Rogan Colbourne is a full-time kiwi researcher with the Department of Conservation, national co-ordinator for Operation Nest Egg™, and a member of the Kiwi Recovery Group.
His research specialities include little spotted kiwi, and he leads the kiwi call scheme.
This all means Rogan spends a lot of his time in the field, in remote places such as the Haast Range in South Westland, where he researches the ‘nationally critical’ Haast tokoeka. Often his only companions on these trips are specially trained and muzzled dogs whose sensitive noses are ideal for locating kiwi in the wild.
When not working with kiwi, Rogan spends his time restoring a patch of native forest on his patch of land just north of Wellington, encouraging native birds to visit (unfortunately no kiwi) and breeding a menagerie of farm animals.
Rogan was first attracted to kiwi research in 1980. He had always been interested in New Zealand’s native birds and, because of their significance to New Zealand, kiwi were top of the list.
Back then parts of the kiwi story were still a blank slate – good news for a keen young researcher. Although people had studied kiwi eggs, kiwi anatomy, kiwi bones and kiwi classification, no one had studied birds in the wild. ‘Most of the work had been with birds in zoos or in captivity. Nothing had been done on wild kiwi or where they live,’ he says. It was a gap Rogan was happy to fill.
Rogan has experienced many high points during his many years studying kiwi – namely the high hills in the wild west of the South Island.
His first career highlight was during the first-ever study of a wild kiwi population, at Waitangi State Forest in the early 1980s.
Everything was new. ‘I remember finding out that kiwi are territorial birds and that they hang out as pairs. From knowing nothing of these birds as wild animals, now we knew something. That felt good.’
Rogan’s most recent highlight has been unravelling the relationship between the productivity of soils and the productivity of kiwi. He is finding that young birds living in benign habitats with rich soils can grow faster and breed at younger ages than kiwi in places with poor soils. These birds struggle, crippled by having to compete for food with rats and other insect eaters, and this can be reflected in poor body condition, or even a lack of breeding. Future work will see if enhancing kiwi habitat will produce more birds and reflect the true genetic variability of a population.
A low point is the continued decline of New Zealand’s kiwi populations, largely at the jaws of stoats.
Thoughts for the future
Rogan hopes for a New Zealand where predators like stoats have been dealt with, and people can again hear the noise of kiwi at night.
‘I’d like people to be able to hear up to 60 calls an hour, like you can now in places that are managed, Kapiti and Stewart Islands. That’s what I would like for the future.’