New Zealand's drought and record-breaking hot summers putting kiwi birds at risk
Jan. 16, 2020
Dehydrated birds venturing out of bush to find food and water are vulnerable to predators
New Zealand’s famous kiwi birds are suffering from dehydration as drought affects many northern areas of the country, with conservationists warning chicks may soon perish too.
There are 68,000 kiwi left in New Zealand but their number is declining at a rate of 2% a year. A century ago there were millions but attacks by dogs, cats, possums, stoats and rats have led to a huge decline.
Now, record-breaking hot summers are threatening the bird which struggles in hot temperatures due to its thick cloak of warm feathers.
Parched earth and empty or stagnant water sources in parts of Northland, 170km north of Auckland, are making them severely dehydrated, disoriented and vulnerable to attack.
In Whangārei, parts of which have had record low rainfall this summer, kiwi conservationists are asking locals to leave out tubs of water for the birds, which are venturing out of the bush seeking food and water.
But the nocturnal searches are putting the ancient flightless birds at risk of being attacked by introduced predators or hit by traffic.
Others become disoriented when they leave the bush and get trapped in exposed areas as dawn breaks – the heat of which they are not prepared for.
Rob Webb, from the Whangārei native bird recovery centre, has found five severely dehydrated kiwi this summer; two died. He said the birds need urgent help.
“You put the bird into the sun and feel it after five minutes – you feel them and their feathers are hot,” Webb told local media. “It’s like walking into the heat with a big winter coat on all done up.”
The high summer temperatures have coincided with the Northland brown kiwis’ breeding season, with chicks especially vulnerable.
Last year was the fourth-hottest year on record in New Zealand , and the Northland regional council said many parts of the region were now “on the cusp” of drought after record low rainfall in 2019.
Water restrictions are in place in some areas and no significant rainfall is forecast for the coming months.
Paul O’Shea, an administrator for Kiwis for Kiwi, a conservation group set up to save the bird from extinction, said they are part of New Zealand’s identity, and their survival was paramount.
“New Zealanders are a shy and reclusive bunch – the kiwi is a bird we identify with,” O’Shea said.
“It’s as vital to protect the kiwi in New Zealand as it is to protect the orangutan in Borneo, the Sumatran tiger in Indonesia, and the panda in China. Losing these species from the planet might not affect your day-to-day life, but it is a loss to the human experience.”
The conservation department’s principal science adviser, Hugh Robertson, said the effects of the extended dry weather could have myriad impacts on the region’s kiwi population, and included a delayed breeding season, only one clutch of eggs rather than two, and a limited ability to reproduce and care for young due to poor condition.
Kiwis emerging from the rainforest to search for water was “unusual”, he said, because they get all their hydration from feeding on invertebrates. Venturing from the safety of the forest exposed them to predators, and they also risked drowning “in steep-sided ponds or in cattle troughs in their pursuit of a drink of water”.