House Sparrows with a side of Kiwi

Setting up mist nets in the free-flight aviary

Today, we took the mist nets into the actual zoo — our “assignment” for the day was to catch and release house sparrows that had gotten into the free-flight aviary. (Note: Although we are technically employed by the zoo, we don’t actually work in it; we’re based in a research building in the back. In fact, many of the other interns haven’t even been inside the zoo yet, even though we’ve been here for three weeks.) We only caught about 12 sparrows all morning, but had a nice time observing all the captive/resident birds in between net runs.

The ducklings were especially cute:

There were other cool birds, too:

Here, the double-crested cormorant is king. Actually, he’s just sunning his wings…

American Black Duck – just hangin’  out

White-cheeked pintailnative to the Carribbean/South America

A few mandarin ducks here and there


The actual banding:

About to take measurements on a sparrow (just for practice)

Adam actually works with mosquitoes, but came along with us for a change of pace

In addition to taking measurements, we applied color bands to their legs to identify them if/when they get inside the aviary again

Anyways, after taking down the nets around 11:30AM, one of our seniors pulled someone’s arm and got us into the bird house basement. There we got to meet a bird who completely defied many of my notions of what a bird should be: it is flightless, nearly wingless, doesn’t sing, and appears to have fur, not feathers. Can you guess what kind of bird I’m talking about?

Yes, it’s a KIWI! Kiwis are flightless birds native to New Zealand, where they are protected. This one, named Pip (short for Pippin — inspired by Lord of the Rings, explained the keeper!) was born in March.  There’s more about him here. Apparently he’s not for show; one he’s mature, he’s going to Antwerp to be with a female kiwi.

Because I work with birds semi-professionally — I am considered “scientific staff” here — my default mindset is to cut back on conversation about cuteness, especially when I’m actually handling birds. At first, we approached the kiwi with similar scientific objectivity — after all, the kiwi was born into a scientific research and breeding program — but our initial stiffness quickly turned into a puddle of sugary “awwwws” after seeing him and the keeper snuggle and burble back and forth. That’s when we got the “okay” to get out our cameras.

In their native home of New Zealand, northern brown kiwi populations have been declining by about 5.8% every year; because they are a flightless species (they evolved on an island without predatory land mammals and overtime lost the energy-intensive ability to fly), they are particularly vulnerable to predation.  According to this paper in the New Zealand Journal of Ecology,

Predators killed at least 8% of chicks, 45% of juveniles, and possibly as many as 60% of all young kiwi. Ferrets and dogs were the main predators of adult kiwi, possums and mustelids were the main egg predators, while stoats and cats were largely responsible for the deaths of young kiwi.

Apparently, there is a record of a single feral dog killing 500 kiwi in a northern New Zealand forest… in 6 weeks. That is just devastating; 500 was about half of the forest’s population (which was 800-1,000). To be fair, they weren’t completely sure how kiwis the dog got; they just extrapolated based on how many it killed that had  transmitters on  (13 out of 23) and then generalized that amount to the whole forest population.

Another paper goes on about this single dog:

Could a single dog really do so much damage? People working trained
kiwi dogs at night know it is very easy indeed for a dog to spot and catch
a kiwi. The birds are noisy when going through the bush and their smell
is very strong and distinctive. When a kiwi calls, a dog can easily pick up
the direction from more than 100 m away. With a kiwi density as high as
it was in Waitangi Forest a dog could perhaps catch 10-15 kiwis a night,
and the killing persisted for at least 6 weeks.

Even though the dog was “feral”, it was definitely somebody’s pet at one time (it had a collar on). This situation is probably one of the worst  I’ve heard of yet regarding escaped/outdoor pet wreaking havoc on the local environment. When cats or dogs wander outdoors unsupervised, they can easily go from “pet” to “pest”… and when they’re doing damage like this, the pests — pet or not — need to be managed. I guess New Zealand is much more strict about letting cats and dogs wander, and they have traps set up in reserves where kiwis live.  So, if you ever go to New Zealand with your cat or dog, keep your pet on a tight leash!

According to the keeper, there *are* Kiwi Aversion Training / Avoidance Training programs for dogs and their owners. More and more landowners are requiring hunters to have this training before being allowed to hunt on their land; also, in some areas, the New Zealand Department of Conservation will give permits only to hunters with kiwi-avoiding dogs.

Anyways, that’s it for now. Here’s a group photo with “Pip” and his keeper in the basement of the bird house:

Peace and kiwis!



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