In the wild, the kiwi is a threatened bird that has a 95% mortality rate for chicks under one year old. This is largely due to the predation of the eggs and young by stoats, possums, dogs, cats and rats.
With funding from BNZ, The Operation Nest Egg (O.N.E.) programme was started in 1995 to collect, transport and incubate kiwi eggs, and keep young chicks alive in captivity. It involves the BNZ Save the Kiwi Trust, Department of Conservation (DOC), captive facilities like Auckland Zoo, and many individuals and community groups.
Since 1995, the programme has been used in every breeding season, largely in the most vulnerable kiwi populations near the brink of extinction, such as the critically endangered rowi and Haast tokoeka.
This has allowed researchers the time to find solutions to the problems facing kiwi. The aim is to develop long-term cost-effective and sustainable ways to keep large areas of forest free of predators.
Along with holding kiwi breeding pairs – both in Te Wao Nui’s The Night and off-display at our NZ Fauna Conservation Centre – Auckland Zoo plays a key role in the O.N.E. programme.
Each year from late winter through to February, Auckland Zoo receives North Island brown kiwi eggs that have been pulled from wild nests in the Whangarei region by DOC staff. These eggs are placed in the capable hands of our New Zealand Bird keepers, who care for them through their incubation and hatching period, and then rear the hatched chicks until they are 25 – 30 days old. This includes weighing and monitoring the eggs and chicks every day.
Two days before kiwis are due to be released, they have a microchip implanted to identify them and are given a health check by our vets.
By this time, the chicks weigh around 375 grams, and are ready to be released onto Motuora Island, a predator-free island in the Hauraki Gulf. They live on this ‘crèche’ island until they reach around 1kg in weight – big enough to defend themselves against stoats – and are then relocated back to the wild in Northland to areas that are intensively trapped (to help reduce the number of introduced pests).
The Zoo has been involved in Operation Nest Egg since 1996, and to date, has successfully hatched and released more than 240 kiwi chicks. The New Zealand Bird team has worked to refine its husbandry techniques, and has achieved an impressive 93% success rate in hatching viable eggs. In 2004, Auckland Zoo received a conservation award recognising its contribution to North Island brown kiwi recovery. This award was presented by the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria (now the ZAA).
O.N.E.’s need decreases as each kiwi population grows and kiwi researchers expect there may come a time when it will no longer be needed as a management tool, although its power as an advocacy tool – giving people an opportunity to get close to kiwi – will remain immensely valuable.
Auckland Zoo’s Kiwi research
The Zoo’s vet team from the New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine has been involved in important research on the distribution of coccidia, an important gut parasite, in wild kiwi. Tests carried out by senior vet Dr. Richard Jakob-Hoff on North Island brown kiwi have also led to the discovery of blood parasites – Babesia kiwiensis and Hepatozoon kiwii – not previously reported in this species. The New Zealand Conservation Management Group has presented Dr. Richard Jakob-Hoff with an individual award, recognising his contribution to the conservation of New Zealand species.