A story for children and grown-up children

What this story is all about ................................

This is the story of the return of a permanent population of North Island weka, the flightless New Zealand bush hen, to the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellington. The weka lost their power of flight after New Zealand drifted away from Australia in the break-up of Gondwanaland. The Karori Sanctuary is a long valley stretching from Karori to Brooklyn and formerly a water supply reserve. Four pairs of weka were brought into the valley in 1998 to occupy a predator-proof enclosure that had been built to accommodate weka from Kapiti Island during the eradication of rats on that island.

This story was largely written before the completion of the boundary fence and is therefore a fictional account of how the weka project was expected to take place, from the birds' point of view. Birds and their whole restored environment are the focus and essence of the Sanctuary project.

The story tells of the arrival of the weka in the Sanctuary valley, firstly into snall enclosures, then their "escape" into the main enclosure, finally their life in smaller secure enclosures. There they produced chicks that were gradually gathered into the main enclosure. Sone of the early chicks went away to other locations. Ultimately, with the completion of the predator-proof fence and the successful removal of the pests from the valley, the day came for the weka to be released into the Sanctuary, joining the other birds that were already beginning to thrive in the valley now that trees were again flowering and fruiting.

Native trees and plants are being replanted in the valley, gradually replacing exotic species, and the food supply for birds and other creatures will steadily grow. The sound of birdsong in and around the valley will grow louder and ever more exciting.

The book "How green was my valley" by David Llewellyn tells the story of a Welsh valley gradually blackened and destroyed by mining and steel works. Fish disappeared from the polluted streams, birds disappeared from the once-green hills. The story of the weka in Karori is the opposite of that early book. It is appropriate that David Llewellyn's book contains the comment "There is strange you will never notice birds till they are gone". Today and in years to come perhaps we can say "It is a miracle to see the birds as they once used to be".

Scratch and Skittle were named by Room 10 of Kelburn Normal School, and Nga Horo Tamaheihei and Nga Whakatoi Heihei by Island Bay School. Room 2 of Titahi Bay North School chose Manaaki and Tumanako, and Rocky and Kiki were named by Korokoro School in Petone. The Island Bay names mean Fast Rooster and Cheeky Hen, and from Titahi Bay come Take Care Of and Hope.
What the Sanctuary said . . .

Grateful thanks are due to Dr Tony Beauchamp for his encouragement and for guidance on how the North Island weka live their lives. The rest of the story will now be in the hands of the weka themselves and we wish them well in the new world that has been provided for them at last.

Scratch the weka was ruffled. Most people in the world like a quiet life but Scratch and Skittle had very definitely had their quiet life disrupted. They were both ruffled.

Yesterday morning, not long after breakfast had been delivered by a pair of large blue gumboots, much as on most mornings that he remembered, he and Skittle had started to check their rather small world to see if anything interesting had hopped or crawled into reach. Suddenly the blue gumboots came back, then some yellow gumboots and some black ones. Instead of bringing more breakfast, the gumboots somehow edged him into an awkward corner of their territory and he found himself picked up. He was actually upside down and his feathers were being jiggled about as the gumboots talked to each other. It was more than enough to ruffle anyone. Weka had given up that awkward flying business long long ago and to find himself up in the air was very disturbing indeed.

It was a relief when he found himself down on the ground again but something else strange seemed to have happened and it wasn't the usual ground at all. It was very small and very dark but there was a floor of earth and grass and it felt quite comfortingly damp. He tried to find the way out because he could see at once that this territory would be far too small for any self-respecting and active weka. But wherever he went he could only bang his beak on what felt like the same piece of wall. There was other banging going on not far away. It sounded like Skittle but he didn't want to ask in case it wasn't.

Then O dear O dear, there was such a great deal of noise and swinging about and rumbling and shaking. It went on and on. Scratch crouched on the grassy floor and tried to pretend that he wasn't there.

When in the end all the terrible noise and shaking finished there was a lot more gumboot noise going on. He didn't know there were so many gumboots in the world.

Then all of a sudden it was morning again but he had never known a morning like it. One moment it was quite dark. The next moment it was completely light. He felt himself upside down again, he was stretched and poked and ruffled. As if he wasn't ruffled enough already ! There were gumboots everywhere. Then in the end he was down on the ground again - but where had home gone ?

He saw some long grass and dived into it. This was all new to him but somehow he could tell right away that other weka had been there.

