Summer drought conditions in New Zealand's Northland region are causing strife for the local kiwi population with the normally nocturnal birds having to venture out during the day in search of food and water.
The plight of Northland kiwi has been highlighted by an eight-day-old bird nicknamed ‘Puddles’ who was found dehydrated and lifeless by tourists walking in Trounson Kauri Park near Dargaville.
While the baby bird is now thriving at the Whangarei Native Bird Recovery Centre, it isn’t the only one to have been found suffering in the drought.
The centre says even adult birds have been found near death as they brave broad daylight in a desperate bid to find food and water.
Rain has been sparse in Northland for some months now and the hard ground makes it very difficult for kiwi to forage for invertebrates and bugs.
Some areas have had only 10 - 20% of their normal rainfall for this time of the year, and the bird recovery centre says the drought is not only impacting kiwi but also other species such as native ducks and black-backed gulls.
Heather O’Brien, bird centre assistant manager, said a sustained period of rain was needed to soften the ground and stimulate plant growth. Other problems like algae bloom and avian botulism were also having a negative impact on birds during the drought.
The plight of ‘Puddles’ the baby kiwi has been featured in national and international media making the young New Zealand icon, a bit of a celebrity.
He now shows no signs of his near-death experience and has almost doubled in weight since quick-thinking tourists rescued him from a dried up puddle and took him straight to the Whangarei Native Bird Recovery Centre.
Eating a mixed diet that has included ox heart, peas, corn, banana and sultanas, Puddles has gone from 231g to 446g but centre staff say he needs to learn a few table manners.
"He is such a messy eater and flicks his food everywhere. He’s had to have his face washed before appearing in front of media and for publicity shots," Heather O’Brien said.
Puddles also "had a bit of an attitude" with other birds when he first arrived at the centre but has since learnt to join in, and has been found interacting playfully with a group of four other kiwi chicks.
He has now been moved to an outside pen and although big enough to go home to the wild, the centre says he won’t be released until there is a change in the weather and the drought breaks.
There are seven kiwi chicks currently being cared for at the centre, and it costs NZ$60 a day to care for each bird.
A positive spin-off from Puddles’ story has been an increase in donations from within New Zealand and abroad, and centre staff are delighted by the support.
"We’ve had a tremendous response from people particularly from expats and concerned people overseas who have sent us money. It restores your faith in humanity," O’Brien said.
Kiwis in trouble
While the current drought situation was having an abnormal effect on kiwi, anyone seeing the birds out during daylight needed to take a close look at whether they were in trouble, she said.
"It’s not usual behaviour to see kiwi out in the middle of the day - even adult birds can get into trouble in these conditions so people need to let us or the Department of Conservation know so we can offer the best advice," O’Brien said.
Background: Baby kiwi
A newly hatched kiwi chick has a residual yoke sac in its stomach that sustains it for the first six to eight days. The sac attached to the umbilical cord is full of nutrients and provides a complete food for the bird until it ventures from the nest and begins to forage for food.
Kiwi have an in-built instinct to fossick for food but young chicks are extremely vulnerable to predators and only 5% of kiwi make it to adulthood.
The Whangarei Native Bird Recovery Centre was set up in 1992 by Robert and Robyn Webb. Along with a team of volunteers, the Webbs rescue, care for and rehabilitate more than 1200 birds a year.