One of the world’s most endangered species—a brown kiwi Apteryx mantelli—hatched at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s Bird House, early Tuesday morning, March 30. Keepers have been carefully monitoring the egg’s progress since it was laid January 19. Keepers looked for signs of pipping: the process in which the chick starts to break through the shell in the last weeks. The chick initially was placed in an incubator, until today, when it was transferred to a specially designed brooding box. The box will be not be on exhibit, but will be accessible by webcam on the Zoo’s Web site. Since kiwis are nocturnal, the best time to view the chick exploring and foraging in its box will be in the evening.
The sex of the chick is unknown and cannot be determined by sight until it is two years old. For this reason, Bird House staff enlisted the help of National Zoo geneticists. Using DNA samples swabbed from the inside of the egg and from the bird’s beak, the geneticists hope to determine its sex in the coming weeks.
This is only the fourth time in the Zoo’s 121-year history that a kiwi has successfully hatched. The first was in 1975, which was also the first occur outside of New Zealand. The Zoo did not have another successful hatching until 2006; that male bird, Manaia, can be seen on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during the Meet-a-Kiwi program at the National Zoo’s Bird House at the 11 a.m. The last successful hatching at the Zoo was in 2008, which produced another male, Koa.
Kiwis in captivity are extremely rare—only four zoos outside of New Zealand have successfully bred kiwis, with the National Zoo currently the only zoo to have a successfully breeding female in the United States. Other U.S. zoos to exhibit kiwis are San Diego and Columbus Zoos.
There are five species of kiwi and all are unique to New Zealand, with the brown kiwi named as their national bird. The birds have existed in New Zealand for more than 34 million years, and the Māori (native people of New Zealand) consider the bird as sacred and a large part of their mythology. The Māori believe the kiwis are under the protection of their God of the Forest, Tane Mahuta, and that the Māori are now the protectors of the kiwi.
Kiwis typically mate for life, and the male is responsible for the egg. After kiwi chicks hatch, however, they receive no parental care. Unlike other bird species, kiwis hatch fully feathered and equipped with all of the necessary skills they need to survive.
The brown kiwi species is classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The wild population is declining at a rate of approximately 5.8 percent a year. Nearly 90 percent of all wild North Island brown kiwi chicks are killed by ferret-like stoats and cats in unprotected areas. In areas where pest control is in place, the survival rate is high. The remaining wild population of the brown kiwi is estimated at roughly 24,000, down from 60,000 in the 1980s. However, where conservation efforts, such as Operation Next Egg occur, the kiwi population is stabilizing.