Why kiwis are hatched in captivity
Kiwis are the iconic and well-loved bird of New Zealand, and unfortunately are endangered – all five species of them.
There are approximately 70,000 kiwis throughout the country, both in the wild and in captivity, and the goal is to boost those numbers to ensure future generations can enjoy seeing this beautiful bird as we do.
Threats to the kiwi include everything from dogs to stoats and rats to humans, which is why it can be so hard to ensure the safety of our national bird.
Both cats and stoats prey on kiwi chicks in particular, with stoats responsible for an estimated 50 per cent of all kiwi chick deaths on the mainland. In fact, without the intervention of conservation efforts from humans, only one in ten kiwi chicks born in the wild will survive.
This is why kiwis are commonly hatched in captivity, as it gives them a far greater chance of survival when their habitat is free from predators. This way, the survival rate of a kiwi chick is around 50-60 per cent.
Even just getting to the stage of hatching is a slow process. There is usually just one clutch of one egg each year, and the incubation period lasts between 70 and 85 days. Once hatched, it takes a juvenile up to five years to reach adult size.
In order to organise the effort to help kiwis hatch and grow, the Department of Conservation introduced five new sanctuaries around New Zealand dedicated to the cause. These are; the Whangarei Kiwi Sanctuary, the Moehau Kiwi Sanctuary on the Coromandel Peninsula, the Tongariro Kiwi Sanctuary near Taupo, the Okatiro Kiwi Sanctuary, and the Haast Kiwi Sanctuary. At Moehau, for example, the team has been able to double the population of the Coromandel brown kiwi under their care in the last ten years.
Sanctuaries aren’t the only operations in place for New Zealand’s youngest kiwis, however. A conservation plan called Operation Nest Egg is one in which kiwi eggs and chicks are taken from the wild and cared for in captivity until they are a little older and a little bigger and better able to fend for themselves. This way, the kiwis have as much as a 65 per cent chance of surviving until adulthood.
There are a number of zoos involved in Operation Nest Egg, such as Auckland Zoo, which has very recently celebrated its third hatch of the year as part of the scheme. The egg was one of four taken from the Coromandel area, and once it puts on a little weight, it will be released to Rotorua Island in the Hauraki Gulf, which is predator-free and therefore will give the kiwi a good chance of survival.
We’re lucky enough to see a kiwi more often than not on our night-time tours to the open sanctuary at Tawharanui Regional Park. Here, a predator-proof fence keeps the pests and predators out, which allows our fantastic kiwi – and other rare endemic bird species – to thrive.
New Zealand's most iconic bird: The kiwi
The kiwi is New Zealand’s most iconic bird, with even the locals calling themselves ‘Kiwis’ and a picture of one on our $1 coins.
So what is it about the kiwi that’s so special? And where can you go to see one?
About New Zealand’s national bird
There are actually five different species of kiwi in New Zealand, and all of them are endangered. There is the brown kiwi, the rowi, the tokoeka, the great spotted kiwi and the little spotted kiwi.
Altogether, there are only 70,000 left in the country, and estimates suggest that we are losing as many as 27 every week to threats such as stoats, rats, ferrets, dogs, wild cats, and even humans.
These cute little birds are very special for many reasons, one of which is that they have one of the largest egg-to-weight body ratios of any bird. On average, an egg is about 15 per cent of a female’s body weight.
As kiwis have short stubby wings and cannot fly, they belong to a group of ancient birds called the ratites. Their closest relatives are emus , cassowaries, elephant bird and the now-extinct New Zealand bird, the moa.
Best places to see the kiwi
At the moment, about 20 per cent of the kiwi population in New Zealand is under management, where the chicks have a much higher chance of survival than in the wild.
Kiwi are nocturnal and very good at hiding, which means you will most likely only ever see a kiwi in captivity. You can visit them in zoos such as those in Auckland and Wellington, in the kiwi birdlife park in Queenstown, Orana Park or Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Christchurch, at the Rainbow Springs Kiwi Encounter at Rotorua, and a handful of other places around New Zealand.
