Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is a NZME. News Service journalist based in Auckland.

Survival of kiwi species depends on feisty young chick

Conservation Minister holds the rowi chick before it is transferred to Mana Island. Photo / Peter Wiezoreck
Conservation Minister holds the rowi chick before it is transferred to Mana Island. Photo / Peter Wiezoreck

The survival of the most endangered kiwi species is being pinned on a feisty young kiwi chick which was released to its new home on a predator-free island today.

The unnamed rowi kiwi chick was flown by helicopter to Mana Island, off the coast of Wellington, following its discovery on Blumine Island in the Marlborough Sounds.

The chick is the first to be found on Blumine Island since five unproductive rowi kiwi pairs were transferred there from the West Coast two and half years ago, in the hope that the warmer climate and richer soils would encourage them to breed.

Conservationists say the survival of the rowi kiwi population, which stands at just 375, depends on the chick.

The rowi is the rarest of the five kiwi species and up to a third are thought to be unproductive, with just 80 breeding pairs remaining - most of them in their main habitat in Okarito, in the South Island's West Coast.

It is hoped the chick will breed with other rowi kiwi on Mana Island, increasing the genetic diversity of the species. If all goes to plan, the population of rowi is hoped to increase to 600 within five years.

Conservation Minister Nick Smith held the chick briefly, in a flurry of feathers, before he accompanied it to Mana Island.

He described it as "feisty" - which could be a good sign for the future of the species.

"The future of rowi kiwi rests on this bird moving forward and being able to breed," Dr Smith said.

"He was very feisty, actually. I've handled a few kiwi in the privileged role I have as Minister of Conservation, and so as a non-scientist, I've got bright hope."

West Coast Maori will choose the best name for the kiwi from among those submitted by the public to the Kiwis For Kiwi Trust website.

Dr Smith said he didn't have a preferred name, but his children did.

"But for me to disclose their preferences would give some ministerial bias that would get me into all sorts of trouble, so I'm just looking forward to my children and lots of other children around New Zealand putting forward some names."

The kiwi's gender is also unknown, with a genetic test still to determine whether it is male or female.

"My children are a bit upset that I couldn't tell them whether it was a boy or a girl before we name the chick - perhaps it's a little bit like the royal baby," Dr Smith said.

Department of Conservation West Coast area manager Wayne Costello said the transfer to Blumine Island was the first time kiwi pairs had been taken out of their natural environment in order to stimulate fertility.

"We had a hunch that the move from Okarito to the Marlborough Sounds may shake things up a little for the old pairs.

Although kiwi mate for life, a major shift in habitat can result in re-partnering as they re-establish territories.

"Happily, this does seem to be the case."

Kiwis For Kiwi funded the transfer of rowi pairs to Blumine Island from public donations.

The trust's executive director, Michelle Impey, said more help was needed to ensure the survival of the species.

"While we're celebrating this chick's arrival, we have a long way to go before the rowi population is stable, and further donations are urgently needed."

Donations and submissions on the kiwi's name can be made at www.kiwisforkiwi.org.nz

- APNZ

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