Brown kiwi chick hatches at Smithsonian

A North Island brown kiwi chick that hatched in May at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal sits on a towel in the kiwi facility. Photo courtesy of Wesley Bailey/Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal is now home to a healthy young North Island brown kiwi chick.

According to a release from the institute, the chick hatched May 10, but keepers won’t know the chick’s sex for a few weeks. The chick’s parents, female Ngati Hine Rua and male Ngati Hine Tahi, came to the institute in 2010 as a gift from the New Zealand Government with a blessing from the indigenous Maori people. The kiwis were the first to leave New Zealand in 20 years.

The brown kiwi is a species of flightless nocturnal birds that lays the largest eggs compared with its body weight – eggs are typically around 20 percent of the female bird’s size.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species states that the brown kiwi population has declined from around 35,000 individuals in 1996 to around 25,000 in 2008. The union estimates that the population is declining by about 2.5 percent every year, with survival threats coming from cats, dogs, ferrets and stoats.

Wesley Bailey is the primary animal keeper for the institute’s kiwis and helped in the hatching process. He said this is the female’s first chick from an egg she laid at the institute.

After a male kiwi named Iwi began incubating the egg for about two weeks, Bailey said keepers checked to see if it was fertile. The egg later finished developing in an incubator and Bailey said the chick now lives in a brooder box.

“When it hatches, it lives off its yolk sac for about two weeks or so and after that point it’s more or less ready to be a miniature kiwi,” he said. “They don’t really have any parental guidance and they don’t imprint as a result. We can be present in the chick’s life without having any impact on the chick.”

Although the institute has hatched many birds, he said this is the first kiwi egg that was laid and hatched in-house. Having performed daily checkups on the chick since it hatched, he said it’s in good health and eating well.

Bailey said the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP) program will determine where the chick goes and whether it becomes part of a breeding pair or an Ambassador Animal that will educate the public with some interaction.

“The SSP will look at the chick’s genetic line and once we have the sex we’ll look at the line and take the sex into consideration,” he said. “This chick is so genetically valuable that it’s most likely going to part of a breeding pair. That’s still as of yet undetermined.”

The institute’s website states that Ngati Hine Rua had trouble laying fertile eggs for so long because Ngati Hine Tahi was overweight and couldn’t copulate properly. Keepers had to adjust his diet and prevent him from overeating so the pair could produce more fertile eggs.

Another fertile egg laid by Ngati Hine Rua on March 22 could hatch soon, and yet another laid on May 22 may also be fertile.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com