The tiny kiwi in front of us was lucky to be alive.
I could feel its claws on my hand, and its beak poking out from between my fingers. Its feathers had a slightly coarse quality to them – more like a dog’s hair than cat hair – but what really stood out was its weight. There was nothing to it. The chick I had cupped in my hands weighed just under 150 grams – almost half of what it should weigh. It was little more than a small ball of fluff.
The little North Island Brown kiwi was probably about three weeks old and had been brought in to the Whangarei Native Bird Recovery Centre starving, dehydrated, unlikely to survive.
The reason it was here, was because of the drought.
Abnormally dry conditions across the North Island meant food and water within the forests was in short supply. The lack of moisture was affecting berries and plant life, in turn that was impacting upon the birds and insects that feed on them.
The drought is affecting everything, and it is killing kiwi.
A desperate search for moisture drives them into open land, where dew collects on the short grass. As the sun rises the next morning, they instinctively curl into a little ball… and there they stay. This kiwi had been found curled up in a cow paddock. It had probably been there for a couple of days, helpless under the harsh, hot, Northland sun.
Now, it was on a table in front of us, being checked over by centre Founder Robert Webb. He gently scratched behind its ear, and the little bird narrowed its eyes contentedly – much like a cat would.
Whereas the centre may normally have one or two kiwi chicks, this year, seven have been brought in so far. Just three have survived – and there was still a big question mark over the little one Robert was now carrying back to its box.
He spoke softly to the chick as he gently placed it inside its enclosure, wishing it good night, before closing the lid, and hoping for the best. It was a sweet little moment, but serious efforts were being made to save this bird.
A webcam over the crate meant Robert could keep an eye on it from home. He could see it moving about at night, exploring its new environment, but the key would be when - if - it started foraging for food on its own.
While volunteers could administer food and water, it was still unclear if the chick had suffered any long-term organ damage, and whether it would live. They weren’t even sure it would last the night.
Robert and his wife Robyn have run the Whangarei Native Bird Recovery Centre (link) for 21 years. They receive about 1200 birds a year, successfully returning about 60% of them into the wild.
Robert’s no vet – he’s a former truck driver – but he and Robyn saw a need, and they acted. It is an entirely volunteer effort, funded by donations, staffed by people there simply because they give a damn.
And sadly, there is a never-ending supply of birds.
Some are due to natural causes, like the drought.
Some are entirely unavoidable.
Recently, a woman arrived with an adult female Brown Kiwi in her car. It had been attacked by her dog she’d been letting run free in a block of native forest. She had thought it was “chasing rabbits” in the thick Northland bush. Instead, it had been savaging a kiwi.
While the Jack Russell had been too small to kill the bird outright, its sharp teeth had left puncture marks all over it, and bald patches where feathers had been torn out.
It died moments after Robert took it from her.
A needless death.
It shouldn’t require spelling out, but it does – if you’re taking your dog for a walk, don’t let it run free in native bush. A mid-90s study by DOC found that over a five and a half year period, dogs accounted for 135 (70%) of all reported kiwi deaths in Northland. Around a third of the estimated 25,000 Brown Kiwi live in Northland.
Dogs, disease, deforestation… with so many threats, the last thing these vulnerable birds need to be dealing with is drought.
Outside Robert showed us two other chicks that had been found out in the open. These ones had their own pen, and they were curled up beneath some clumps of flax. Immediately we could see they were bigger, and healthier. One was just a day or two older than the little one we’d seen earlier, but already about twice its weight.
They’ll remain here until the drought has broken, and only when they are strong enough to defend themselves. They may seem fragile, but those powerful legs and massive claws can do more than just scratch in the dirt. A trickle of blood ran down the back of Robert’s hand - these birds are feisty.
He may have had a gash on his hand, but Robert was thrilled. These aren’t his birds to keep, they aren’t pets. The sooner they can be released back into the wild, the sooner he knows his job has been done.
It’s more than just kiwi in trouble. Tui, kereru, ruru, kingfishers… there are many birds here being nursed back to health. Sadly, only a lucky few will be brought to this centre and others like it around the country. Most will die, unseen, undiscovered, unable to survive. But through the efforts of individuals like Robert and Robyn, and the people who bring in sick or injured birds, a few will be saved.
Good people, doing a good thing.
Two days after our story, I spoke with Robert again.
Despite fears it wouldn’t last the night, the little kiwi was still alive.