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White tui takes over in Te Horo tree


Trevor Riddle saw a tui. His son, Emmet, a photographer, took some photos. This is Trevor’s story.

An early morning walk through our garden when hunting for rabbits was interrupted by a flash of white through our kowhai trees.

It was mid-September 2020, and the kowhai were in full flower. There were a few tui in the trees at the time. Among them I saw a pure white bird. My immediate reaction was to think a dove had arrived on the scene. I then realised the white bird was in fact a white tui.

RARE SIGHT: Trevor Riddle’s white tui, as photographed in Trevor’s garden by son Emmet Riddle.

I stood in awe and watched as the white bird went about its business of foraging and interacting with the other tui as if I wasn’t there. Many tui have visited our property throughout the 10 years we have lived here at Hautere, but never have I seen a white tui.

I froze, scared to move in case I frightened it away. The tui were fully engaged in their usual raucous behaviour of chasing each other in and around the trees. The white tui was doing as much chasing as the others were.

I was not carrying my phone at the time. I think if I did have it with me, I probably would have not thought to take any photographs – stunned mullet comes to mind. I guess that particular encounter lasted about 10 minutes before the white bird flew off with some of the others into the distance.

Although I kept looking each day hoping to see the white tui again, it was fully two weeks later when, once again, in similar circumstances I came upon the bird in the same spot. This time I did have my phone with me and managed to get some amateurish snaps. The photos were good enough to prove to friends and family that I was not seeing things when describing my earlier experience.

There were a few later sightings in 2020 and then spring was gone and so was the white tui.

I became curious about how common (or uncommon) it was to see a white tui in the wild. I wanted to find out if a white tui was a rare bird.

My research included contact with Birdsnz. I was informed from the description provided that our tui appears to be a leucistic tui. Leucistic birds are not considered rare or reportable. Leucism is a genetic abnormality, a mutation possibly caused through inbreeding. I felt a little deflated. I had a fleeting vision of Ninja Turtles and X Men. . . .

I discovered mutation in general means a change or the process of changing, such as in nature. The change in our tui is spectacular. Its behavioural characteristics appear identical to “normal” tui. The contrasting colour is standout. It is beautiful. Being in its presence is special. It left me with a spiritual feeling of wonder.

The weird world of 2020 merged into 2021. I kept looking but never sighted the white tui again until our kowhai trees burst into flower again in September this year when it reappeared. I was thrilled that it had survived the winter and was still in the area. It seems leucistic birds might suffer from increased predation rates due to being more conspicuous than normally coloured birds.

I have become an avid observer of the behaviour displayed by tui in general. A large kowhai tree in our garden where I first saw the white tui is a busy place when the kowhai flowers arrive.

It’s noticeable that one tui will become dominant and take command of the tree, chasing away any other bird that turns up. During the first weekend in October the white tui staged a coup and took over the role as the dominant tui of the kowhai tree. We watched fascinated for the next three days as it fended off all-comers, keeping command of the tree. Any bird that tried to settle on any branch was at once chased off – including fantails, blackbirds, thrushes, bellbirds, rosellas, sparrows, wax eyes, a multitude of finches, grey warblers and even kereru.

The white tui was seldom away from the tree for longer than a few minutes during the day. At dusk it left, presumably for its nest, then returned at dawn each morning for another round. It eventually flew off in the afternoon on a recent Monday and has not returned. The kowhai flowers on the tree have finished their bloom and are waning.

Our harakeke are currently producing their flower spikes. The blooming of the harakeke usually causes another influx of tui – I am hopeful the white one will reappear to dazzle us once again.

White tui takes over in Te Horo tree



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