However, it is possible to see a kiwi in the wild, such as on a day tour from Auckland with us when we visit the Tawharanui open sanctuary. Here, we see a kiwi on approximately 70 per cent of our tours, where they scurry about in the undergrowth and occasionally even cross the path in front of us!
New Zealand's night sky: Unlike any other
“The area you go to is pretty remote and on clear days the stars are truly amazing. I have seen nothing like it anywhere in the USA, even in the remote areas of our national parks. I would recommend the tour to anyone I know.”
This recent review from Ben of Nebraska of our night tour to Tawharanui is just one example of the many like it we hear about the night sky around Auckland and New Zealand. So much of our tours are about the incredible flora and fauna you’ll find just by looking down and around, but it’s so important to take a moment to look up for a sight that’s just as precious and unbelievable.
Tawharanui by night
The main reason we tour Tawharanui at night is to offer our guests a chance to see the elusive kiwi in the wild. Plus, you can also see the beautiful morepork and other night-time critters.
However, the stars are another of the area’s exciting attractions. Tawharanui is far enough from Auckland city – or any other township – in order to suffer from no light pollution. This means you have an unrestricted view of the skies, with the slowly lapping waves on the shore reflecting the moon and starlight from above.
It’s not uncommon at all to see shooting stars and satellites during our visits to the area.
The world’s largest night sky reserve
The Aoraki McKenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is the largest of its kind in the world. Ever since June 2012, 4,300 square kilometres around the McKenzie area in New Zealand’s South Island has been set out as the reserve.
The McKenzie area includes the country’s tallest mountain, Mt Cook, as well as small towns Twizel and Tekapo. This spot is also home to the Mt John Observatory, which is widely regarded as the world’s most beautiful and easily accessible observatories. This facility was placed in this particular spot after three years of testing to find the best location for star gazing.
And according to the executive director of the International Dark-Sky Association, Bob Parks, this South Island reserve is “one of the best star gazing sites on earth”.
What you can see in New Zealand’s night skies
As much as half of the world’s population can no longer see the stars due to growing levels of both air and light pollution.
Fortunately, even in New Zealand’s biggest cities, the stars are still present and visible whenever the clouds depart. When they do, we enjoy views of some very special stars.
The most famous is easily the Southern Cross, a set of four bright stars that have long been used in navigation, and are now a feature of New Zealand’s (current) flag). The Milky Way galaxy is another prominent feature in our skies, and at certain points during the year, you can even see constellations that are visible from the northern hemisphere, such as Orion and Scorpius.
An insider’s guide to Auckland’s wetlands
A wetland, by definition, is anywhere water is the main factor. It could be coastal water, freshwater, or a mixture of the two. It will come as no surprise then, that New Zealand has an abundance of natural wetlands.
Auckland, with its position around the Hauraki Gulf and with oceans on both sides of the city, is no exception.
Such areas exist when the water level is barely below ground level, or even at the same level. While some people will think of them as stinky swamp areas, they actually have key roles to play for wildlife and nature in general.
They help to control floods, regulate carbon levels, and improve our water quality. Plus, they are home to roughly one-third of nationally threatened plants found in Auckland, according to the Auckland City Council.
Te Henga Wetland
The Wainamu Lake is comprised of a deep lake tucked behind the sand dunes of Bethells Beach, and not far beyond this lake your will find the Te Henga Wetland.
At 140 hectares, this wetland is one of the largest freshwater wetlands in Auckland. There are more than 300 species of plantlife on display here, as well as 45 bird species. It’s even the home of six species of native fish! You might see the precious bittern, spotless crake, the fernbird or a shag.
There is even a geocache hidden somewhere around the Wainamu wetland!
Found on the Tawharanui peninsula behind the predator fence where we take our Tawharanui day tours, you can find the very special Mangatawhiri Wetlands. Replanting work over the last 10 years has helped to restore much of this area that had been lost to the clearing of wetland forests.
