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three kiwi tales more fabulous fix-it stories from Wildbase Hospital

Ja net Hunt


This is a companion book to How to Mend a Kea + Other Fabulous Fix-it Tales from Wildbase Hospital

Images copyright © as below, 2019 Key: b = bottom; t = top Cover: Koa, a Haast tokoeka O.N.E. chick, West Coast Wildlife Centre/Kimberley Revelly Rod Morris: p.9–11, p.12. Kerry Oates: p.12, p.13t Rainbow Springs/Emma Bean: p.13b, p.15, p.16t, p.17, p.18, p.38 Manawatu Evening Standard/Stuff: p37. Sian Reynolds: p.22, p.23 All others are either from Wildbase Hospital or by the author


First published in 2019 by Massey University Press Private Bag 102904, North Shore Mail Centre, Auckland 0745, New Zealand www.masseypress.ac.nz Text copyright © Janet Hunt, 2019 Design by Janet Hunt The moral right of the author has been asserted All rights reserved. Except as provided by the Copyright Act 1994, no part of this book may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner(s) and the publisher. A catalogue record for this book is available from the National Library of New Zealand Printed and bound in China by 1010 Printing International Ltd ISBN: 978-0-9951001-4-5

contents Ngā mihi 4 introduction 5

J the not-bird bird 6 the kiwi who’s who 10

I latitude’s tale 12

J Raratoka’s tale 22

I piwi’s tale 32

J about wildbase 40

I reading threat levels 46 Index 47

J where are they now? 48


Ngā mihi


ust as it is in the endless task of caring for wildlife, writing a book is a team effort. Three Kiwi Tales would not have happened without the contributions of many people.

Top of the list are Pauline Nijman, Wildbase Hospital and Recovery

Supervisor, and Emma Bean, Husbandry Manager at the National Kiwi Hatchery Aotearoa at Rainbow Springs in Rotorua. Pauline and Emma not only star in the stories, they have also been unstinting with time and assistance. What amazing, knowledgeable, caring, cheerful people they are. I’m in awe of their hard work on behalf of our endangered kiwi. Thank you so much, Pauline and Emma! Many others have answered queries no matter how small, and helped with stories, contacts and photographs. In no particular order, my huge appreciation and thanks to Kerry Oates, Jacinda Amey, Sian Reynolds, Kimberley Revelly, Sorrel Hoskin, Riki Dallas, Philip Marsh, George Gibbs, Jo Russell, Michelle Bird, Kevin Stokes and the Taranaki Kiwi Trust. Special thanks also to Brett Gartrell, Megan Jolly and the rest of the team of veterinarians and technicians at Wildbase Hospital, who allowed me to peer over their shoulders, listen in at meetings and generally get in the way. Thanks, too, to the MUP publishing team of Tracey Borgfeldt, Nicola Legat and Anna Bowbyes for their support and encouragement. And, as ever, a big thank you to Peter Haines and my family, friends, neighbours and fellow Taranaki conservationists. This is where it all begins.




his book is about three kiwi: little Latitude, lovely Raratoka and Piwi the pioneer. It’s also about two worlds. The worlds are extreme opposites, but there are times when they meet and overlap.

The first is the world of kiwi. It’s a night-time place of dark, leafiness,

the forest floor, burrows, worms, grubs, spiders and insects. It’s the seemingly simple world to which, over millions of years, its kiwi inhabitants have become superbly adapted. They spend their days holed up, sleeping underground, and their nights out, roaming and feeding in defined territories, often in pairs. It’s a natural world, but make no mistake, it is under attack, threatened by habitat loss and by an army of introduced kiwi-killers such as stoats, rats, cats and dogs. The human world of Wildbase Hospital at Massey University could scarcely be more different. It’s a sophisticated, high-tech, daytime place, shiny-bright, white-and-light, full of astonishing machines such as X-ray (radiograph) and ultrasound scanners and all the analysers, instruments, tools and trappings of modern medicine. This world is populated by wildlife veterinarians, technicians, scientists, students, administrators and helpers. Beyond those worlds but tying them together is a web of other humans. They come from the Department of Conservation, bird rescue centres, wildlife sanctuaries and kiwi hatcheries around the country. They monitor kiwi, gather eggs and chicks, check traplines, drive the birds to places of safety . . . and to Wildbase. For many, it’s their job. Countless others are unpaid volunteers. They all do it because it’s their passion. They know that every kiwi counts.



The not-bird bird


iwi are so very weird that when a kiwi skin was taken to England in 1812, a lot of people thought it was a giant hoax. It was as if a prankster had glued a whole lot of parts together for a laugh.

