Kiwi restoration project in Wellington
A kiwi restoration project in New Zealand's capital is helping save the treasured bird. Image by HANDOUT/CHRISTINE STOCKUM FOR CAPITAL KIWI
  • conservation

The hills are alive with the sound of wild kiwi chicks

Ben McKay December 25, 2023

In the hills outside Wellington, the call of kiwis can be heard for the first time in perhaps a century.

The endangered flightless bird, so beloved by New Zealanders they are happy to known as Kiwis themselves, are being slowly and surely returned to their native habitat.

Thanks to a huge drive to eliminate predators, 63 birds have been released in the past year near the capital, where they fossick around the undergrowth, using their unique beak to sniff out insect or worm dinners below the surface.

And this month, a milestone in the mammoth, multi-generational conservation effort has been reached: the birth of at least three chicks, showing progress in the fight to restore kiwis into habitats overtaken by introduced predators.

“What we’re doing is is growing a wild, a truly wild, population,” Capital Kiwi project lead Paul Ward tells AAP.

Kiwi nestling into a hen house
 The endangered flightless birds are being slowly and surely returned to their native habitat. Image by HANDOUT/NEW ZEALAND DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION 

The Capital Kiwi project marks an evolution of kiwi-saving efforts by focusing on clearing predators from land so the birds can flourish.

It’s predators, rather than a loss of landscape or over-hunting, that threatens the kiwi, as well as other endemic New Zealand birds.

For millions of years until the arrival of humans in the 13th or 14th century, New Zealand had no land mammals, and as such, a paradise for birdlife.

The arrival of rats, possums and stoats shook up the established order, killing birds, destroying their eggs, and starving them of food.

The flightless kiwi were among the most vulnerable, and have seen numbers drop from the millions to an estimated 70,000 birds, found in small pockets with fewer predators.

Capital Kiwi’s focus on removing those animals, including the deadly ferret, from vast swathes of land underpins the effort.

Some 4600 traps – checked regularly by volunteers or staff – lay in Wellington’s hills, including 2600 added in the past few years.

There are 150 tracking tunnels to monitor for stoats, and 75 motion-sensor cameras in the area where kiwi have been dropped, 3000 hectares near the settlement of Makara.

“We have no ferrets, which is a huge tick,” Mr Ward says.

“And we’ve smashed the stoats down to very, very low numbers. 

“We had to show that over three years that we were keeping them down at those levels to provide the confidence that kiwi could be returned.”

The Department of Conservation has given Capital Kiwi a permit to introduce the birds, based on the assurances of low predator numbers, and the survival rate of chicks.

“Adult kiwis can fight off everything except ferrets and dogs,” Mr Ward says.

“They’ve got a fend like Ardie Savea.

“So our job is to get chicks need to around a kilo so they can fight off stoats – that’s when they’re seven to 10 months.”

Capital Kiwi project
 The Capital Kiwi project focuses on clearing predators from land so the birds can flourish. Image by HANDOUT/SARA TANSY 

Save The Kiwi say around 95 per cent of kiwi chicks outside sanctuaries don’t reach that benchmark.

For that reason, conservation efforts have previously focused on taking eggs, incubating and hatching them in zoos, and then releasing them onto predator-free islands or fenced-off sanctuaries.

Capital Kiwi builds on that work, taking birds successfully reared by projects like Operation Nest Egg, taking them from Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari in Waikato to Wellington’s hills.

There, they are kept alive without fence or water barriers, but instead through the mighty trapping effort.

“Even with the trapping regime and the suppression we’re doing, we’re still going to lose 60, 70 per cent,” Capital Kiwi operations lead Peter Kirkman tells AAP.

“It sounds harsh but the majority of those chicks are going to die, but people need to understand is that kiwis live for 40-plus years.

“Because they’re breeding for the majority of that, an adult only needs to replace themselves once in 30 to 40 breeding seasons, plus one more, for the population to be going upwards rather than downwards.”

A kiwi being released into the hills
 Alongside keeping kiwis alive, the project has connected New Zealanders to their national bird. Image by HANDOUT/SARA TANSY 

The results so far are impressive.

Perhaps more exciting than the birth of recent chicks is that there are no signs any of the 63 adult birds have perished.

“I’d say it’s successful. It’s on the path. All the signs are looking very good,” says Mr Kirkman, a veteran of two decades of conservation work, including time on Australia’s sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island.

“It’s a lot of hard work but when you get to those points where you see we’re gonna see species starting to recover, it’s very rewarding.”

Alongside keeping kiwis alive, Mr Ward says the project has connected New Zealanders to their national bird, given most people never see one outside a zoo.

Spotting the largely nocturnal bird is mostly preserve of hardy hikers who get lucky while tramping rugged Stewart Island, the Heaphy Track, or Fiordland.

For the Capital Kiwi project, the birds are feted at a dawn Maori ceremony, giving locals a chance to see them before they slip into their nocturnal lifestyle.

“They’re as popular as feathery Princess Diana,” Mr Ward said.

“Kids say ‘far out is that a kiwi’ … and you have grizzled old farmers with a bit of onion in their eye.

“Helping out kiwis has been a very powerful cause for people to get around.”