"I guess not too many people have a kiwi sitting by their piano."

Carole Long walks across her Mount Maunganui living room and picks up the perspex box containing Koro the kiwi - aptly named "because he's like an old man". She explains how Koro helps her teach children about New Zealand's native wildlife.

Today, the 76-year-old receives a Queen's Service Medal for services to conservation.

The sprightly pensioner has always loved the outdoors. But it was when she was 12 that her fate, and life-long passion, was sealed.

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Having joined her father for some Land Information New Zealand work in the South Island, Long found "a beautiful yellow toadstool" and picked it to show her dad.

Long didn't get in trouble. Instead, she was told how 200 other people could have probably also appreciated the toadstool's beauty - had she not picked it.

"That really stayed with me, what he said."

Long has since served on every level of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand, including two terms on its executive board. She also worked for the Department of Conservation and helped to establish, and become the longest-serving volunteer for, Otanewainuku Kiwi Trust.

Despite this, she was "absolutely stunned" and "very honoured" at her medal.

"I'm just a keen conservationist I suppose and I just love our protected areas and all the birds, and babies. Look around my walls - it's all birds and babies."

Pictures of some of her 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren sit pride of place near her breakfast bar while various bird mementos, including a gift of framed kakapo feathers, adorn her living room.

And, of course, Koro.

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"He's my buddy."