Two wild kiwi chicks were born near Wellington, New Zealand, about a year after a reintroduction program began in the city, the Capital Kiwi Project announced last week. The fluffy, brown babies are the first to be born near the country’s capital in at least 150 years.
“This is very special for the team, which has been working hard for the last few years,” project founder Paul Ward tells the Agence France-Presse. The chicks are a “massive milestone for our goal of building a wild population of kiwi on Wellington’s back doorstep.”
These flightless, chicken-sized birds were once abundant across New Zealand, with the nation’s five species numbering an estimated 12 million individuals in total. But nonnative predators and habitat loss caused their populations to plummet. Today, approximately 68,000 kiwis remain.
The brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) is among the most common of New Zealand’s endemic kiwi species, though its numbers are steadily declining by about 2 to 3 percent per year. Without ongoing support, the birds could go extinct within just two generations.
Conservation and reintroduction programs, including the Capital Kiwi Project, have been working to restore a large-scale wild kiwi population for years. In 2022, the organization released 11 kiwis into the wild in Makara, a suburb about seven miles west of Wellington. Between February and May of 2023, another 52 birds were released, and 200 more are slated to be released over the next five years, reports Eva Corlett for the Guardian.
Along with reintroduction efforts, the project aimed to reduce threats from European stoats, also known as ermines. The mammals were brought to New Zealand in the 19th century in an attempt to eradicate another introduced creature: rabbits. But these weasel-like stoats are voracious predators and kill many of New Zealand’s native species, including kiwi chicks. Only about 5 percent of kiwi chicks survive to reach breeding age in areas where predators are not controlled, largely thanks to stoats. In areas under management, however, 50 to 60 percent survive. Knowing this, conservationists worked with 100 landowners across the bird’s 60,000-acre habitat to install 4,600 stoat traps.
Of the 63 adult kiwis now roaming the hilly farmlands of Makara, only about a quarter are being monitored—meaning more chicks will likely hatch in the near future. Conservationists will continue monitoring the two new chicks, though Ward tells the Guardian they still have a long way to go before they’re fully grown.
“These chicks now need to fend for themselves in the wild,” he tells the publication. “The coming months are vitally important as they grow and put on weight to the point that they can fend off stoats with their big claws.”
Over the years, the long-beaked birds have become a national symbol of New Zealand, with people who hail from the country often referred to as kiwis. The animals also hold special importance to the Māori people of New Zealand, who have cultural, spiritual and historic associations with the birds. Even the New Zealand dollar is sometimes referred to as the kiwi, and the bird is featured on the country’s dollar coin.
“When we talk about the kiwi—that’s our identity,” Raewyn Empson, who was a conservation manager at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in 2008, told the Associated Press at the time. “When all of a sudden you’re talking about kiwi becoming extinct in our lifetime, it’s a bit scary really.”