The Call of the Kiwi

New Zealanders Are Working to Save Their National Symbol


photo of a Kiwi Crossing road

The Pouakai Trail

It takes some effort to hike around a mountain and never see it, but somehow I managed to do just that while visiting Mt. Taranaki on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. A shame, really, because I’d heard that Taranaki was quite a sight, a nearly perfect cone rising out of thick forests that give way to the lowland farms fed by its rich, volcanic soils. But it rained the entire time I was there, and Taranaki stayed hidden in the low, leaking clouds. Just as well. If it hadn’t, I might have been tempted to look at the summit instead of paying close attention to the trail, and thus offering my ankles, knees, or life to any of the quaint euphemisms that New Zealanders have for outdoor hardship. “Small hill,” for instance, or “primitive trail.” “Short drop ahead” was also a good one.

My ears were still available, though, and at one point, while negotiating a steep, root-gnarled descent to a heaving cable bridge that spanned a deep canyon (“unstable bridge”), I heard a series of loud, shrill calls not too far off in the bush. I’ll be damned! I thought, just before slipping on a rock.

When I’d made it back to the Department of Conservation building at the trailhead, a ranger asked how my trip had been.

“Great!” I said. “I think I heard a kiwi calling on my way back.”

“Is that so!” he said. “What’d it sound like?”

I described the call.

“That sounds about right,” he said, noncommittal. “And they are in the area. Perhaps you did hear one.”

I could tell that he didn’t believe me. “Thanks,” I said, and went outside to wait for the shuttle back to New Plymouth. I know when I’ve been dismissed, and, in fairness, I couldn’t blame the fellow for not taking me at my word. Kiwis in the wild are hard to come by in New Zealand these days.

In terms of birds, New Zealand is an archipelago of misfits. As such, the kiwi fits right in. Its name comes from the Maori word for the bristle-thighed curlew – kivi – that it resembles. Though covered in feathers, its plumage is actually more like fur, giving it a shaggy appearance. It has small eyes but prominent ear openings, and a keen sense of smell, with nostrils set at the end of a long bill for sniffling through the humus. (The snort of the kiwi, a late-night marvel, is done to clear its nostrils of dirt.) The bird is nocturnal, long-lived, and a relatively faithful partner. Its eggs are huge, up to one-fifth of the female’s weight. The male handles most of the incubation duties, which can mean sitting on the egg for up to 80 days until the precocial young, capable of moving on their own, hatch.

There are five species of kiwis, all of them in varying degrees of trouble. Some populations of the North Island brown kiwi and the great spotted kiwi still number in the tens of thousands, but the other species have far fewer than that. The recently identified Oakrito rowi and Haast tokoeka are down to their last 300 or so individuals.

For a country that prides itself on its environment, the decline of the kiwi came as an almost spiritual blow. The bird is the national symbol of New Zealand, and, as with any national symbol, its significance extends beyond mere physical presence. Other birds have gone extinct, and there is a sympathy at their passing. But for New Zealanders, to lose the kiwi would smack of a broader kind of carelessness. It would hark back to an age of casual exploitation and disregard that they say they have outgrown. It would lead to uncomfortable questions.

By itself, saving the kiwi will not change New Zealanders’ lives appreciably. Kiwis are shy; they live in out-of-the-way places and, for the most part, come out only at night. No matter how many there are, few people will see one in the wild. But to know that they are there, pottering about in the underbrush, is a salve. It becomes a reason to save everything.

Despite their dire straits, kiwis should count themselves lucky – they are still around to have a chance. New Zealand’s history is a midden of the bones of extinct birds. The islands broke away from Gondwanaland more than 80 million years ago, and for about 79,999,200 years after that, save for two species of bat, there were no mammals. In their absence, birds evolved as impressive stand-ins – the moa was the large herbivore, Haast’s eagle, with its near 10-foot wingspan, the dominant predator, and a host of tiny, flightless wrens filled in for rodents.

When the first Polynesians arrived 800 or so years ago, and then the Europeans 500 years after that, they brought their appetites and a love for peculiar ornament. The birds didn’t stand a chance. Of the 223 species of birds that once bred in New Zealand, more than a quarter – 58 – are now extinct. Worse, 41 percent of endemic species – birds that were found only in New Zealand – are gone. Many of the species that survive today live in exile on offshore islands.

No one knows precisely how many kiwis there were before humans arrived, but estimates range from 5 to 12 million. “Usually, I just quote ‘millions’ and leave it at that,” says Hugh Robertson, who heads the Kiwi Recovery Program at the Department of Conservation (DOC). “But it’s hard to say, because we didn’t really begin studying and tracking kiwis until 20 years ago.” The reason they weren’t studied until recently? “To be honest,” says Robertson, “it’s because we didn’t think they were in real trouble. People had the impression that kiwis were one of the few native species that were protected from non-native predators.”

Perhaps it was because other birds were more spectacularly affected that the plight of the kiwis wasn’t detected until it was almost too late. “Part of that was because [people] used to hear kiwis, because they’re quite loud,” Robertson says. If the kiwis were calling, the thinking went, then everything was okay. After a while, though, the calls weren’t as frequent, and soon, in many places, they disappeared. “People in the backcountry used to hear kiwis, and then they started finding more and more areas where kiwis were gone,” says Robertson. “That clued us in a bit.”

