By Helen Taylor 26/03/2018

It’s well known that funding for conservation is seriously lacking, so we’ve had to get creative when it comes to raising money to protect New Zealand’s little ray of sunshine, the hihi.

The hihi – a taonga in trouble

A hihi in the hand is worth two in the bush
Have you seen this bird? Probably not – the hihi is pretty hard to find (Image credit: Helen Taylor)

Research careers are funny things. One minute you’re planning out how you’re going to secure a permanent position and a Prime Minister’s Science Prize (#dreams). The next you’re encouraging people to bet on bird sperm races to raise much needed cash for a taonga species.

As a researcher, I measure sperm quality across several New Zealand bird species (wondering why? Fair enough – read this, related post.). One of my study species is the hihi or stitchbird, perhaps one of New Zealand’s least well-known, but most charismatic avian critters. It’s not surprising that people are not familiar with this bird; hihi are really difficult to see. They were once widespread across the North Island but, thanks to the arrival of both humans and their associated problems, by 1880, hihi could only be found on Hauturu (Little Barrier Island).

A slow, expensive recovery

There are currently seven sites with hihi in New Zealand
Where to find hihi: The seven locations that currently play host to this oft-neglected taonga

Thanks to the hard work of the hihi recovery group and a large group of associated researchers, sanctuary management teams, and associated volunteers, there are now seven populations of hihi and numbers are growing. However, hihi are extremely reliant on continuous management. All populations apart from the original one on Hauturu require supplementary feeding with sugar water to keep going. Five out of the seven populations are reliant on nest boxes for hatching their chicks.

Are hihi just a bit rubbish? No, they’re not. But they seem to need complex, old growth forest habitat. There just isn’t much of that around in New Zealand anymore thanks to logging and land clearance. Finding new sites to relocate hihi to that won’t require supplementary feeding and nest boxes has proved almost impossible. That makes hihi conservation an expensive business. But not many people know about them, so they don’t receive much funding.

A snapshot of hihi life history
L-R: Hihi like to feed on nectar. When there aren’t enough plants around, they rely on sugar water in special feeders. Many hihi chicks are currently hatched in nest boxes. Hihi sperm at x400 magnification. (Image credits: Mhairi McCready, Vix Franks, Mhairi McCready, Helen Taylor)

The Great Hihi Sperm Race is born

Hihi sperm race home page
Come and join us online at Back a bird and support hihi conservation.

During the 2017/18 hihi breeding season, I sampled sperm from male hihi across four of the seven current populations. One night, myself and two other hihi researchers, Alex Knight and Mhairi McCready, were sitting around on Tiritiri Matangi Island shooting the breeze about hihi and, obviously, their sperm. We decided to run a small sweepstake among ourselves to guess which of the males would have the fastest swimmers.

Over the next few days, we realised that this could develop into a much bigger idea. A weird idea, for sure, but one that might help raise much needed funding for hihi conservation AND get people talking about hihi (and sperm…but mainly hihi). And so, following a few months of planning, web-design and checking to ensure we’re abiding by the rules of running a charity gambling event in New Zealand, we are launching the Great Hihi Sperm Race.

Place your bets!

The idea is simple. I have measured sperm swimming speed in 128 male hihi. All of these hihi are now listed on our website where you can place a $10 bet on which male you think will have the fastest sperm. You can bet on as many birds as you like. Whoever picks the birds with the fastest swimmers are in to win a whole bunch of prizes. Prizes like free family passes to brilliant local sanctuaries like Tiritiri Matangi, Zealandia, and Maungatautari, and prizes we can ship anywhere in the world, like cases of hihi wines, and Tumbleweed T-shirts – all donated by our extremely generous sponsors.

So, what are you waiting for? Get onto that website and get betting! The race is on from Monday 26th March to midnight Sunday 22nd April NZ time. Looking for an Easter gift that’s waaaaay more imaginative than chocolate? surely there’s nothing more emblematic of new life and rebirth than the gift of a bet on some potentially speedy bird sperm…