It didn't take Scratch long to decide that he rather liked this place after all. There were even a few beetles and other insects scurrying about. He grabbed a passing beetle and found that it was really quite a good one. Suddenly there was another commotion in the grass. It was Skittle. He didn't like to ask why she had left him on his own for that terrible noisy night. He never did understand her explanations. It would have to be enough, he thought, that she was there.

It didn't take long to find that other weka were not far away. In fact it didn't take long to find that this new home was a lot bigger than they first thought. What had looked like the edge of it wasn't really the edge at all. It was quite easy to jump and flap one's way up and over a sort of low fence thing. And yes, they weren't on their own. Things were looking up. Breakfast still came every morning and the gumboots didn't try to worry them at all. They were in some sort of valley and there were enough trees to make it quite sheltered. They could hear some running water and there were a few different sounds from those they were used to. But breakfast was usually good and there was a bit more room to explore. It might be quite a good place to settle down in after all.

Counting on his claws, Scratch found there were six other weka in this new world. There were Nga Horo Tamaheihei and Nga Whakatoi Heihei, Maanaki and Tumanaku, Rocky and Kiki. No one bothered much about marking out space for themselves. It didn't seem to matter. Gumboots and breakfast seemed to arrive every morning and there was fresh water in the little pond. There was always enough breakfast for everyone and the gumboots didn't stay for very long.

Scratch could sometimes see glimpses of the world where the gumboots lived. It seemed to be very very big. He wondered if there were weka there too, though he hadn't heard any of them yet. But for the moment there was plenty to do. All the weka got on well together, well, most of the time anyway. There were paths to explore and learn. There were snug places to hide away.

Then one day he found that somehow this world seemed to have got smaller again. Scratch didn't quite understand what had happened but he couldn't seem to find that nice little pond and the only weka he kept coming across was Skittle. He knew the others weren't far away because he could hear them, especially his friends Whakatoi and Tumanaku and Kiki, but why couldn't he find them ? It must be something to do with those gumboots.

Sometimes they could actually see some of the others. They seemed to be on the far side of that big spider's web along the edge of this smaller world. He could even see that little pond on the other side of the spider's web. It was a strange web. You couldn't just walk through it. Scratch had tried to scrabble his way underneath it (after all, what are claws for ?) but one of the gumboots had dropped some big stones and jumped up and down on them. After that, Scratch couldn't quite see where he had been digging. He thought he wouldn't try any more.

On the other hand (or on the other claw) he hoped the world wouldn't keep on changing like this. No one really likes changes. It wasn't very long, though, before he began to realise that perhaps this last change was quite a good one. He and Skittle could now arrange things the way they liked, without Tamaheihei and Rocky rushing about everywhere and often eating the very snail that Scratch had just noticed.

There seemed to be more insects about now too. Breakfast came yesterday with some much smaller gumboots with rather chirpier voices and he found afterwards some really good snails and a big pile of interesting leaves that he didn't remember seeing before.

Skittle certainly seemed a lot happier now that she and Scratch had no need to worry about what the other weka were doing. He was able to spend a lot of time making a better and better pile of grass and twigs in that homely little spot between the two flax plants. It was beginning to feel a much more comfortable world to the two busy weka. And it was Skittle who first heard a little cheeping sound that seemed to come from not far away.

Then one bright sunny morning Skittle didn't come out for breakfast. Scratch had some extra breakfast to make sure it wasn't wasted and then went to look for Skittle. He found her near the flax plants and looking rather pleased with herself. He remembered about the extra breakfast and felt a little guilty about it. Skittle walked back to the flax plants and Scratch followed. Then he suddenly saw why Skittle was so pleased. In the middle of the nest in the flax there was an egg. Scratch knew that this was the most important of all the changes in their world.

The days were now much longer and warmer. This warmer weather seemed to make the gumboots more active. Scratch and Skittle could sometimes see whole armies of them walking up and down the valley. Perhaps it was the warmer weather that made them more excitable too. Sometimes they stood in large groups and waved their arms at the weka territory, or even came down close and chattered to each other. The weka hid in the long grass and watched them.

By this time there were several weka chicks living where Scratch and the others had been living a few months earlier, in the big territory with the pond of water. The gumboots seemed to be overwhelmed with excitement when one of the chicks came out to drink at the pond. Scratch was puzzled by all this because the gumboots seemed so much quieter when they came each morning with breakfast. They all seemed fairly harmless but all the same it was probably safer to keep out of sight until they went away.