And there were the dogs. Or, rather, the dog. An especially dark episode in the lore of the kiwi took place in the late 1980s in the coastal Waitekere Ranges. A single German shepherd on a rampage killed 500 kiwis in six weeks. “At that stage,” Robertson says, “we realized that things might be worse than we thought. We also realized that there was a lot we didn’t know.”

To remedy this, the DOC approached the Bank of New Zealand (BNZ) in 1991 and asked if they’d be interested in sponsoring a program dedicated to kiwi recovery. BNZ agreed, and, buoyed by their funding, researchers began to try to replace the speculation with sturdier data.

One finding in particular surprised many kiwi watchers. “Before,” Robertson says, “people would have told you that dogs were the worst threat, and then cars or something.” But what the kiwi had most to fear turned out to be the stoat, a mustelid slightly bigger than a weasel but smaller than a ferret. Stoats arrived in New Zealand in the 1880s, when people tired of the rabbits (also introduced) that were overrunning the countryside. Stoats ate rabbits back in Europe, so it stood to reason that they would eat rabbits in New Zealand. They didn’t. Rather, they soon discovered that kiwis were easier to catch than rabbits. When they charged a rabbit, it ran away; but when they charged a kiwi, especially a young one, it just stood there, “hiding.” So stoats started killing juvenile kiwis. By the time the DOC researchers began to conduct their more rigorous surveys, survival of kiwi chicks had dropped to five percent.

Robertson and John McLennan, another kiwi biologist, saw that kiwi populations as a whole were declining at close to six percent per year, which means the population was being cut in half every 10 years. What had been “millions” of birds had become just over 80,000 or so, and was still falling. (Today, there are about 70,000 kiwis left.)

At the start of the DOC/BNZ partnership, McLennan helped write the first of what would be several kiwi recovery plans. The authors called first for more research. They also recommended outreach and public involvement to address the crisis. The kiwi is the mascot of New Zealand. To New Zealanders, it is the embodiment of many of their more endearing traits: spunky, rough-and-tumble, and, when it charges after humans that have entered its territory, maybe a bit generous in its self-assessment; amusing, sometimes intentionally; a touch baffled by the oddness of the world; also understated, overshadowed as it is by its large, charismatic neighbors. It is the essence of New Zealand-ness.

But ask any public official, scientist, or advocate to talk about kiwi conservation, and it isn’t long before they say something to the effect of, “We’re known as ‘Kiwis,’ but almost none of us have ever seen a kiwi in the wild.” Michelle Impey, the executive director of the BNZ Save the Kiwi Trust, talks about a survey conducted in 2005. The main finding was that 87 percent of the populace said that saving the kiwi should be a national priority. But lurking under this easy generosity was a more pessimistic assessment, an acknowledgement of the citizenry’s own culpability. “People said, ‘What an embarrassment it would be for the kiwi to disappear,’” Impey says. “Like: This is New Zealand, and we have a reputation for a pristine environment and all that. But what if our environment’s going down the tubes?”

Kiwi Birdlife Park

A small segment of the kiwi-loving public and I are looking for the objects of our affection at the Kiwi Birdlife Park in Queenstown, on South Island. There are supposed to be two birds, but they’re hard to pick out because, save for the weak red glow of some lamps in the display, the room is almost completely dark. Soon our eyes adjust and there they are – two kiwis, striding around the faux environment of the No. 2 Kiwi House, probing the bark chips for cups of worms that staffers have buried. They’re large birds and kind of lumpy, like furry pears with legs.

kiwi juvenileCourtesy Eric WagnerKiwi are lumpy, like furry pears with legs. All five
species are in varying degrees of trouble.

As with the animals in most zoo-like places, the kiwis at Kiwi Birdlife Park were brought there from someplace else. They hatched at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Christchurch, which is probably the most successful captive breeding program in New Zealand, having reared more than 500 chicks. Until a couple of years ago, most of the reserve’s work was independent. But in 2005, they were asked to be part of the DOC and BNZ’s massive intervention called “Operation Nest Egg.”

BNZ ONE is the most complicated component of the kiwi recovery regimen. The program started in 1994, when scientists realized that kiwis were being eaten almost as quickly as they hatched. McLennan and others asserted that if juvenile survival could be raised to 20 percent, it would reverse the population declines. The theory was straightforward: Stoats may eat juvenile kiwis, but adults are able to fight them off. “We get the kiwi eggs,” park manager Jeremy Maguire explains, “incubate them artificially, and then rear the chicks in a controlled, predator-free environment until they’re big enough to fend for themselves, which is usually after six months.”

Getting the eggs is the biggest challenge, since most eggs are brought in from wild birds. “If that’s the case,” Maguire says, “usually someone has to walk out and get them.” Recall the New Zealander’s capacity for rugged understatement. Kiwis can nest in forbidding places, which means that volunteers often have to slog long and hard to find the burrows. And if they’re going to expend so much effort, they like to be sure that an egg will be there. Thus, the egg timer. “It’s a transmitter attached to the legs of male kiwis that lets us know when they’re on eggs,” Maguire says. “Saves some trouble on our end.”

