Don Merton
QSM, conservationist
Died aged 72

Donald Merton is best known for his work in saving from extinction the Chatham Island black robin and the kakapo.

His pioneering methods of fostering black robin eggs on to first, Chatham Island warblers, and then, as chicks, on to Chatham tomtits, brought him worldwide recognition.

In 1976, there were just seven black robins left. The oldest female, Old Blue, and her mate, Old Yellow, had produced one chick in 1979, but it died. Merton had the idea that if he could induce the birds to nest more than once in a season, there was a chance of more eggs.

Merton remembered the success he had had as a boy with an orphaned wild goldfinch. He nestled it up to his grandmother's canary, and the orphan flourished. Cross-fostering might work with the robins, he reasoned.

Merton and his group tried first to settle the black robin eggs with Chatham Island warblers. The warblers incubated the eggs all right, but their diet did not agree with the chicks. A lesser man might have been discouraged, but Merton tried again with Chatham tomtits, and found success, with eggs and chicks.

The black robin eggs had first to be moved from Mangere Island in the Chathams group to neighbouring South East Island, where tomtits were established.

The scheme was a success, with the colony of Chatham Island black robins now numbering well over 200.

Merton's work in saving the kakapo, the world's heaviest parrot, from extinction by predators is well known. Although numbers of male birds had been found on Stewart Island, no females had been seen since the early 1900s. In 1980, Merton and his team found the first.

"She was a real catty bitch," Merton said in a Herald interview that year. "Fighting and screaming. The males hardly say boo."

A few weeks later, the expedition found another female. The whole colony was subsequently moved to the predator-free Codfish Island, near Stewart Island, Maud Island in Pelorus Sound, and Little Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf. The numbers continue to grow, although kakapo are leisurely breeders, producing eggs only every three to four years.

Donald Merton was born in Auckland in 1939 and moved with his family to Gisborne when he was a baby.

He was educated at what was then Gisborne High School, and then secured a traineeship with the fledgling New Zealand Wildlife Service. The service merged with other conservation agencies to become the Department of Conservation in 1987.

As well as his work in New Zealand, Merton was also instrumental in saving rare bird species in Australia, Mauritius, Christmas Island and the Seychelles.

He was awarded the Queen's Service Medal in 1989 and received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from Massey University in 1992.

He is survived by his wife, Margaret, son Dave, and two grandsons.

Phoebe Falconer