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Kiwi Release Story: Saving Smaug the Kiwi Bird

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Releasing a Kiwi Bird into the Wild

Seeing a kiwi bird is something on many visitors’ New Zealand bucket list. So it’s great to know that we can help with the conservation of kiwis for travellers 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 Save The 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.

For more interesting facts about New Zealand birds, check out the 10 Things You Did Not Know About New Zealand Wildlife.

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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.

Kiwi Tracking Device

A small tracking device was attached to the kiwi’s leg before placing it in an 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.

Hatched in Captivity

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.

Ready to Find the Kiwi

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 was 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.

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Stage 2: Journey to the Kiwi Enclosure

Mount Maungatautari/Sanctuary Mountain

The kiwi enclosure is situated in the amazing Mount Maungatautari forest in the Waikato region near Cambridge.

The specially designed fence protecting the forest from pests shows the shocking contrast between the natural forest and the farmland transformed by man.

The Sound of Birds

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.

Tracking Smaug

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.

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Stage 3: Health Check

Health Check for the Kiwi

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.

Calming Smaug

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, Smaugwas chilling.

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Stage 4: Releasing Smaug

Relocation for 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.

New Home in Waimarino Forest

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 spiderwebsWaimarino Forest in the Bay of Plenty!

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

How You Can Save a Kiwi Too

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.


Robin C.

This article was reviewed and published by Robin, the co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. He has lived, worked and travelled across 16 different countries before calling New Zealand home. He has now spent over a decade in the New Zealand tourism industry, clocking in more than 600 activities across the country. He is passionate about sharing those experiences and advice on NZ Pocket Guide and its YouTube channel. Robin is also the co-founder of several other South Pacific travel guides.

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