For millions of years, they had little to fend against. The only land mammals in New Zealand were bats, so kiwis evolved to fill the niche that's typically occupied by shrews and hedgehogs, becoming honorary mammals. With their tiny vestigial wings, bristly feathers, and heavy marrow-filled bones, they can’t fly. Then again, they don’t need to. Their attention lies not in the meters above the ground, but in the inches below it, which they explore with long bills that have nostrils at their tip. They use their exceptional sense of smell to probe for worms and insects, and they move with a steady deliberation that belies their bumbling exterior.
Around 70 million kiwis used to trundle through New Zealand’s undergrowth, before humans turned the islands into worlds of fur and teeth. The predators that we introduced—dogs, ferrets, cats, rats, and especially stoats, a larger relative of weasels—slaughtered their way through the kiwi population, reducing it to the measly modern tally of just 68,000 birds.
Most people speak of kiwis as if they are one species, but they are actually five. Kami belongs to the rarest of the quintet—the rowi, which was only recognized as a distinct species in 2003. Today, these particular kiwis are confined to a tiny region called Okarito, nestled among the South Island’s glacial forests. There are only 450 of them left in the wild, and around two-thirds of those were reared by Operation Nest Egg. The West Coast Wildlife Center alone has hatched 232 rowi chicks since it opened seven years ago.
In the wild, half of rowi eggs fail to hatch. Of those that do, around 90 percent lose their lives to the jaws of predators before they reach adulthood. After seeing these depressing statistics in the 1990s, Rogan Colbourne and Hugh Robertson from the Department of Conservation realized that the best way to save the birds was to raise their chicks in sanctuaries, releasing them only when they had outgrown the appetites of stoats, at least. And so, Operation Nest Egg began.
First, rangers find wild rowi and collect their eggs. It’s the males who incubate, and most of them have been fitted with smart transmitters that monitor their movements. If they’re staying still for a long time, chances are they’re sitting on an egg. Then, it’s a matter of reaching into the burrow, which can be anything from a hole in the ground to a rotten log, and pulling the egg out—sometimes from underneath a brooding bird.
Kiwi eggs are huge, and disproportionately so. They can account for up to a quarter of a female’s body weight, and they’re only slightly smaller than the eggs of much larger birds like ostriches, emus, and cassowaries. Kiwis are closely related to these giants, and they all have one thing in common: They can rear up and deliver surprisingly powerful kicks. Kath Morris, who works at the West Coast Wildlife Center, tells me of a friend who was camping in kiwi territory when one of the birds put its foot through his tent. She also shows me a kiwi-inflicted scar across her wrist. “You don’t notice you’re bleeding until later,” she says.