The Kiwi Makes a Startling but Careful Comeback

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The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. This week’s issue is written by Pete McKenzie, a reporter based in Auckland, New Zealand.

Capturing a kiwi is more challenging than I expected. Despite standing just two feet tall, an adult bird is armed with pistonlike legs and razor-sharp claws. And, according to Will Kahu, a ranger with the conservation group Save the Kiwi, “They’re surprisingly feisty.”

He recalled one standoff that ended with a kiwi leaping through the air, kicking him in the chest and sprinting off while he tumbled to the ground.

Which is how I found myself squatting safely atop a fallen tree in Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, a fenced-in nature reserve on New Zealand’s North Island, while Mr. Kahu and several volunteers extracted a bird from its burrow in the rotting trunk beneath me.

“One leg, two legs — got it,” Dave Laithwaite, a volunteer at the sanctuary, said while groping around in the mud in the kiwi’s narrow den. He pulled the writhing bird out, then calmed it by cradling it like a baby.

The kiwi, New Zealand’s national bird, has seen a resurgence in numbers thanks to conservation efforts. In 2005, several kiwis were placed in the Maungatautari sanctuary in a last-ditch effort to prevent them from being hunted to extinction by predators like stoats and ferrets.

Now, more than 2,500 of the fiercely territorial birds live on Sanctuary Mountain, which is quickly running out of space for them. To relieve the pressure, conservationists caught and exported 209 kiwis to new homes across the country last week.

“It’s the biggest kiwi translocation ever,” Mr. Kahu said.

“My feeling is of celebration,” said Bodie Taylor, a representative of an Indigenous tribe that helps run Sanctuary Mountain. “To hear them tangi” — cry — “and see them running free, it opens your heart.”

Most remarkable is the way these flightless birds are being moved: by plane.

After the hunt, I drove to Waikato Airport behind a van full of squeaking birds.

“We’re here for the Sanctuary Mountain flight,” Steven Cox, a conservation ranger, said to an airport receptionist when we arrived.

The receptionist asked what the cargo was.

“Kiwi,” Mr. Cox said. The receptionist said she’d call over her manager.

Outside, two planes from an aeronautics club in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, taxied across a runway. Conservationists prefer to transport kiwis by plane when relocating them across long distances to minimize travel time and stress on the birds.

“It’s pretty cool,” Kai Furst-Jaeger, the pilot, said as he helped load the birds onto the planes. “I didn’t think I’d get to handle kiwi in my lifetime.”

There were once 12 million kiwis in New Zealand, but the species was devastated after humans introduced predators like ferrets, rats and stoats. In areas with predators, less than 10 percent of hatchlings survive six months. Roughly 70,000 birds belonging to five species remain, mostly in fenced-in reserves or on remote islands.

But intensive efforts by government rangers, volunteer trappers and conservationists at refuges like Sanctuary Mountain have propelled the growth of some kiwi species. The species at Sanctuary Mountain, the North Island brown kiwi, is expected to see its population increase by 10 percent over the next three generations.

That is allowing conservationists to take risks: the birds from Sanctuary Mountain are going to reserves that are not fenced in. While trapping has eliminated most predators at these reserves, the kiwis there still face dangers.

“We know some kiwi may die in the wild, but we have to build large populations with resilience,” said Michelle Bird, a coordinator for Save The Kiwi. “We’re looking at the population level.”

I hopped into an aircraft packed with six birds. As we rattled down the runway, I cast a worried eye at the crates.

“It must be a weird experience for them,” I said.

“Yeah, I hear flying isn’t their strong suit,” Chris Forbes, the pilot, joked. He told me he laughed when Wellington Aero Club asked for volunteers to help flightless kiwis soar.

We flew between the snow-capped mountains of Ruapehu and Taranaki, then followed the coastline past Kapiti Island to Wellington. Below us lay sprawling fields with occasional towns and roadways: a landscape that has changed dramatically since kiwis roamed freely several centuries ago, when much of the land was native forest.

“I’ve heard no squawks from the kiwi,” Mr. Forbes said as we approached Wellington.

“I suppose that’s a good sign,” I replied.

We touched down smoothly, then pulled into a warehouse where half a dozen volunteers were waiting. Within minutes, the crates were loaded into several cars and on their way to the city’s western edge, where the conservation group Capital Kiwi has spent five years establishing a predator-free zone. After being reintroduced into the area in 2022, the kiwi bred there for the first time in living memory.

Now, Sanctuary Mountain has sent 100 of the birds to the area to supercharge Wellington’s growing kiwi population. As night fell, we unloaded the crates at the Karori Golf Course, which lies at the foot of the predator-free area. At the last hole, a tribal representative released a kiwi into a stand of native bush. As the kiwi scurried away, a native owl hooted in the starlight.

“It provides hope,” Ms. Bird said of the kiwi transfer. “And hope is important.”

Here are this week’s stories.

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