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  • Writer's pictureForest Lifeforce

The rude awakening

So there you are, having a nice long daytime snooze, and along comes a man called Barry who drags you out of bed by your feet. A bit on the rude side, maybe?

Barry Crene

His name is Barry Crene and, to be fair to him, rudeness is just not his thing. The individuals he pulls out of bed are kiwi. And it’s all part of helping them thrive in the leafy, aromatic and inspiring Maungataniwha native forest in inland Hawke’s Bay - 6,000 hectares of pure New Zealand native bush.

What Barry is doing is replacing the tiny transmitters worn by many kiwi here. Because this is a haven for the national kiwi protection and breeding programme.

He works for the Forest Lifeforce Restoration Trust, the driving force behind the Maungataniwha Kiwi Programme. This is fast carving out a name for itself as one of the most prolific and successful kiwi conservation initiatives in the country, having successfully hatched and released into the wild nearly 200 kiwi chicks in just eight seasons.

The Trust owns the forest and employs a handful of staff to nurture flora and fauna that used to be prolific in the forest and bush of Aotearoa, but which now needs help to survive.

Stoats regard kiwi chicks as a great meal so the Trust collects the eggs before they hatch and sends them away for incubation. For this reason it’s important for the guardians of the kiwi to know precisely where the birds are.

Hence the transmitters - so that the birds can be located and their eggs collected.

It’s the male kiwi that gets to carry the transmitter as he’s the one who sits on the eggs. On the surface it might seem cruel to take a bird’s eggs from under it. But the practice is vital to the successful conservation of our national bird as, otherwise, chicks only have a five percent chance of surviving to adulthood.

Barry uses a radio direction finder to locate the birds with the transmitters, something that seems strangely out of place in a forest that is centuries old. And he’d be struggling without the technology as during the day kiwi are usually sound asleep in the logs, burrows and secret places of the forest floor where they nest and which they call home.

Barry’s a bushman, through and through, and he takes no pleasure in disturbing the birds. But he knows that, ultimately, it’s for the good of the species. Quickly, he draws the sleepy kiwi from its hidey-hole and replaces the transmitter attached to its leg with a hospital band.

Where the band has been worked loose by the rigours of its daily routine he quickly snips it off and replaces it with a fresh band. There’s something lovely about the thought that the transmitters are secured to these birds by the same tags used keep human babies safe, warm and in touch with their parents.

Indeed, Barry cradles the warm, soft bundle of feathers as gently as a father would his new-born child. Those who have had the privilege to do it will tell you that there is no feeling quite like that of holding a kiwi. This man has the good fortune to get to do it a lot.

He points out that while today’s operation is a daytime one, much of the TV and film footage that people may have seen about kiwi conservation has been filmed at night. The footage often contains lots of hushed voices and muted torch beams. So the process has become associated with darkness.

This is because the hours of darkness are when kiwi eggs are retrieved. The male bird leaves the eggs briefly to go foraging, allowing human carers to get at them.

But kiwi conservators also have plenty of tasks to do during the day, like the one of replacing the transmitters and, in some specialist conservation areas, checking and maintaining anti-predator fences.

Kiwi eggs taken from Maungataniwha are incubated by The National Kiwi Trust’s Kiwi Encounter team at Rainbow Springs in Rotorua. Once hatched the birds are sent to a special predator-proof facility at Cape Kidnappers until they grow to be between 800 grams and a kilogram in body weight. At that weight they are considered large enough to defend themselves against predators and robust enough to be released back into Maungataniwha or similar forests across the North Island in an effort to expand the gene pools in these oases of survival.

Kiwi Encounter manager Claire Travers says her organisation manages the incubation of kiwi eggs from various parts of New Zealand. But her team has noticed that a disproportionate number of exceptionally large eggs come from Maungataniwha. The resulting chicks are large, too. No-one is yet sure why this is but she and her team hope to embark on a study shortly that might yield some answers.

Barry says that during this year’s transmitter maintenance exercise he saw more males cuddling with females than he’s ever seen before at that stage in the breeding season. He is not sure why that is, or whether it’s in any way connected to the dry summer last year and the shorter second clutch and earlier start to this season.

Meanwhile, his work on the transmitters is done. None of the disrupted birds are showing any signs of angst at all. With their transmitters re-energised, re-secured and back on the air the nocturnal feather-balls are back in their burrows before they know it.

It’s as if they know that their rude awakening was done with only the best of intentions.

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