A helping hand for our rarest kiwi

A Victoria student’s work on the reintroduction of a critically endangered species of kiwi is helping ensure the iconic New Zealand bird will remain in our forests for generations to come.

Rachael Abbott holding a rowi, the rarest species of kiwi.
Credit: Harry Cawood

Rachael Abbott has just completed her PhD research on the best ways to translocate the rowi, the rarest species of kiwi, which hasa population of around only 400.

The rowi’s breeding range is limited to the Ōkārito forest in South Westland, where stoats and rats threaten eggs and young chicks.

Rowi eggs are hatched by the Department of Conservation (DOC). The fledgling birds are then taken to predator-free Motuara Island in the Marlborough Sounds, where they remain until they reach a weight of at least one kilogram—big enough to run away from predators or fight them off.

Rachael’s research looked specifically at the issues affecting survival of the young rowi after they are translocated back to Ōkārito forest from the island.

“After rowi translocations there’s a period of about 90 days of increased mortality while the birds adjust to their new environment,” says Rachael. “DOC had been collecting a lot of data over the years, but hadn’t analysed it.

“I examined patterns in the historic data and then ran experimental releases to test my survival theories. Among other things, the size of the release groups was incredibly important—birds released in small groups don’t do nearly as well as ones in larger groups because of the benefits that come with increased sociality, such as sharing burrows and food resources.”

DOC is awaiting Rachael’s final recommendations that it will then look to incorporate into its practices.

Rachael started her research with a Master’s, and is grateful for funding from Victoria’s Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology and the Holdsworth Trust (through the Victoria University Foundation), both of which allowed her to expand her work into a PhD and travel to conferences in the United States and Europe.