REVIEW: Neville Peat, Seabird Genius: The Story of L. E. Richdale, the Royal Albatross, and the Yellow-eyed Penguin, Otago University Press, 2011, 279 pp, ISBN 978-1-877578-11-3.

Paul Star[1]

One way to approach environmental history is through the lives of those who have studied, spoken up or cared for, a country’s environment. The American journal Environmental History over the last decade contains at least 12 articles and 29 reviews of books which deal entirely with a named conservationist or naturalist. These include studies on John Muir and Aldo Leopold, of course, but many others too. There is a similar opportunity to approach New Zealand’s environmental history in this way, but so far it is not much taken.

Among nineteenth-century figures, we as yet only have some brief essays exploring The Amazing World of James Hector (2008). The ornithologist Walter Buller, whose attitude to native species was even more ambivalent than Hector’s, has been better served with Ross Galbreath’s excellent life of this Reluctant Conservationist (1989), and so has Richard Henry of Resolution Island (Suzanne and John Hill, 1987). As for T. H. Potts, the staunchest conservationist in New Zealand in that century (and the first to suggest that Resolution Island become a sanctuary), there is my thesis about him (1991), but still no published book. There are no biographies at all of such significant players as Thomas Kirk, W. T. L. Travers and F. W. Hutton. Recently there have been symposia about, William Colenso and John Buchanan, as mentioned elsewhere in this issue of ENNZ.

Moving into the twentieth century, my bookshelves have long awaited a biography of the eminent botanist and ecologist Leonard Cockayne. Of equal note is the absence of a life of Guthrie-Smith of Tutira, other than the early and uncritical work with that title (A. E. Woodhouse, 1959). It was much to our loss that the late Geoff Park, who gained a fine appreciation of Guthrie-Smith’s importance, had no time to write fully about him. The first half of Galbreath’s Scholars and Gentlemen Both (2002) describes well the career of Dunedin scientist and politician G. M. Thomson, but more could be written of this man’s role as a conservationist. There are a host of other figures from this time who deserve proper study – Edgar Stead, for instance – but who are largely forgotten, even when there is considerable archival material which relates to them.

Captain Val Sanderson was the longest-serving president of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society and its most durable activist. There is, however, neither a biography of him, nor a full study of ‘Forest and Bird’, which has been New Zealand’s most significant conservation group for ninety years. Like Potts, Perrine Moncrieff, whose efforts brought about Abel Tasman National Park, has been the subject of a thesis (Robin Hodge, 1999) but not of a published book.

As for those professionals and scientists who gained prominence as conservationists in the mid-twentieth century, a couple of articles on Kenneth Cumberland, by Eric Pawson, have appeared recently, but where are the biographies of Lance McCaskill and John Salmon? What a treasure a life of the latter could be, perhaps written by Guy Salmon, who so powerfully inherited his father’s concern for native forest protection. The biography of the ornithologist and Environmental Patriot Charles Fleming (2005), written by his daughter Mary McEwen, demonstrates what can be done.

And now a further gap is filled, with the life of a friend and colleague of Fleming. Lance Richdale (1900-1983) disliked being termed an ornithologist, though clearly he was one, and he would have flinched at being called a Seabird Genius (2011). His biography, appearing 28 years after his death, is very much a Dunedin production. It was made possible by donations from Dunedin Forest and Bird among others, and is published by the University of Otago Press in association with both the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and the Otago Peninsula Trust. The result is a handsome volume, with illustrations that include many reproductions of Richdale’s bird photographs.

No-one could be better suited than Neville Peat to have written this book. He is himself a conservation activist – at present he chairs the trust behind Orokonui Ecosanctuary, Dunedin’s ‘mainland island’ – and his numerous books on natural history include The World of Albatrosses and The World of Penguins (1991), and Wild Dunedin (1995). What’s more, he is resident on Otago Peninsula, where Richdale conducted much of his field research.

