Richard Henry's Bird Pen
Pigeon Island, Dusky Sound, Fiordland
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 1
Able to Visit
21st April 1994
The following text was prepared as part of an upgrade project:
In 1891 the New Zealand government reserved Resolution Island, in Dusky Sound, as a refuge for ground birds such as kakapo and kiwi who were severely threaten with extinction due to introduced predators such as stoats, weasels and ferrets. Irish-born Richard Treacy Henry (1845-1929), who had arrived in New Zealand from Australia around 1874, was appointed curator of the reserve in 1894. In effect this made him New Zealand's first conservation officer.
Henry, who had a deep interest and knowledge of the natural world since childhood, had focused in particular on New Zealand native birds and the threats they were under from new predators. Predators such as stoats, weasels and ferrets had been released in New Zealand to combat another pest, rabbits, which had been introduced in the 1860s and were, by the 1870s, a major problem in many parts of the country. New Zealand's flightless birds proved to be easy prey for the introduced predators and their populations began to quickly decline. It became obvious to a number of people that species such as the kakapo would soon be wiped out.
Henry and an assistant, Andrew Burt (then around 18 to 20 years old), were placed on neighbouring Pigeon Island, where they built a house, store and boatshed on the northern coast. Initially Henry focused on relocating birds from the mainland and Pigeon Island to Resolution and other island sanctuaries, moving over 700 grey kiwi, 'roas' (brown kiwi) and kakapo. He also sent around 100 birds to reserves, botanical gardens and so on around the country. He pioneered ways of capturing and transporting birds and proved that they could be successfully relocated.
His Bird Pen on Pigeon Island was constructed as part of his work and is the most visible remnant of the New Zealand's government's first attempts at conservation. The only other relic of Henry's pioneering conservation work is the ruins of the house's chimney, although further archaeological evidence may still be present. One of the problems Henry had was keeping the birds alive until they could be shipped off the island. One of the main problems was the sand flies, which attacked the birds, to the extent that two died. To combat this he 'made a little paddock for roas (brown kiwis) out of pungies because they worry so much trying to get through the netting, also a dark house for them to avoid the sand flies'. (Hill:1987 p.225) This pen consisted of a rectangular arrangement of upright punga logs set in the ground, which was probably roofed. It is thought to have been much taller when first constructed. Today the logs stand, on average, around half a metre high.
Resolution Island had been chosen as a sanctuary because it was thought far enough off the coast for predators to swim to. However, in 1900 either a stoat or weasel was sighted on the island and the project was doomed. Henry began moving birds to other outlying islands, but not all of these were suitable habitats and, when the area was checked for kiwi and kakapo in 1980, none were found.
In 1908 Henry was appointed as ranger to Kapiti Island, near Wellington, where he stayed until 1911. He retired up north in 1912 and died in the Auckland Mental Hospital, Avondale in 1929. The kakapo, which he had fought to preserve, were left to languish until the 1950s. The recently established Wildlife Service began expeditions to find kakapo, mainly in Fiordland and caught six males, all but one of which died within a few months of being caught. By 1977 18 males had been found in Fiordland, but with no females it seemed that the kakapo would die out. That year, however, around 200 kakapo were found in Stewart Island, both male and female. Although free from stoats, rats and weasels, the Stewart Island kakapo were under threat from feral cats and it was decided to move the entire population to off-shore predator-free islands; Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) in Foveaux Strait, Maud Island, and Little Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf. These, along with the one surviving mainland kakapo, known as 'Richard Henry', became the focus of attempts by the Wildlife Service and subsequently the Department of Conservation to preserve the species. Eighty-six kakapo are known to exist now, a substantial increase from a low point of 51 in 1995. Henry's early work with the kakapo played a major role in later attempts to preserve the species; his technique of using a muzzled dog was found to be the best way of capturing the birds and the first female kakapo found on Stewart Island was identified as such using Henry's earlier descriptions.
Richard Henry's Bird Pen is of major historical significance to New Zealand. Erected as a practical response to the difficulties of housing captured birds, it is one of the few remains of the first state-funded conservation project in New Zealand. It is also significant as a reminder of Henry's personal dedication and struggle in one of the most isolated parts of the country. His project can be seen as an early indication of the importance attached to New Zealand's endangered birds, and the growing sense of national identity with them, which continues strongly today.
