One woman’s desire to help injured kererū has morphed into hundreds being rehabilitated into the wild and more habitat created for native birds.
“It started by accident in a sense,” says Nik Hurring, the wildlife rehabilitator at Project Kererū in Dunedin.
“But it’s become a massive part of my life. It’s not just about the rehabilitation of the birds, it’s about the creation of the habitat surrounding the aviaries as well, and supporting the wildlife that lives there.”
For about 30 years, with remarkable dedication, Nik has been caring for sick and injured New Zealand pigeons or kererū.
Injuries include fractures and dislocations. Most injuries occur when kererū fly into windows and although many birds strike glass, native pigeons are particularly vulnerable, she says.
Secondary causes of injuries are cars hitting birds or their babies falling out of nests, which are built like a platform of loose sticks.
Nik is a busy wife and mum yet each day visits the aviaries, which are modified 12 and 6 metre-long shipping containers. They’re in a peaceful spot which isn’t open to the public because the birds are wild and need to remain that way.
“It’s very very hands-off because you can’t release birds that are imprinted and have no fear of people,” she explains.
Founding Project Kererū
Nik began veterinary nursing in 1992 and her boss was the honorary Department of Conservation (DOC) vet, so she realised that wildlife need help.
“It made me go, ‘oh wow!’”
When her boss moved overseas, Nik started looking after the birds and founded Project Kererū in 1997.
Since 2003, the Dunedin branch of Forest & Bird, using funding from the Dr Marjorie Barclay Trust, has supported the project, running working bees and funding the aviaries so Nik can do the work.
“It’s my voluntary full-time job.”
Following her boss’s departure, DOC would bring Nik kererū and she’d attempt to diagnose, treat, feed, care for and rehabilitate them. This was challenging.
They were all degrees of brokenness. It was quite hard, sometimes they’d be very badly broken.”
Since the Wildlife Hospital opened at the Otago Polytechnic in 2018, she’s worked closely with it and says their care is gold standard. Every bird is now given pain relief and an X-ray to identify injuries.
Native pigeons stay at the hospital until they’ve recovered, then go to Project Kererū for rehabilitation, learning to fly again inside the 12 metre-long aviaries.
They do this at their own pace and initiative. Sometimes during treatment a bird’s wings are bandaged and feathers may fall out as a result, so have to regrow.
Depending on the injury, rehabilitation takes between a few days and a few months. Once the kererū are ready, they’re returned to their home territory and released.
They come from up to six regions around the South Island including Otago, Southland, Canterbury and Fiordland. Last year, 11 were from Te Anau.
Nik doesn’t know how many kererū she’s cared for during the past decades but says last year alone she released 46.
As well as daily bird food preparation and feeding and monitoring, twice a week she checks a trap-line of humane, instant-kill traps which target predators such as rodents, ferrets and stoats.
If people find injured birds, Nik advises carefully picking them up with a towel and keeping them in a warm, dark box. For native species, DOC can give advice and for others, local vets or bird rescues can help.
Together with Forest & Bird, Project Kererū is planting trees around its aviaries to create habitat. Nik says planting trees in urban areas provides native birds with food and protection against predators.
She suggests planting Tree Lucerne, which isn’t native but is one of the most important food sources for kererū, other native birds and bees.
Kererū are vital because some indigenous trees rely solely on them for seed dispersal.
“Our continued hope, through the work that we do, is that the iconic sound of our native pigeon flying through the trees does not fade to become yet another memory and that there will always be kererū for future generations to enjoy.”
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