Saving kiwi at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

No visit to New Zealand is complete without laying eyes on a kiwi – the flightless, feathered icon that leads a list of rare native species found nowhere else on the planet.

No visit to New Zealand is complete without laying eyes on a kiwi - the flightless, feathered icon that leads a list of rare native species found nowhere else on the planet.

There are thought to be about 100,000 kiwi left in New Zealand, and one of the key establishments involved in saving the endangered birds is based in Canterbury - just 15 minutes from central Christchurch.

Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, set up 35 years ago and still run by the same family, is home to one of New Zealand’s most important kiwi breeding programmes and guarantees visitors will come face-to-face with the rare nocturnal birds at close quarters.

The reserve has one of New Zealand’s most comprehensive wildlife displays with the country’s largest and most accessible kiwi viewing area.

Endangered kiwis
Kiwi are considered one of the world’s oddest birds - with mammalian features, cat-like whiskers, hair-like feathers yet long beaks and bird-styled feet.

The kiwi lays the largest egg in proportion to its size of any species of bird, and evolved for 70 million years before man introduced the mammals that are now their predators.

Chicks and eggs are extremely vulnerable and with declining numbers the kiwi was placed on the endangered species list resulting in breeding programmes such as BNZ Operation Nest Egg supported by Willowbank Wildlife Reserve.

BNZ Operation Nest Egg
As part of the ONE programme, kiwi eggs are collected, incubated and hatched and the chicks reared in captivity until they are big enough to be released into the wild. Birds raised this way have a 65% chance of surviving their first year of life.

Only 5% of kiwi hatched in the wild reach adulthood, and 20% survival is needed for a population to grow. Operation Nest Egg has so far increased the chances of a kiwi making it to adulthood by seven times.

Willowbank Wildlife Reserve focuses mainly on New Zealand’s two most endangered kiwi - Okarito rowi and the Haast tokoeka. The great spotted kiwi, which is the largest of all kiwi and the only species found wild in Canterbury, are also found at Willowbank.

The kiwi breeding area is about two hectares of bush surrounded by a high predator-proof fence and the birds can be easily viewed at night under lights.

Juvenile kiwi can be seen in a huge nocturnal house - with at least 10 North Island brown kiwi in residence at any one time.

Willowbank success
Kiwi eggs are driven or flown from other South Island areas for incubation at Willowbank, and the breeding programme - which has seen 350-plus kiwi returned to the wild since 2005 - is run in conjunction with the Department of Conservation and the New Zealand Conservation Trust.

The 2009 - 2010 season saw a record 87 kiwi chicks successfully reared and released to crèche sites. Since then, during the 2011 - 2012 season, the breeding programme has had a change of direction from working with three kiwi species to focus on the great spotted kiwi. This species is the largest of all kiwi and only found in pockets of the northwest South Island.

Each kiwi has its own name and personality - some feisty, others cute and adorable. Feeding and caring for the young kiwi keeps the staff of four keepers fully occupied.

Exclusive guided tours behind the scenes of the breeding programme include viewing kiwi eggs being candled, weighed and turned in the incubation room or - depending on timing - seeing newly-hatched kiwi chicks.

As well as the Kiwi Encounter, Willowbank also offers the chance to see a number of other native species including the takahe - part of the small population of another flightless species that has been brought back from the brink of extinction.

Other rare birdlife at Willowbank include the buff weka, previously extinct on the mainland but successfully breeding on the pest-free Chatham Islands, and rare South Island kaka - a playful parrot that lives mainly on off-shore islands.

Experiences at the Willowbank Park also include a pre-European Māori village and an interactive Māori cultural experience.

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