Century-old bird specimens at the Auckland Museum could hold the key to saving a species under threat in the Hauraki Gulf.

Six spotted shag specimens in the Museum's collection have been scanned, 3D printed and painted, before being installed as a colony on Otata Island, part of The Noises island group.

The specimens were collected by Museum staff from the same islands back in 1913.

"In those days museum staff went out and shot the birds, it was accepted practice," museum curator Matt Rayner said.

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Spotted shags are abundant in the South Island, but scientists believe the small population that remains in the Hauraki Gulf – some 300 breeding pairs – may be genetically distinct.

The birds are now limited to just two colonies, on Tarahiki and Waiheke Islands. As well as the replica birds, the scientists have constructed nests from dried seaweed, installed a solar-powered sound system, and used white paint to mimic the droppings that mark seabird colonies.

"All shag colonies and sea bird colonies have got lots of white guano and poo around," said Rayner, "and any birds that are out there a long way off, they're not going to see these models first, they are going to see that white poo and hopefully that will interest them and draw them in."

Each year Tim Lovegrove, a scientist with Auckland Council's biodiversity team, counts the birds in the gulf to track their population, which he says has seriously declined in recent decades.

"They used to be a very abundant species in the gulf, there were probably five to ten thousand birds here in the past and even as recent as the 1980s, you'd go across to Coromandel and you'd count 2000 birds over there, so the population is very much less now."

The Neureuter family has owned The Noises Islands since the 1930s. Conservation-focused, the family has worked to keep the islands pest-free, while planting and encouraging native flora and fauna.

Rod Neureuter says he remembers seeing spotted shags nesting on the island as a young boy in the 80s, before they disappeared. When the museum approached the family about installing the replica shag colony, they welcomed the offer.

"We've seen so many declines in our lifetimes in terms of seabirds, and fish and life that it would be absolutely awesome to encourage something back naturally," Neureuter said.

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Spotted shags are abundant in the South Island, but scientists believe the small population that remains in the Hauraki Gulf may be genetically distinct. Photo / Aotearoa Science Agency
Spotted shags are abundant in the South Island, but scientists believe the small population that remains in the Hauraki Gulf may be genetically distinct. Photo / Aotearoa Science Agency

A similar replica colony has been successful in attracting gannets to reinhabit Rotoroa Island, but this is the first time it has been attempted with spotted shags.

While the scientists admit it may take years if it's successful at all, Matt Rayner is hopeful they may attract some new arrivals as the breeding season begins in the next few months.

"In an ideal world there's gonna be a group of excitable young teenage shags flying by, cruising around and they 're gonna see this and go woah, seems like a good place."

- Aotearoa Science Agency