Inspiring New Zealand Bird Story

New Zealand's top breeding species for 2019 has been announced. A sub-species of the Kiwi, called the Rowi Kiwi and another flightless bird called the Takahē took the top spots. In the 1990's Rowi Kiwi were down to about 160 birds but they now number over 600. 70 Takahē, once thought to be extinct, were discovered in 1948 and a breeding program started then, has increased their numbers to 418.

Story by NZ Radio News:

Takahē and Rowi kiwi have been named the Department of Conservation's best breeding species of 2019.

Department of Conservation (DOC) operations manager Deidre Vercoe said it was good to celebrate the species making strides in reinvigorating their numbers, and a lot of intensive management is behind the gains.

"It's great to see that populations of vulnerable flightless birds like Kiwi and Takahē are making progress. As we refine current techniques and look for new ways to manage pest populations, we can expect to see further progress in the recovery of our taonga (treasured)  species," she said.

The Rarest Kiwi

'The Rowi Kiwi and their caretakers have earned a pat on the back because of two big wins for the breeding programme this year,' she said. 'Genetic diversity had been boosted, and a young cohort of Kiwi had thrived so well, at a new island site, that they were poised to soon become the second mainland wild breeding population'.

An intensive Rowi database is kept showing the genetic inheritance of each chick. This year there had been less focus on increasing the numbers, and more focus on helping birds with less surviving offspring so far - so their genes add more diversity and strength to the population.

Rowi chicks only have a 5 percent chance of survival in the wild, because stoats kill them when they are little. Operation Nest Egg is an ongoing programme to hatch the eggs and raise the chicks to one-year-olds on predator-free islands. Read a first hand report about Operation Nest Egg is this 2017 story in the US publication The Atlantic.

"They get big and strong out there without the presence of stoats, and then we release them back into mainland sites once they're better able to defend themselves. And they have a pretty good survival rate," Dearlove says.

Rowi Kiwi mate for life, so rangers leave the pairs as they are, but this year have concentrated on taking eggs for the Nest Egg programme from the birds who have fewer offspring.

"Some of them have had fertility issues in the past. When the programme started the population were quite aged, and that's because a lot of the young ones were getting taken by stoats, so a lot of the birds at that time were quite old and not very fertile.

"And now we're starting to see really good production from those younger birds raised five to ten years ago, that are starting to breed, which is really, really awesome."

Rowi kiwi Aroha with Biodiversity Ranger Iain Graham after her rescue last month.

A Rowi Kiwi. Photo: Department of Conservation

The new site has also strengthened their population's position for breeding success, she said. In December last year 53 young Rowi were released in the Omoeroa Ranges, south of the existing Okarito forest population in the South Island and separated by a large river.

All but one of those rowi have survived the year - the one loss was a Kiwi found at the bottom of a cliff who was thought to have fallen, rather than been predated upon.

"The others are really healthy, and doing really well. It's pretty exciting times to put them back into part of their former range," Dearlove said.

'Rowi numbers have a long way to go, but, at the moment they're doing pretty well - they're in much better shape than they were'.

Parenting classes boost Takahē survival

Takahē were once thought to be extinct, but rediscovered in Fiordland's Murchison Range in 1948. At that point there was thought to be about 70 or 80 birds, and 40 were caught to begin a breeding programme.

Takahē ranger Jason van de Wetering said in the last year a record 65 chicks passed the breeding milestone of their one year birthday - when they were counted in the population. There are now 418 birds.

He said the boost has come from new knowledge adapted into the programme.

Takahē typically lay two eggs, but only raise one. So rangers have been taking the 'spare egg' to incubate and raise in captivity, before releasing them into the wild.

But experts had now realised Takahē in the wild were getting a benefit from staying with their parents for another year, to help raise the next season's chick. The young Takahē that stayed on learned how to successfully raise chicks themselves, and their own chicks had a notably higher survival rate.

A takahē foster family.

A Takahē foster family. Photo: Supplied / Kerstin Schmidt DOC

So now the incubated chicks are kept with a captive family group for an extra year, while the next season's chick is raised.

The change was made in 2000, and several generations of the upskilled parents have now joined the breeding population, which was starting to have a big effect on the numbers who survived to one year old', van de Wetering said.

'As with rowi Kiwi numbers', van de Wetering said 'Takahē weren't out of the wood yet, but they were headed in the right direction.

It's looking great - we've got a really healthy population of birds, we've got a great recipe for making a lot of Takahē - we now need to find more places to put them'.

The team here at New Zealand Vacations encourage visitors to visit one of the conservation project sites that are located throughout New Zealand where many local bird species are being re-established. These range from the small island of Tititiri Matangi in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf, to Kapiti Island, the oldest and biggest predator-free island, located at the bottom of the North Island. We've personally visited most of them and can help you incorporate them into your visit.

Because the Kiwi is a nocturnal species, a real thrill is take a late night tour into the wild to discover the Kiwi in its natural habitat. Stewart Island or Zealandia near Wellington present two such opportunities. 

Lindsay Barron

Lindsay Barron • Dec 18, 2019