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For The Birds

Cityscape suffers some serious job envy catching up with New Zealand Conservation Trust’s Bethany Brett, Head Kiwi Husbandry Officer at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, who gets to hang with super cute kiwi chicks and helps to ensure the survival of our national icon.

Bethany Brett holding a great spotted kiwi chick

Head Kiwi Husbandry Officer is a great title – what sort of response do you get when you tell people?
Generally, people say things like “That’s so cool” or “You’re so lucky!” But when I’m talking to people back home in the US, the response varies a lot more – people either know that a kiwi is a type of bird or they get momentarily confused and think I care for kiwifruit.

What does your job entail?
Quite a bit! During the busiest part of the year there are rowi kiwi chicks being crèched on site, great spotted kiwi eggs are coming in for artificial incubation, and our breeding pairs of brown kiwi are gearing up and those eggs are artificially incubated as well. There are also the advocacy birds in the nocturnal house and two permanent rehab great spotted kiwi living on site. The daily routine includes prepping the food, cleaning enclosures, visually checking each bird to make sure they are healthy, and providing enrichment. The chicks being crèched are weighed twice a week and have faecal samples collected for weekly testing. The eggs in the breeding centre are turned 4 times during the day by hand and are candled and weighed twice a week.

Along with the usual stuff, there’s always something else coming up – like having to assist-feed chicks who aren’t quite figuring out the whole eating thing, or taking tours through the park, or talking to school groups. When the breeding and crèching season is over, and we only have our brown kiwi and two great spotted kiwi on site, we start getting ready for the next busy season by thoroughly cleaning the breeding centre and all the enclosures that held chicks. And before we know it, it’s time for chicks to arrive again!

How hands-on is it?
It depends – with chicks we end up handling them more because of the weigh days throughout the week. We handle the grown-up kiwi a lot less; they are checked by sight every day, but are only weighed and properly health checked once a month unless we are concerned about something. The most ‘hands-on’ part of the job is cleaning! Cleaning enclosures, cleaning dishes, cleaning burrows… the cleaning is endless.

Kiwi Egg

What is an assist hatch?
An assist hatch is when a chick requires help during hatch. There can be a partial assist hatch or a full assist hatch. It can be required if the chick is malpositioned inside its shell, or there’s been a complication like the membranes have collapsed.

What led you to this career path?
Moving to New Zealand – if I had stayed in the US, I definitely wouldn’t have this job! In the States I did a Bachelor of Science degree at Clemson University (located in South Carolina) focusing on animal and veterinary sciences. I thought about applying to vet school, but decided I ultimately didn’t want to be a vet. Instead I moved to New Zealand (we had lived here when I was a kid – it wasn’t just a random ‘hey let’s move to that place’ idea) and did the Certificate in Animal Management (Captive Wild Animals) at Unitec. I did work experience at Willowbank throughout the course and never left.

How do you come up with the chicks’ names?
The rowi chicks come with names and usually the Paparoa Wildlife Trust have names in mind for the great spotted chicks, so I just name the brown kiwi that hatch here on site, and there haven’t been too many recently. Our brown kiwi chick from this season is named Anzac – and that’s because his egg was laid on Anzac Day. Any siblings he could possibly have might be given WW1 themed names – but I’m not completely sold on the idea. Sometimes groups sponsor an egg/chick and then they’ll be given the opportunity to name them.

When you ‘candle’ (placing a bright light source behind the egg to show details through the shell) an egg, what are you looking for?
By candling, I can figure out what’s going on inside the shell. We can see if the egg is ‘healthy’ and how developed the embryo and membranes are, and therefore figure out when the egg is due to hatch. We look at things like the veins (if they look strong and clear we know they are healthy, if they are fuzzy and disjointed, we know they are not healthy), the air cell at the wider end of the egg, and the overall colour of the egg. Candling the NACE (non-air cell end of the shell) should result in a good reddish-yellow glow, and that’s the yolk, and if it doesn’t have a nice glow there’s a chance the chick is malpositioned.

Okarito Rowi chick

Tell us about your fave feathered charge.
My favourite is a great spotted kiwi named Piki, though I usually call him S#1. That’s because his egg ID was S#1 14/15 and he was one of my first chicks to hatch when I became full time at Willowbank. He was also my first assist hatch chick, and was supposed to be released back into the Paparoa Ranges. However, he was moved over to the crèche site on the West Coast twice, and twice he came back with health problems. He’s good now, but in the end it was decided that he could stay at Willowbank and be the companion of our older rehab great spotted kiwi girl, who can’t be released due to a bill injury. Every day, we find these two sharing a burrow, and it’s a bit of a funny sight because she’s twice as big as him.

What’s one thing people probably don’t know about kiwi?
People may not know that in the Willowbank Nocturnal House, they get the chance to hear the kiwi call – the high-pitched call is a male, and the low-pitched call is the female. It’s one of my favourite things to tell visitors when I’m working in the Nocturnal House. At the moment, our birds will generally call around 12:30pm after we’ve given them their afternoon feeds.

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