A chicken in my pocket

Last updated 11:15 03/10/2012

This morning began like any other. I staggered to the kitchen and groggily began to make my first coffee of the day, without which I can't really function. Finding my way around the kitchen sans coffee is always a struggle; doing so in a new house with a new kitchen layout to navigate creates more of an intellectual challenge, but carrying out the above with two week-old baby chickens in my dressing gown pocket is another level altogether.

As you will know from Monday's post, the bloke and I have moved house. It's our first step toward a country life. A rural delivery address, a septic tank and, as of last night - thanks to the bloke's three lovely grown-up kids - a housewarming present of two tiny baby chickens.

Peepers

As I pottered about in the kitchen getting another hottie ready for the wee fullas (actually, best we call them "fulla-esses" from this point on. If they turn out to be roosters, they'll be dinner!), I started to think about all the people I've met who dedicate their lives to raising our native baby birds from tiny balls of fluff to the beautiful adult birds they will one day become.

My first recollection of New Zealand's world-leading work on hand-raising wild bird babies was probably seeing the footage (on a Sunday night Our World tele slot - I've written about that this week) of the takahē puppets at the Burwood Bush wildlife unit near Te Anau. It opened in 1985, and to stop the chicks from "imprinting" on humans, the chicks were raised behind one-way glass, and were fed with a hand-puppet that looked like a takahē head

Takahe puppet feeding chicks (Darryl Eason)

Takahē were thought to be extinct and only rediscovered in 1948. The Wildlife Service, then DOC worked as hard as they could to artificially raise chicks to boost takahe numbers. At the end of last year, there were enough adult pairs to now raise their own chicks, which DOC reckons is heaps better because the adult birds teach the young how to fend for themselves in the wild. 

Imprinting is a real problem when trying to raise endangered native birds that you want to live back in the wild. Anyone who has hand-raised day-old chicks, ducklings or goslings will know that these birds can mistake the first large thing they see as their "mother", be it a dog, person or pair of red-band gumboots.

Our most famous imprinted bird, Sirocco the kākāpō was hand-raised by necessity. A life-threatening respiratory disease when he was three weeks old meant that the rangers had to intervene and he became our first male hand-raised kākāpō. He was given the royal treatment, even put in a wee oxygen tent with a nebuliser, before making an excellent recovery.

Sirocco the kakapo on a nebuliser (DOC)

The problem for Sirocco was that his time with the humans at such a young age meant he then showed absolutely no interest in other kākāpō, despite the rangers' best efforts. A case in point would be when he was living on Whenua Hou/Codfish Island, and his "bowl" (males create bowls in the earth where they sit and boom to attract females) was located on the track to the long-drop behind the rangers' hut. He did manage to ambush many an unsuspecting volunteer or ranger there on a late-night trip to the loo!

While Sirocco might not be a great wild kākāpō (his genes are very similar to many of the other kākāpō in any case), he has taught the scientists and rangers vital skills about how to look after kākāpō (and he makes a fantastic ambassador for the Kākāpō Recovery Programme. These days, if any kākāpō chicks have to be hand-raised they are raised in groups, and having other birds around to feed, sleep and play with appears to have solved the imprinting issue.

I've mentioned the dedication of the folk at Wingspan before - and they appear to have also mastered hand-rearing baby ruru, falcons and hawks. The first time I ever visited Wingspan, I met "Whisper", a three-day-old morepork chick that was being raised in an old baby incubator. Three-hourly feeds of minced meat, being washed regularly with a cotton bud and having to watch him like the proverbial hawk (pun intended!) were no problem for the Wingspan team.

I've also met amazing people like Nik Hurring, the kereru foster mum in Dunedin, not to mention the COUNTLESS bird rescue folk around the country who volunteer their time to getting our native birds up and running.

I'm only on day two of hand-raising two chicks, and I'm already exhausted. Hats off to all the bird rescuers out there, I don't know how you do it.

Have you ever looked after baby birds? Had a bird in a shoebox in the wardrobe? Fed one with an eyedropper? How did they get on? Did you know about our amazing native bird-raising history in New Zealand?

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