SocietyJune 2, 2024

What it’s like to release a kiwi into the wild


Esme Stark spends two days in the hills of Wellington with Capital Kiwi, introducing 12 kiwi to their new home.

Kiwi are returning to Wellington. After years of intensive trapping and the release of 140 kiwi since November 2022 by the Capital Kiwi Project, Wellington’s wild western hills now provide everything our national icon needs to thrive: food, shelter, protection from predation, and mates. This month, two Wellington-hatched chicks reached the “stoat-proof” weight of 1.2kg, and a kiwi wandered through a Broadmeadows backyard

Kiwis (the people) are rebuilding their relationship with kiwi (the birds) from being one of passive pride, to being active guardians, says Capital Kiwi project’s founder and lead Paul Ward. This reconnection is the result of a remarkable collaboration between iwi, landowners, and the community, which I witnessed over two days with the project. They’re showing what’s possible when tāngata rebuild relationships with the taiao, and how Wellingtonians can cherish our nation’s eponymous manu.

“Our wero, or challenge now is to keep going,” Ward says. He says he wants to have so many kiwi in Wellington’s hills that the council starts getting noise complaints. 

Hohaia, a kiwi released in March, in the arms of Jeff Hall, Capital Kiwi Field Services Specialist.

A hush falls as a white van pulls into the Meridian West Wind carpark, bearing a bright yellow sticker that reads “Live Kiwi on Board”. As the 12 wooden crates are removed from the boot, Gemma Wright’s karanga is the first voice the kiwi hear, welcoming them onto the whenua on behalf of Te Āti Awa Taranaki Whānui.

The kiwi were ferried south from Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari after a tono process between the haukāinga there, Ngaati Korokī Kahukura, and Taranaki Whānui ki te Upoko o te Ika a Maui. Tono is a tikanga process used to request the exchange of something precious. Traditionally used for marriages, adoptions, or when someone dies, it’s now facilitating the exchange of kiwi.

Holden Hohaia, representing Te Āti Awa Taranaki Whānui, leads karakia for the group of Meridian staff and their families, iwi representatives, and Capital Kiwi staff and supporters. This ritual incantation, he explains, binds us into one waka who’ll ferry these manu to their new homes.

Members of Te Āti Awa Taranaki Whānui welcoming kiwi.

Our convoy pulls up above a glassy Cook Strait and we venture down a hill dotted with wind turbines. As more karakia flows, Waiapu releases the first kiwi. She travelled from Maungatautari with the manu and is in training to handle kiwi with the Hem of Remutaka project.

Pete Kirkman, Capital Kiwi Operations Manager, hands a kiwi to Hem of Remutaka conservation volunteer, Waiapu Tangianau.

Jessi Morgan, head of Predator Free New Zealand Trust and a Capital Kiwi Project trustee, lets the next kiwi go. “I didn’t want to, it was snuggling like a baby,” she says. Ultimately though, the project is about setting the kiwi free. By controlling predators at landscape scale, the kiwi can breed naturally, as “we can’t incubate every egg”.

Pete Kirkman handing a kiwi to Jessi Morgan, head of Predator Free New Zealand.

Egg incubation programmes have been a key source of kiwi for the project. That’s why Michelle Bird of Save the Kiwi releases the next kiwi. Her programme at Maungatautari has been so successful the sanctuary is now bursting at the seams. That’s why, in partnership with iwi and hapū, Save the Kiwi have translocated 209 of the 2500 to 3000 kiwi this year to three sites – at Taranaki Mounga, DOC at Tongariro, and Capital Kiwi.

Michelle tells me releasing the kiwi “is the reward” for the people who’ve put in the hours moving traps on cold winter mornings. There’s something special about kiwi, she reckons. “You see it on people’s faces. Before it was this mythical creature, now it’s right in front of them. It’s emotional.”

Michelle Bird, near box, preparing to release a kiwi.

I head back down the hill squeezed into Michael Grace’s car. He’s the director of Terawhiti Station, the 5,000 hectare sheep station in Mākara’s back-country where most of Capital Kiwi’s releases have been so far. He thought Capital Kiwi’s pitch was “awesome” when he heard it six years ago. His biggest concern was whether it was possible.

Turns out the issue wasn’t terrain, but predators – mostly ferrets, stoats and weasels. Now, with hundreds of landowners like Grace allowing Capital Kiwi traps and contractors onto their land, they’ve formed a network of 4,600 traps over 24,000 hectares. 

The network covers a mix of regenerating forest, scrubby gullies, and working farms. Ward pulls up a cowpat to show the delights kiwi can find in pastured areas. “It’s showing our productive landscapes can also be places where we’re looking after our taiao and treasured species,” he says.  