After the trackers have wrested the egg away from the kiwi and put it in a Styrofoam cooler, they hike it out. Sometimes, if the terrain is especially pitiless, a helicopter will come and pluck out the egg.

Survival rates among captive juvenile kiwis are high, but the method is expensive. Every kiwi represents about $5,000 in food and care. “It’s a tremendous investment,” Impey says. “The payoff is the release, letting the bird go back to its natural environment.” This is when a BNZ ONE employee or volunteer and a boxed kiwi hike out to a release station. Kids and adults sometimes follow behind, stretching back single file like a line of obedient ducklings. At the appointed spot, everyone gathers around the box. The kiwi keeper says a few words about how this kiwi is a new hope for their future, and then tells everyone to be quiet so they won’t scare the bird. The kids strain to see as the box is opened and the small diffident puffball is lifted out to blink in the harsh light of day. Some people take pictures; others just stare. Then the kiwi is placed on the ground, where it shakes itself off before dashing into the bush.

Tawharanui Open Sanctuary

More and more these days, BNZ ONE kiwis are released in parks closer to the cities. One of the newest is Tawharanui Open Sanctuary, a park about 55 miles north of Auckland. Late in 2006, 15 male North Island brown kiwis were released here – the first in the area in more than 40 years. More releases are planned for 2008.

Tawharanui is what is known as a “mainland island” – an area that has been purged of introduced mammals, either by fencing or poisoning and trapping. The park is on a peninsula, and is cordoned off from the rest of the mainland by a one-and-a-half mile long fence covered with a fine metallic green mesh meant to keep out everything bigger than an infant mouse. It is a safe zone, an island within an island.

Reestablishing kiwis on mainland islands is the logical end to years of assured management, which is based on the DOC’s belief that it is capable of ridding almost any place it wants to of non-native predators. This was a skill that the DOC honed on New Zealand’s many offshore sanctuaries, where it eradicated goats, rabbits, and pigs. Those islands were converted into reserves for native bird species that had been hammered on the mainland.

The mainland island is an opportunity for the public to show its passion for kiwi conservation. Ultimately, the efforts of BNZ ONE are dominated by trained professionals. The public may be encouraged, for instance, to buy kiwi bankcards for a NZ $10 annual fee, and they have – 20,000 are currently in circulation. But that is help from a moneyed distance, and then watching the birds through thick glass, if at all.

Mainland islands are different. They are not about plucking eggs out of the wild and then depositing the reared adolescents where they might never be seen. They are the labor-intensive restoration of a patch of earth so that the things that used to live there can come back. Establishing a mainland island from scratch is no small feat. It means baiting traps for stoats and possums and hauling those traps through dense bush. It means planting native plants and tearing out weeds such as woolly nightshade or spiny gorse. It means raising a lot of money, sometimes creatively. One volunteer collects the wayward shots of bad golfers and sells the balls on TradeMe, the New Zealand equivalent of eBay. So far, those golf balls have fetched more than $3,000 for the kiwi.

“This work close to the cities is important,” says Wendy Sporle, the National Mentor for Advocacy. “It keeps the general New Zealand population aware of what’s going on. … Having kiwis calling outside your house and keeping you up all night – it’s a matter of maintaining the New Zealandness.”

All over New Zealand, communities have taken on conservation projects. More than 60 groups have cleared or are clearing some 120,000 acres of private land of pests. That acreage almost matches the 170,000 public acres under the DOC’s care. “Twenty years ago,” Impey says, “there was more of a distinction between [the DOC’s] work and the public’s.” Today, at Tawharanui and other projects around the country, DOC managers help local volunteers on restoration projects.

“Now, people realize the interconnectedness of systems, and the relationships between the species,” says Sporle. “In doing so, the ecosystem blossoms. Everything takes off.”

For my part, I heard a kiwi on the Pouakai and I saw one at Kiwi Birdlife in Queenstown, but I neither heard nor saw one at Tawharanui. That didn’t come as a surprise. It’s a big park, and the kiwis there have plenty of places to hide. “You’re not alone,” says Michael Lee, chairman of Auckland Regional Council, when I told him of my experience. “You know, we call ourselves ‘Kiwis,’ but few of us have ever seen or heard a kiwi in the wild.” That familiar refrain, the strong claim of spiritual identification dampened by an empirical void. But Lee adds: “We’re going to change that now.”

New Zealanders’ dedication to the bird – their sometimes awkward cradling of it and deep affection for it – is a fondness for themselves. After all, when New Zealanders – Kiwis – were asked in 2005 what the word “kiwi” meant, their top answer was “the spirit of New Zealand and New Zealanders.” A close second was “people living in New Zealand.” And coming in a distant third, humbly as always, was “a small, flightless bird.”

Eric Wagner is a freelance writer based in Seattle. He spent most of 2007 in New Zealand on a research fellowship.

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