One would think that spotting a kiwi in New Zealand would not be too ridiculous to expect. To an outsider, the bird seems ubiquitous enough to encounter on a daily basis—on brand names, on team tees and anything that solicits a mascot and a symbol of national pride. But the absence of spotting a kiwi in the country can be an abiding presence. Several years ago, small-scale conservation spots called Kiwi Houses used to dot the region between Hamilton and Rotuora. These are now elusive. But this is where Rainbow Springs Nature Park comes to the rescue.
Established in 1975, it is one of the few Kiwi Houses in the country that rescues and rehabilitates their sparse population. With only 68,000 birds left in New Zealand, and the population depleting at a rate of up to 3 per cent each year, the Nature Park is resilient in boosting the numbers. Unfortunately, the kiwis themselves are unhelpful to the cause of saving their species. After all, they are unwittingly the worst parents in the world.
One can find this out in a fascinating hour-long tour with the in-house conservationists. The tour starts outside the Kiwi room, where the guide orients people to the current state of the kiwi population and then everyone is ushered inside the dark room to spot the birds behind a large glass enclosure. There is one strict mandate though. Visitors are allowed to speak only in hushed tones and camera flashes are prohibited inside. The Kiwis are shy and sensitive birds that flee even at the slightest disturbance. The chances of spotting them in the wild are bleak. Since the lights are dimmed to emulate nighttime they come out to look for food. If the visitors are in luck, then evening is the best time to spot them.
The path inside a dark hall is flanked by large glass enclosures. It takes a while for eyes to get accustomed to the diminished light, but the conservationist helps everyone navigate through the viewing. Visitors stay indoors for about 15 minutes, spotting all three occupants of this large room. From darkness it’s onto more elemental parts of the park’s conservation centre—a room with blasting air conditioner. This is the hatchery and the place where visitors learn all about the ‘mal-parenting practices’ of the kiwis. Even though kiwis, once having found a partner, remain monogamous, they don’t have much to show for parental skills. After laying an egg, the male takes the onus of incubating the egg for 60-90 days.
Kiwi chicks have another battle to win on their own. They have to peck and kick the eggshell, in order to see the light of the day. And the process can take up to a week. A time-lapse video of an egg hatching can be seen here. It is sure to leave everyone jaw-dropped and gooey hearted. Next is the Burrow Room, which promises some more action. Here, names of the hatched chicks appear on a whiteboard. This is where one can see chicks early into their development. Later, they are released in the wild. Some make it to the breeding programme and some are left free. And heartening stories of the population rise is what keeps Rainbow Springs going.