Stephens Island Wren

steven island wren web


Stephens Island is a tiny bit of land off the northernmost tip of the South Island of New Zealand. It was called Takapourewa by the Maori. The best known residents of Stephens Island are the tuatara, a rare and exotic species of reptile native to New Zealand,  the Stephens Island Wren, a nocturnal and flightless species of wren native only to the island, and Tibbles the Cat, the pet of the local lighthouse keeper, who in local myth is wholly responsible for the wiping out of the Stephens Island Wren. According to the myth, this murderous feline brought the carcasses to his owner, David Lyall, who was interested in natural history, and then brought the new species to the attention of the scientific world in mid 1894.

But the story is unfortunately erroneous. Tibbles did enjoy eating several of the wrens, and did kill one of the last birds seen, but there were in fact many feral cats on the island; after someone brought over a pregnant cat in 1894, the island is described as swarming with them. David Lyall describes the situation in a letter to the mainland in  1895:  “…the cats have become wild and are making sad havoc among the birds…”. Later on in 1895 the Christchurch newspaper The Press wrote in an editorial:

“there is very good reason to believe that the bird is no longer to be found on the island, and, as it is not known to exist anywhere else, it has apparently become quite extinct. This is probably a record performance in the way of extermination.”

The Stephens Island Wren is now the best known of the extremely few (five or so) flightless passerines (songbirds) known to science, all of which were inhabitants of islands and are now extinct.

Later lighthouse keepers would shoot feral cats as part of their job in an effort to contain their numbers. In 1925 the last cats on the island were exterminated.