This is the first release on land managed by Meridian, who’ve committed to doing their own trapping. Hamish Walker, the site manager, released a kiwi earlier today. “They’ve got these giant legs but a fragile soft body. They’re like a silky bantam with giant legs … we’re definitely going to challenge the team to get a picture of any signs of kiwi activity when they’re servicing the turbines, and will come out and have a listen.”

Rawiri Walsh performing a health check, with WCC rangers and Capital Kiwi staff looking on.

We’re sitting back at the Meridian headquarters. Exultant members of the many groups who made this happen are bonding over kai. Holden Hohaia calls over Rawiri Walsh, who he calls “‘the glue”’ between Te Āti Awa Taranaki Whānui and Capital Kiwi. His role title is ‘Kaimanaaki Kiwi’, which he preferred to ‘kaitiaki’ as he doesn’t see his role as ”standing over the birds protecting them” but to “awhi and support”. He’s also the iwi liaison, caring for the iwi and hapū who visit and give birds, as well as the birds themselves.

A few days later, my hair’s being ripped out by low branches as I follow Ash, conversation dog-in-training, and beeps from a kiwi transmitter being picked up by Walsh’s aerial.

We reach a clearing where a male kiwi, released in March, has made a home. He’s named Hohaia in honour of Holden and his whānau. While performing a health check, Walsh tells me, “we’ve named every manu to date and know who named it. It’s another way of reconnection through whakapapa.” 

Capital Kiwi Operations Manager Pete Kirkman with Ash, conservation dog-in-training.

Today, Walsh is looking after a rōpū of park rangers from Wellington City Council. With kiwi roaming onto council land, it’s likely they’ll get a call if a bird is hurt by a car or a dog. Hohaia (the kiwi) is handed to a council biodiversity specialist who comments, “this is like the first time I held a baby. He’s the same weight as my son when he was born.”

Kiwi are a lot more hardy and industrious than babies, however. One kiwi in the project area travelled 10km in 10 days. Male kiwi defend burrows against predators when nesting, and with their sharp claws, they can fend off stoats, possums, rats, and mice (check out this epic fight between a kiwi and possum caught on a trail camera). Cameras have also picked up one burrow stocked up with cave wētā. They also live long lives. One kiwi, Anahera, is in her mid-forties at least, living at Otorohanga Kiwi House since 1980 before she was translocated.

Hohaia, a recently released kiwi.

The team is happy with Hohaia’s condition. He’s over 2kg and has put on weight since March. At 110mm, his beak is long for a male. Jeff Hall, another conservation specialist, said they perform health checks on birds within a couple of months of release. “Given the stress of translocation, we expect birds will lose some condition, but we’ve been extremely pleasantly surprised because most birds put on significant weight. It shows they’re finding everything they need out here.” Ward chips in. “Sometimes we joked they were nipping to Karori for takeaways they were putting on so much weight.”

Within 12 months of the first translocation, birds were breeding, which kiwi will only do when they know the conditions are right. The first chicks to get through to stoat-proof weight – 1.2kg – did so in four months, rather than the 6 to 8 months the team expected. They’re all ‘really big ticks’ for the project, says Hall.

Ash taking a careful look at Tamatea.

Later in the day, we find Tamatea, named for the moon phase from when he was caught at Maungatautari. He’s put on 100 grams since March and dug himself a deep burrow into the steep hillside. Pete Kirkman, Capital Kiwi’s Operations Manager, is 6’4” and could only just reach him in there. He tells me kiwi can burrow up to 1.5 metres.

Tamatea sleeps in a park ranger’s arms as Hall swaps out his transmitter. Only 20 of the 140 birds have transmitters at the moment. Kirkman tells me they keep the transmitters on for a year, after which “we have a good idea of survival. We can then follow up with monitoring in less invasive ways, like with surveys and dogs. Every bird released has a microchip, any bird we catch without one was born here.”

Scrambling back down the hill, one of the Wellington park rangers reflects that the challenge now is to empower the public to educate each other about protecting these manu. “Dogs on leads, cats in at night, report any roaming dogs you see” are the kinds of behaviour changes he hopes will come from people knowing these birds are in our backyard.

The cat question is a delicate one. Not all the bird species whose populations have benefitted from predator control in Wellington have the same natural advantages as kiwi (ie weapon-like claws), so everyone’s very careful to emphasise the need for responsible cat ownership. 

Ward and Hall say they’ve seen huge shifts in public awareness in Wellington over the last few years. “People are more than willing to be guardians of kiwi and our other manu,” Ward says. “It’s about just enjoying and celebrating that we’re a capital city that’s restored our national icon and taonga to its hills.”

Keep going!