This area is a mix of both freshwater and coastal wetlands, and offers several fantastic walking tracks around the area so you can see plenty of the waterways and landscape. The whole area is only five hectares, but there is a lot to see in such a small place.
With the help of the predator-proof fence and the welcoming environment of the wetlands, birds species such as the brown teal (pateke), the spotless crake, the banded rail, and the Australasian bittern.
Threats to wetlands
Unfortunately, it’s humans that pose the biggest threat to our beautiful wetlands. A large part of this is due to construction and development, as these areas need to be drained before building of any sort can begin. Any time humans excavate the ground itself (such as sand and gravel) from a wetland area, it affects the water levels and can damage the vegetation. There’s even a real chance that when people are careless during outdoor activities – such as kayaking, power boating, whitebaiting or jet skiing – they can damage the environment as well.
Other threats include pine forests that use the water, and even grazing stock that can damage vegetation and boost pollution. Alien plants and other pests can also have an affect on wetlands.
What makes the New Zealand tui so special?
The New Zealand tui, sometimes also known as the parson bird or koko, is a stunning endemic species that is quite noticeable from its white tuft on its chest.
While the ‘Tui’ beer brand is special to many New Zealanders, the real thing is a very real treat, as well.
You’ll often hear them before you see them, as these boisterous birds are nothing if not vocal. They are known for their melodic songs, but can also be heard coughing, grunting, or screaming.
When you do see one, it may appear black, but up close, those feathers are a silky sheen of green, blue, bronze, and reddish brown. Of course, there is also the small white tuft (its poi), which are actually two curled white feathers.
You can find tuis all over New Zealand, although they don’t enjoy large open, dry areas such as those east of the Southern Alps. Instead, they prefer anywhere with plenty of flowering or fruiting plants, which is why you’ll find them through native forests, suburban parks, and even backyard gardens! Their numbers are even larger in places around New Zealand with pest control programmes in place, such as where we tour at Tawharanui Regional Park.
If offered the choice, a tui would usually prefer honeydew or nectar from sources such as kowhai, puriri, rewarewa, flax, or gum trees. They will also turn to bugs such as cicadas during the breeding season, and they even enjoy the odd sugar-water feeder from birders’ gardens.
Fortunately, the tui doesn’t have to deal with many pests. Possums, rats, and mustelids are their biggest predators (who prey on the nests), but the large population of tui in New Zealand and the consistent pest control strategies in place around the country mean that we should have no problems seeing this gorgeous, tuneful bird for many years to come!
Volunteering in New Zealand
Volunteering in New Zealand is as important for the culture of the people as it is for the livelihood of the countless ongoing jobs and projects around the country throughout the year.
What do volunteers do?
Volunteering can mean taking on just about any job. You could be planting or weeding, researching, checking traps or laying them, track maintenance, bird monitoring, or even less on-the-ground roles such as catering for other volunteering, helping with fundraising or even management. If you have specific skills you can bring to a project, don’t be surprised if you end up using them!
Here at Habitat Tours, volunteering is a hugely important part of who we are. We regularly get involved with weeding, tree plants and bird monitoring, and we also make a small donation from each guest we take on a Tawharanui tour. Another of our regular guides gives his time by being a part-time guide on Tiritiri Matangi.
The benefits of being a volunteer
As well as the simple ‘feed-good’ factor of doing something fantastic for others and for the environment, there are plenty of other reasons to get out there and do some volunteering.
You’ll likely spend a lot of time outdoors, which means plenty of extra exercise and time to enjoy the beautiful New Zealand wilderness.
You’ll meet a great group of people, have fun while doing it, and learn a thing or two while you’re at it.
How can you volunteer?
There are countless ways to become a volunteer.
The Department of Conservation (DOC) is always looking for new volunteers, and there are plenty of projects to choose from to get involved in. The Tawharanui Open Sanctuary Society Inc (TOSSI) is always happy to have extra help, and Ark in the Park (the group for work in the Waitakere Ranges) is yet another great way to get involved.
Tristan Cullen - Passionate Conservationist