Love is in the air amongst the steam, sulphur and bubbling mud in Rotorua’s Te Whakarewarewa thermal valley – kiwi love, that is.
To be precise, love is blossoming in the undergrowth of the outdoor kiwi enclosure at Te Puia/New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute and it’s hoped 22-year-old Aitua is enamoured enough with his new mate to produce offspring later this year.
Aitua, who has lived at Te Puia since 1987, lost long time love Willow last year when she died. They were together for 12 years but Aitua appears to have finished grieving and to have fallen for feisty young Renoir, to whom he was recently introduced.
Renoir came to Te Puia from the Rainbow Springs Kiwi Encounter in Rotorua and their first meeting was carefully planned and monitored.
Te Puia staff Anne Bryers and Miriama Wickliffe introduced the pair one night recently, waiting nervously as they met for the first time. They sat with the pair for about three hours.
The design of the state-of-the-art, predator-free outdoor enclosure, constructed in late 2011 with separate ‘pens’ to replace Aitua’s former home, meant the birds could meet and greet one another before spending pen time together.
Three-year-old Renoir was the first to venture out of her box and check out the handsome tane next door. She decided he was a bit of alright, despite him being quite a bit older and missing a toe on one foot and she and Aitua are now officially a couple.
“It was a bit tense waiting for them to leave their boxes and hoping they would take a liking to each other,” says Anne, who is in charge of Te Puia’s kiwi operation.
“It can take weeks to pair them up and kiwi mate for life so we weren’t sure what to expect. But Aitua has taken to Renoir and she reckons he’s okay – love has blossomed.”
In fact, they appear to have established a fairly typical relationship – Renoir definitely wears the pants, according to Anne.
She says Aitua has always been fairly placid and gentle in nature and has never been any trouble. She’s not so sure she can say the same for Renoir who is very active, a bit of a glutton, pretty stubborn and strong, which at times makes her difficult to handle.
Despite Renoir’s overbearing personality, Aitua seems content and it’s now hoped the loved up new couple will mate. Breeding usually occurs from July to March.
Aitua was born in the wild at Ratahi and was looked after at Rainbow Springs before Te Puia adopted him. Willow was adopted by Te Puia in 2000, coming to Rotorua from Orana Wildlife Park in Wellington.
The pair had 11 children together, about five hatched naturally at Te Puia and the rest given to Kiwi Encounter for hatching. One of their offspring, Nohi, a 7-year-old male, now resides in Te Puia’s domed kiwi house where 14-year-old female Kenny bosses him around.
Anne, a born and bred local of Te Arawa descent who recently celebrated 26 years at Te Puia, says each kiwi has a distinctive personality and communicates with her and Miriama.
While Nohi has a lovely nature, he can also be cheeky, sometimes hiding from Miriama, who will then have to get Anne to give him a ticking off and call him out of his hiding place.
Kenny also has a nice nature and has proven to be a great display bird because she’s always on the go, apparently loving the limelight. She has a bit of a hip problem which sometimes flares up and requires her to spend time in the outdoor enclosure until the spring in her step returns.
Before Kiwi Encounter was established in Rotorua, Te Puia took in injured kiwi, found by conservation workers in the region’s national parks or coming to grief on a road.
Anne loves her kiwi charges and says it’s a privilege to look after New Zealand’s unique iconic bird.
Being an animal lover, she has formed strong bonds with the birds in her care, particularly Aitua.
Anne’s assistant, Miriama also has a passion for New Zealand’s iconic kiwi.
“I love working with the kiwi and it’s a real privilege to be looking after them and helping to make sure they don’t become extinct,” she says.
“They definitely all have their own personalities and become like your babies. I’m quite protective of them.”
Miriama (Te Arawa, Ngati Kahununu) has been at Te Puia for just over a year, initially starting in another job but soon after signed up to help Anne, who she has known all her life. Miriama’s mother also worked at Te Puia.
Te Puia has had its domed kiwi house since 1976 and an outdoor enclosure for 16 years but chief executive Tim Cossar says many people, including locals, don’t realise there are kiwi there or know about Te Puia’s history caring for injured kiwi.
“And our kiwi ladies are great, an often forgotten taonga (treasure),” he says.
“The work they do isn’t necessarily obvious but they have a very important role caring for our New Zealand icon and do a fantastic job.”
A lot of work has been done in recent times on the outdoor kiwi enclosure and it’s hoped that one day visitors to the valley will be able to view the birds outside at night.