Richdale, born in Marton in 1900, was educated in Wanganui and at Hawkesbury Agricultural College in New South Wales, taught for a while, then moved to the South Island in 1928 as an agricultural instructor to Otago’s schools. Right through until 1959, this position provided the only income for him and his wife and tireless helpmeet Agnes. While he was good at his job, inspiring generations of children – including some that Peat interviewed – what matters most is how he spent his spare time.

Richdale’s significance lies in the persistence with which he observed then described, in extraordinary detail, three bird species which have become iconic for New Zealand: the yellow-eyed penguin or hoihoi, the northern royal albatross or toroa, and the sooty shearwater, muttonbird or titi. Along with kiwi, kokako, kakapo and takahe, these are the birds that now encourage many tourists to visit New Zealand. More specifically, Richdale’s actions – beginning when he camped out night after night in 1937-8 to protect a lone egg from destruction – led in time to the successful establishment of the toroa colony at Taiaroa Head on the tip of the Otago Peninsula. This, trumpeted as the only mainland albatross colony in the world, has become the keystone in Dunedin’s construction of itself as ‘New Zealand’s wildlife capital’.

Peat rightly describes Richdale as a lone pioneer, but could have made more reference to others who worked in similar isolation. What of the relationship between Herbert Guthrie-Smith and Richdale? Peat notes that this ‘Hawkes Bay farmer and naturalist’ told Richdale he was ‘proud that I should have been the means of directing your energies towards bird work’ (p 117). He doesn’t, however, mention Guthrie-Smith’s prior journeys to Stewart Island to observe and photograph its birdlife, as recorded in Mutton Birds and Other Birds (1914), nor the older man’s similar penchant for close study of one location over a long period of time.

Richdale introduced new techniques of study, for he was ‘the first New Zealand researcher to band seabirds systematically, and the second in the world to band penguins’ (p 70). Yet the crux of his approach was, simply, to spend every possible moment in the field, watching birds long enough to know each one individually, noting and timing their every activity. This painstaking labour, followed by an equally intensive writing-up of findings, led to the publication, in the United States, of his most celebrated book, Sexual Behavior in Penguins (1951). Peat describes Richdale’s commitment to his task, and the recognition he eventually gained. Support from the Nuffield Foundation in particular enabled him to continue to synthesise and publish his findings, until his retirement back to the North Island in 1963.

From Peat’s account, it is clear that Richdale early appreciated the role of human agency in the fate of species. Not only did he note albatross ‘eggs stolen or abandoned due to disturbance of the parents’ (p 110), but he also understood the need for positive action as a countervailing force. Of the colony at Taiaroa Head, Peat writes that ‘No seabird population in the world has had so much hands-on management and monitoring for so long, and Lance Richdale was the initiator of it’ (p 251). In the case of titi, he hoped to understand not just the birds, but also the effect of Māori mutton-birding practices (the traditional taking of young birds for food) and ‘whether the annual harvest could be sustained’ (p 150). Though not mentioned by Peat, this set the scene for extensive research into titi harvesting undertaken by Henrik Moller and Otago’s zoology department from the 1990s.

Consistently a conservationist as well as an ornithologist, Richdale also joined a campaign to kill feral cats that preyed on titi. In addition, Richdale remained an educationist, both professionally as an employee of the Otago Education Board and through the succession of ‘popular’ booklets on New Zealand’s wildlife, illustrated with his own photographs, that he published privately from 1942. He even wrote a children’s story about Podgy the Penguin (1947).

Neville Peat provides an introduction both to the man and to the birds he cared about. At least in the case of Whero, the islet near Stewart Island on which Richdale endured great hardship observing titi, this book also records the vicissitudes of a particular ecosystem. In a brief postscript, Peat refers to his own visit to Whero, made in 2010, only to find that all its titi had gone. With Seabird Genius, Peat has certainly confirmed Richdale’s place in the pantheon of New Zealand’s naturalists and environmentalists. But he has also conveyed what is so intriguing and important about the birds – and the haunts of those birds – that Richdale studied. This book, then, has double worth as a contribution to New Zealand environmental history, and I welcome it.


[1]Dr. Paul Star is an independent historian and a former post-doctoral fellow with the history department at the University of Otago. He is a research associate in the history programme at the University of Waikato.