After all, it didn’t have much in the way of wings, it didn’t have tail feathers, it had fluff instead of flight feathers, a ridiculously long bill, and

soft, thick skin

legs like small tree trunks. How could it be a bird? Some thought it was a species of penguin; others thought it was a kind of dodo, a large, flightless, trusting bird that once lived on the island of Mauritius but was last seen in 1662. The kiwi is a bird, all right, but it is indeed

shaggy, hair—like feathers

the strangest in the world. It’s not surprising that it seemed like a joke.

the hihi, a typical bird Hihi are diurnal. they live in the day and are creatures of the air and sky. almost everything about them exists because they have evolved for flight. They lay many eggs, have helpless chicks that must be fed by their parents, and live in high places where they nest and roost. They have: • keen eyesight • a rubbish sense of smell • poor hearing • nostrils at the top of their bills • flight feathers • wings and a tail • A keel on the breastbone,    where their wings are attached • light, hollow bones • thin, delicate skin • a body temperature of 39—42oC • and one ovary.

dull, camouflage colour

no tail feathers but tiny tail bones

strong, heavy, marrow— filled legs


• Kiwi are ratites, like ostriches and emus. They don’t have wings, so they have no keel for flight muscles. Instead, they have a flat breastbone and weak chest muscles. That’s why dogs are such a threat - one bite can instantly kill a kiwi • at 38oC, a kiwi’s body temperature is more like a mammal’s than a bird’s (humans = 37oC) • kiwi have two ovaries and lay massive eggs • kiwi chicks are Precocial - they are perfectly formed copies of adult kiwi from the moment they hatch

tiny wings with a claw at the end tucked in among those feathers

large, visible earholes and sharp hearing Weak eyesight, smallish eyes cat—like whiskers

flat breastbone and weak chest muscles

the only bird in the world with nostrils at the tip of the bill a top sense of smell an enormously sensitive touchy—feely bill


Raratoka’s tale


he Island is a grassy, shrubby, scrub-and-

of the rarest species of kiwi. Her father, Beeker, and

fern-covered 86-hectare chunk of rocky land at

her mother, Winglet, live near the bushline on a ridge

the western end of Foveaux Strait. It’s cold, wild

about 500 metres up Mount Watney in the Haast Kiwi

and windy, with sea-splashed, storm-lashed coasts.

Sanctuary on the West Coast of the South Island. The

No people live here, but there’s a working lighthouse

sanctuary is in rugged, mountainous country with

and a couple of houses that once were home to

high peaks and deep valleys. It extends from the sea to

lighthouse keepers and their families. The island

sub-alpine grasslands.

belongs to Ōraka Aparima Rūnaka of Ngāi Tahu and

Like Latitude, Tokoeka #36459 is an Operation

is tapu. It has been a safe place for wildlife since

Nest Egg chick. She hatches at Willowbank Wildlife

2006, when the last rats and mice were killed.

Reserve in Christchurch in December 2007, and

This tale begins with a kiwi that has been on the

spends her first year on an island in Lake Te Anau.

island since she was one year old. For the moment,

She is placed on the island in Foveaux Strait in 2009;

let’s call her by her Department of Conservation

she weighs 1.32 kilograms and is considered large

number, Tokoeka #36459. She’s a Haast tokoeka, one

enough to look after herself.

Hindley Ridge, high in the mountainous West Coast forests where Haast tokoeka hang out.


n the island our tokoeka becomes part of a kōhanga kiwi: ‘kōhanga’ means ‘nursery’ and that’s what the island is — one great big kiwi

nest! Kōhanga kiwi are an alternative, more natural


[23] ears pass. In 2016 a team of five Department of Conservation (DOC) staff with trained sniffer dogs visit the island, hoping to find many more

kiwi than in 2009. They plan to take some back to the

and less expensive way of increasing kiwi numbers

Haast sanctuary to add to the main population there.

than Operation Nest Egg.

The work of the kōhanga will be done.

Altogether, 20 precisely selected young birds,

They set up headquarters in one of the houses.

including Tokoeka #36459, are placed on the island.

The birds are hard to find. Dogs are normally

None of the kiwi have transmitters, partly because

superb at sniffing out kiwi, but not here, where thick

they might snag in the muehlenbeckia vine that

grasses and undergrowth confuse the scent. A lot

scrambles across much of the island, but mainly

of the catching has to be at night. Apart from one day,

because no one ever intends to lift eggs and take them

the weather is terrible. They don’t find any new young

to a hatchery. The kiwi in the kōhanga are simply left to

birds and only 14 of the older ones. Tokoeka #36459 is

get on with living and breeding in safety.

one. Her mate is another.

Tokoeka #36459 is checked again later in 2009. She is much bigger and has a mate. Everything looks fine.

She is caught on a night when there are high winds and torrential rain. The DOC staff carry her back to the house. Under the lights of the porch, among the boots and wet-weather gear, they see immediately that something is not right. Tokoeka #36459’s bill is thickened and yellowed towards the tip, not elegant, pale pink and tapering to a fine point as it should be. And even though she is tall for a kiwi, she is thin. She weighs just 2.3 kilograms, but should be nearer to 3 kilograms. Along with all the other captured birds, Tokoeka #36459 is helicoptered off the island a week or so later. The rest, including her mate, are released in the Haast Kiwi Sanctuary. But there’s only one place for Tokoeka #36459: Wildbase. She is flown by Air New Zealand from Invercargill to Palmerston North. It’s a long trip. And that’s when she gets her new name. The staff at the hospital name her Raratoka, or ‘south wind’, after her island home.

