of the black robins and their matriarch ‘Old Blue’ is well known, but this is a legendary snapshot of the project at a time when no one knew whether it was possible to save a species of bird by using another to foster its eggs.  This new conservation technique was revolutionary. It was also months of remote fieldwork which, eventually, proved successful enough for the population to recover from five birds to the over two hundred birds that live on the island today.

As special as the story is, it is David Cemmick’s illustrations that make this book a classic.  His delicate watercolours are the types of biological illustrations that as aesthetically beautiful as they are accurate.  His black robin studies contain the essence of the bird with their long and incredibly delicate legs and the slightly nervous, flighty stance that makes it seem like as if they could flit off the page.  He sketches many of the creatures that he encountered on the island, including some very smug looking fur seals, black and white studies of the Chatham Island snipe and, my favourites, the ever bustling New Zealand shore plover.

The fully realised landscapes also show a depth and perspective of which any photographer would be jealous.  Cemmick doesn’t just focus on the birds. He draws the conservation team at work, the broken down old woolshed they shared with nesting broad billed prions, and, in a gloriously gory study, the remains of a little blue penguin that had been dinner for a skua.  He even illustrates the distinctive nibble patterns of the red-crowned parakeet on meuhlenbeckia leaves.  His attention to biological and behavioural detail is fantastic.

The text, by Dick Veitch, supports the illustrations and is aimed at a non-specialist audience.  Very generally, it describes the researcher’s adventures on the island from landing on the rocks early in the season and outlines the fostering work.  It assumes that the reader is familiar with the plight of the black robins which, when it was first published, was a safe assumption;  it probably still is, in New Zealand at least.  The book radiates enthusiasm for the Chatham’s wildlife and the tangible hope that this daring experiment will save the black robins from extinction is palpable even now, thirty years after it was first published. I recommend it to those who are suffering conservation fatigue and need a hopeful story and some good old-fashioned enthusiasm to keep cynicism at bay.

Although out of print, Black Robin Country is still available in libraries and from  websites such as Hard to Find and is well worth the time and modest cost (about $18.00) of searching it out.

So where is the black robin population at now?  It is still small.  When the intensive species management programme finished in 1989 there were over 200 birds, a number which has persisted until today.  Interestingly, a research paper published last year, showed that replacing black robin eggs that were laid on the edge of nests, into the centre of the nests, allowed a maladaptive trait to spread throughout the population, even though it allowed the population to grow.  Since human intervention finished, this trait has dramatically declined, potentially leaving the remaining population more robust. The happiest ending to this story may still be to come.

Sophie Fern is a marine biologist and writer who has studied all over the world and now lives on the Otago Peninsula.  She has found that cooking on research cruises is the perfect excuse to go to sea and has an ambition to one day visit all of New Zealand’s offshore islands.