The Kiwi Makes a Startling but Careful Comeback

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. This week’s issue is written by Pete McKenzie, a reporter based in Auckland, New Zealand.

Capturing a kiwi is more challenging than I expected. Despite standing just two feet tall, an adult bird is armed with pistonlike legs and razor-sharp claws. And, according to Will Kahu, a ranger with the conservation group Save the Kiwi, “They’re surprisingly feisty.”

He recalled one standoff that ended with a kiwi leaping through the air, kicking him in the chest and sprinting off while he tumbled to the ground.

Which is how I found myself squatting safely atop a fallen tree in Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, a fenced-in nature reserve on New Zealand’s North Island, while Mr. Kahu and several volunteers extracted a bird from its burrow in the rotting trunk beneath me.

“One leg, two legs — got it,” Dave Laithwaite, a volunteer at the sanctuary, said while groping around in the mud in the kiwi’s narrow den. He pulled the writhing bird out, then calmed it by cradling it like a baby.

The kiwi, New Zealand’s national bird, has seen a resurgence in numbers thanks to conservation efforts. In 2005, several kiwis were placed in the Maungatautari sanctuary in a last-ditch effort to prevent them from being hunted to extinction by predators like stoats and ferrets.

Now, more than 2,500 of the fiercely territorial birds live on Sanctuary Mountain, which is quickly running out of space for them. To relieve the pressure, conservationists caught and exported 209 kiwis to new homes across the country last week.

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