New Zealand fairy tern recovery program

The New Zealand fairy tern, Sternula nereis davisae, or tara iti in te reo Māori, is New Zealand’s rarest indigenous breeding bird. The NZFT is on the brink of extinction:  it is listed in New Zealand as “Nationally Critical” and the latest estimates place its population at fewer than 40 individuals and only 9 breeding pairs.  

Close up photo of the New Zealand fairy tern, a medium sized bird with white and grey feathers and orange beak, landing on a sandy beach

This small, elegant tern inhabits coastal areas in Northern New Zealand and has only four remaining breeding sites. They favour sandy beaches with patches of shell and little vegetation, laying 1-2 eggs directly in the sand in a scrape. Conservation management began in 1983, when there were just three known pairs. New Zealand government’s Department of Conservation (DOC) began monitoring the population, controlling ground predators and using wardens and signage to protect nests with increasing intensity. From 1998 onwards, egg management was also employed, with abandoned eggs incubated at Auckland Zoo and placed under foster pairs. Numbers improved and the population increased to 8-10 pairs. Whilst these interventions have undoubtedly benefited tara iti, in the last 15 years, the population has plateaued.

Photo of a New Zealand fairy tern nesting with it's chick

It faces a complex mix of threats. It is vulnerable to predation of eggs, chicks and adult birds by introduced mammals (e.g. rats, mustelids, cats) and, like other terns, it is highly sensitive to disturbance from human activity at its breeding sites. There has been degradation and loss of its breeding habitat due to extensive coastal development, and breeding attempts are vulnerable to tidal and extreme weather events. Although all pairs are attempting to breed, the sex ratio is currently biased towards males, leaving many unpaired males each season, and the population has a very low egg hatch rate.

Camera trap image of a bird flying toward the camera with both wings extended, beach in background

There is serious concern about how vulnerable this population still is to extinction. DOC is committed to review its management, write a new recovery plan and improve the cohesion of work for tara iti amongst all those concerned with the plight of this bird. 

Find out more: New Zealand fairy tern / tara iti - Department of Conservation

Why we are there

ZSL’s Institute of Zoology (IoZ) is closely involved in the Tara iti programme and provides support and scientific evidence to assist recovery planning. Staff and post-graduate students at IoZ are working with DOC, Māori Treaty partners, other research institutions and the wider tara iti community, to use a Structured Decision-Making (SDM) approach for recovery planning for NZFT and to help them find an agreed best course of action.


  • The development of a new species recovery programme 
  • Establishment of camera trapping protocol for nest monitoring
  • One PhD studentship

Project Information

Key Species

New Zealand fairy tern / Tara iti (Sternula nereis davisae)

People Involved

Thalassa McMurdo Hamilton

Dr John Ewen

Dr Stefano Canessa

Partners & Sponsors

Partners: Department of Conservation; University College London
Sponsors: NERC; London NERC DTP; The Te Arai and Mangawhai Shorebirds Trust