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Saving Smaug the Kiwi Bird

Releasing a Kiwi bird into the wild!

Seeing a kiwi bird is something on many backpackers’ New Zealand bucket list. So it’s great to know that we can help with the conservation of kiwis for backpackers and New Zealanders to enjoy in the future. As our pals at Working Holiday Starter found out, kiwis are very loveable birds!

The team at Working Holiday Starter, a company helping backpackers get set up with travelling and working in New Zealand, is proudly supporting the Kiwis for Kiwi foundation. They visited Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari to do a health checkup on their young kiwi bird before releasing it into the wild. The fiery little fella was named “Smaug” by the Working Holiday Starter team after the dragon from The Hobbit.

The Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari is a remarkable insight into what New Zealand used to look like, whilst also being a safe haven for some intriguing wildlife. We followed Mark from WWF, Bella his conservation dog, and Working Holiday Starter as they named, checked and released Smaug the kiwi, to see exactly how kiwis are being saved in New Zealand.


Why do kiwi birds need saving?

The kiwi bird might be a national icon of New Zealand, so much so that the people call themselves “Kiwis”, but approximately 1400 die each year. During our lifetime, the kiwi bird could disappear from mainland New Zealand completely.

The biggest threat to these little balls of feathery fluff, are predators that have been brought to the mainland by human migration, such as cats, dogs, stoats, weasels and ferrets. Of course, before us pesky humans, no land mammals could threaten the kiwi, therefore there was no need to evolve wings to fly. It was only 200 years ago that kiwi calls could be heard all over New Zealand.

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Stage 1: Find a kiwi!

Mark Lammas, funded by WWF, and his remarkable dog, Bella, did the hard part of finding a western brown kiwi in the Sanctuary Mountain Reserve. Bella has been specially trained from a pup to find a kiwi, let her owner know where it is, then gently round it up for Mark to capture.

A small tracking device was attached to the kiwi’s leg before placing it in a enclosure within Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari. The tracker beeps, like the game “Hot and Cold”, with the tracker beeping more frequently the closer it gets to the kiwi.

Mark and Bella also take kiwi eggs into captivity so the chick can survive before releasing it back into the wild. In this controlled reserve, 50-60% of kiwi chicks survive, whereas in non-controlled environments full of predators 95% of kiwi chicks die before they are ready to breed.

With all the equipment ready, and the name “Smaug” officially chosen for the kiwi, they were all ready to go see the bird in his enclosure. Smaug’s entourage were made up of Mark, Bella, Sasha – a kiwi practitioner whose job was to release Smaug into Waimarino Forest, Sasha’s kiwi tracker dog Kaia, and the Working Holiday Starter crew.

Stage 2: Journey to the kiwi enclosure

The kiwi enclosure is situated in the amazing Mount Maungatautari forest. The specially designed fence protecting the forest from pests shows the shocking contrast between the natural forest and the farmland transformed by man.

A small entrance fee allows anyone to enjoy hikes in the forest amongst bird calls – a true experience to see what New Zealand used to be like. To see nocturnal creatures, visitors can book a guided night tour.

Once the team reached the enclosure, it was time for Mark to track the kiwi, with the aid of Bella and Kaia. Hidden under a fallen tree trunk, it wasn’t long until Smaug was found and ready to have his health check.

kiwi health check

Stage 3: Health Check

As Smaug was found when he was just a youngster, it was important to check that he had grown strong enough to take care of himself in the wild. The health check included: measuring the beak, weighing him, taking some feather samples, and finally, securely attaching a new tracking device.

At first, Smaug was quite restless being picked up by a strange human, which was indicated by the snapping sound he made with his beak. By holding his powerful legs together and cradling him in some arms, soon enough, Smaug was chilling.

Stage 4: releasing Smaug

Finally, Smaug left Mt Maungatautari for a new home in Waimarino Forest. Why the relocation? To diversify kiwi breeding, as inbreeding can cause deformities and reduce fertility rates in kiwis.

Thanks to Sasha and Kaia, Smaug was successfully released into a deep and dungeon-like burrow. He was happy to finally get his whiskers amongst the dirt and spiderwebs Waimarino Forest!

Smaug’s next health check is scheduled 3 months from now.

How you can save a kiwi!

This kiwi release was made possible by Kiwis for Kiwi, a charity protecting kiwi birds in their natural habitat.

The good folks are Kiwis for Kiwi organised this kiwi release by allowing the general public to bid on this hands-on kiwi experience, with proceeds going to the charity, helping kiwis just like Smaug!

So check out how backpackers like you can help save kiwis in our article: 5 Ways to help Save a Kiwi Bird.

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