One of the other captured tokoeka is released in the Haast Kiwi Sanctuary.


remarkabill Step, tap, sniff-and-hold; step, tap, sniff-and-hold; step, tap,

feeling and smelling machines. All other birds have nostrils

sniff-and-hold  . . .

at the top of their bills next to their heads, but kiwi nostrils

If you watch a kiwi looking for food, whether it is in the

are at the very tip. The tip of the kiwi bill also has tiny,

deepest, darkest night or brightest moonlight, it walks in

specialised pits packed with nerve endings that make it

rhythm, stepping and tapping its bill on the ground, like a

mega-sensitive to movement and vibration in the soil.

blind person with a cane. It holds still for a second while it

A kiwi bill is a digging tool. When a kiwi locates

sniffs, feels and listens for vibrations that tell it of kiwi kai,

something, it probes to see what it is. It forces its bill deep

right there, under the soil — perhaps a worm, a centipede, a

into the soil. It levers back and forth and round and round

millipede or a beetle?

until it has opened a hole up to 10 centimetres wide and

A kiwi with a damaged or broken bill is in big trouble

15 centimetres deep. Of course, those nostrils are easily blocked. Snort! Snort!

because .  .  . A kiwi bill is a tool. It is hands, nose, mouth and even, to

A kiwi bill is a mouth. Kiwi finds a worm and ever so gently tugs-and-pulls, tugs-and-pulls . . . slurp! Down the hatch.

some extent, eyes, all in one. A kiwi bill is a food-finder. Kiwi eyes are small and not

Just like eating spaghetti.

much use, so their bills have turned into super-efficient

the top bill is called the ‘maxilla’ or ‘upper mandible’ and the bottom bill is called the ‘lower mandible’

mouth and tongue outer layer of keratin (the rhamphotheca) extra—sensitive tip packed with nerve endings

Nares, or nostrils, right at the tip on the underside

other names for the bill are ‘beak’ or sometimes ‘rostrum’


[25] he kiwi that emerges from the travelling crate is thin and has sore, reddened legs from sitting, but it’s the bill that catches veterinarian

Megan Jolly’s eye. It’s scabby and is wider than  it should be.


Just like a fingernail, the outer layer of a bill is made of a protein called keratin. And just like a fingernail, the keratin layer grows all the time. It takes constant digging and poking in the soil to keep it worn down and trimmed. But it’s a vicious cycle! Once the bill starts to overgrow it hurts and is harder to use; not being used makes the keratin grow more, which makes it harder to use . . . and so it goes, getting worse all the time. Because there are no rats and mice on Raratoka’s island, the undergrowth is crawling with bugs of all shapes and sizes. Raratoka has probably survived by mainly eating insects on the surface and not using her bill to probe. What has happened? They soon find some of the answer.

[1] Raratoka is stretched out for an X-ray. [2] ‘Let’s look at you.’ Brett Gartrell, the senior veterinarian and Wildbase clinical director, holds Raratoka steady, soon after she arrives at the hospital.




n 17 May, Raratoka is given what the team calls

Still under anaesthetic, Raratoka is taken to surgery

a ‘work up’ under general anaesthetic. She is

and the overgrown keratin is debrided — it is cut,

examined from bill to bottom, a blood sample is

scraped and polished away.

taken for testing, and her whole body, including her

There are lots of important nerve endings in

bill and head, is X-rayed. Megan can just make out a

the bill. It almost certainly will really hurt. The kiwi

tiny fracture in the maxilla, about 45 millimetres from

is given medication to dull the pain when she comes

the tip. It’s not broken right through and is covered

round, and antibiotics to prevent infection.

by the overgrowth. Is it healing? There’s no way to tell.

And it begins: the long, hard journey to recovery.

There’s no sign of infection or inflammation.

1 [1] The first X-ray of Raratoka’s head shows the thick layer of keratin. It also shows the tiny crack in the maxilla underneath. [2] Pauline (left) and Megan prepare Raratoka for X-rays while students observe. [3] Raratoka, unconscious and ready for surgery. [4] and [5] A tool called a dremel is used to buff off the old keratin. [6] and [7] Megan also uses a scalpel to cut the keratin away.








Profile for Massey University Press

Three Kiwi Tales: More fabulous fix-it stories from Wildbase Hospital  

Wildbase Hospital in Palmerston North is a very special hospital for very special animals, and in this follow-up to the hugely successful 'H...

Three Kiwi Tales: More fabulous fix-it stories from Wildbase Hospital  

Wildbase Hospital in Palmerston North is a very special hospital for very special animals, and in this follow-up to the hugely successful 'H...