Historical Significance or Value
Richard Henry's Bird Pen provides evidence of the first attempt at state funded nature conservation in New Zealand. The bird pen is of very great historical significance; not only was it associated with Richard Henry, it was a necessary adjunct to his conservation work. The work started by Richard Henry is now a high profile Department of Conservation programme.
Richard Henry's Bird Pen is a practical response to the problem of housing captured birds. The remains of the pen have survived remarkably well in the damp Fiordland forest, outlasting Henry's house and other buildings on Pigeon Island.
The bird pen is situated in regenerating forest and being built of punga logs appears almost as part of the natural flora. The pen and the remains of the chimney of Henry's house are the only substantial structures that remain on Pigeon Island.
The following text is from the original Proposal for Classification report 9 December 1993 considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration:
The assault on Southland's ground birds really began with the introduction of the rabbit for sporting purposes. Rabbits were liberated in 1862 and by 1866 were spreading uncontrollably. To contain the escalating problem, the mustletid family of stoats, weasels and ferrets was introduced. They were natural predators of the rabbit. With no previous enemies, however, flightless birds were easier game than rabbits. Bird populations were severely reduced and there was concern that some species would become extinct.
Acclimatisation societies and scientists urged the government to intervene and it was suggested that Resolution Island be set aside as a refuge for ground birds. The island became a reserve in 1891 but a caretaker was not appointed for another three years. Richard Henry had been studying ground birds in the Te Anau district for many years and was recognised as a resourceful and self-sufficient individual. He was selected from seven applicants and took up his duties in July 1894.
He chose Pigeon Island, near Resolution Island, as his base and spent thirteen years at Dusky Sound. Initially he devoted his time to transferring kakapo and kiwi to Resolution Island and other islands in the sound. He pioneered and developed many techniques in the capture, tending and observation of birds. In addition to transferring birds to islands, he caught specimens for New Zealand scientists and collectors. He had difficulty keeping the birds alive while waiting for a boat to collect them. Their principle enemies were sand flies which attacked the birds with vigour. Henry built a bird pen out of punga logs to house the captured birds. He did not use netting as the birds would try to escape through it. The pen was dark so that sand flies would not bother the birds.
Unfortunately, Richard Henry's efforts were in vain. Resolution Island had been chosen because it was thought to be beyond the swimming range of the mustletids. In March 1900 a stoat or weasel was spotted on Resolution Island and the experiment was effectively doomed. Henry moved other birds to even more distant islands with varying degrees of success. Some proved to be unsuitable habitats for the birds and when the area was checked for kakapo and kiwi in 1980, none were found. Henry left Dusky Sound in 1907.
Designed and Built by:
Richard Henry (1845-1929) was born in Ireland and his family immigrated to Australia when he was five. He arrived in New Zealand in the 1870s. He settled in Te Anau in 1883 and fostered a keen interest in New Zealand's fauna, especially its flightless birds. Having lived in Fiordland for eleven years, Henry was appointed wildlife caretaker on Resolution Island in 1894.
Henry was the first wildlife caretaker on Resolution Island and in effect New Zealand's first conservation officer. He was appointed to transfer large numbers of kakapo and kiwi to island havens as they were threatened on the mainland by introduced predatory land animals such as stoats, weasels and ferrets. He chose Pigeon Island as his base and spent thirteen years in Dusky Sound. Henry's standards of observation and the conservation techniques which he developed are still respected today.
In 1907 Henry left Dusky Sound and moved to Kapiti Island where he took up the position of caretaker. He retired in 1912.
The bird pen is a rectangular arrangement of upright punga logs. The logs were set in the ground and probably had a roof. The structure was once considerably taller but logs today have a height of no more than a metre and average about half a metre.
1992-93: Stabilisation undertaken by the Department of Conservation
July 1898 Richard Henry constructed a house 10ft x 6 ft for kiwi. In October of the same year he built the punga pen
1992 - 1993
Stabilisation work carried out by Department of Conservation
The pen consists of a series of upright punga logs.
Public NZAA Number
Report Written By
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Robin Ormerod, 'Henry, Richard Treacy, 1845-1929', Volume Two, (1870-1900), Wellington, 1993.
Susanne and John Hill, Richard Henry of Resolution Island, Dunedin, 1987
New Zealand Historic Places
New Zealand Historic Places
Tim Higham, 'A Conservation Pioneer', July 1993, p.27
A fully referenced Registration Report is available from the NZHPT Southern region office.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.