There were also some strange rumbling sounds in the valley, rather like some of those rumbling noises on that terrible day that Scratch had spent in that tiny dark and noisy territory. He remembered it only too well. There were other noises too, strange sounds of screeching and grinding and banging such as Scratch and Skittle had never heard in their lives. There were crashing sounds like a tree falling in a high wind only the strange thing was that the wind wasn't blowing.

Sometimes all these noises seemed quite close, up on the hillsides above the weka territory. Sometimes they seemed to come more quietly from the far ends of the valley.

Then those strange noises seemed to stop happening. There seemed to be some different gumboots, gumboots with bright yellow coats, gumboots carrying buckets and boxes. Perhaps it was their winter plumage. Perhaps they were hiding away some food for the winter. Sometimes there were gumboots when it was dark, gumboots with lights. On those nights there were some loud sharp noises that seemed to run all around the valley. It was all very strange.

But the strangest day of all was the day of the noisy bird, the very very noisy bird. It was the day of the strange green sky as well. The gumboots seemed to pull the green sky right over the weka territory. It was almost like living under a canopy of green fern leaves, only there weren't any fern trunks or any of the fat insects that usually live in the fern forest. And then the noisy bird came. It felt to the frightened weka as if it was looking for them. It kept coming close to their home. The weka hid in the thickest and safest places they could find. In the end the noisy bird seemed to get tired of looking for them and the valley grew quiet again. It was almost a relief when the gumboots came back. This time they brought some blue sky.

The noisy bird came back again on another day. The frightened weka hid themselves again. The noisy bird seemed to get tired of looking for them quite soon this time and once again the valley grew quiet. The weka came out to finish their breakfast.

Through all these happenings, Scratch and Skittle had the great joy of raising a family together. That first egg was safely hatched and then Skittle laid not one but two eggs. The first little chick grew fast but then one day it seemed to disappear. Skittle was sitting on the other eggs and Scratch had been enjoying breakfast. He was quite relieved at losing the chick because he knew he would soon have his hands, or claws, very full indeed. Two new and demanding chicks would mean a lot of extra work. All the same, losing a chick was a worry and he didn't want Skittle to think that he had been careless.

The sound of chicks scrabbling and cheeping was now part of the sound of the valley. They occasionally chased each other with squawks and a great deal of flapping of wings.

But some of the other sounds of the valley were beginning to change as well. The night sounds didn't seem quite the same. It was some time since Scratch had seen or heard one of those strange animals with long tails that made such a loud breathing noise as they walked round the outside of the weka territory. The sounds of the birds in the mornings and the evening were in some way different too, louder and with some new sounds.

And it wasn't just the sounds. Somehow there was the beginning of a new scent in the valley, a flowery sort of scent, a scent that Scratch and Skittle had never known before. It was beginning to feel as if they were in a new world. Last time they had found themselves in a new world they had had to live through that dreadful dark and noisy day in order to reach it. Now this other new world had seemed to creep up on them and it felt very good. In fact it felt somehow "right" and the weka could even tell that the chattering of the gumboots was more excited than it used to be.

There was a whirr of wings and three dark shining birds swooped low across the valley. They came so low that they nearly came into the weka territory. "Did you see those tui ?" said Scratch. "Dangerous I call it" said Skittle. "All the same", said Scratch, still looking at the sky, "I wish I could do that". Only yesterday they had heard a crashing of wings in the trees and four fat keruru had come and perched on the edge of their territory before flying heavily away up the valley. There were also some very noisy squabbling birds that had recently come to live in the valley, with big hooks of beaks and their wings were red when they flew. "I think they are kaka" said Skittle. "There must be some good food then", said Scratch, "because they would need good food to spend all that energy flying about the way they do".

But O dear, it sounded as if there were more gumboots coming. Far more gumboots, in fact, than usual, and, yes, they were coming down the hill to where the weka lived. The weka had never seen so many gumboots before or heard them chattering so much.

A huge crowd of them were in a great gathering in front of the big breakfast door. Scratch and Skittle and the others tucked themselves away in safe corners of their homes so that the gumboots wouldn't know they were there. Perhaps they would go away.

Suddenly the gumboots all stopped chattering. Just one gumboot started speaking, and his speaking was very long indeed. Then there was a great noise as all the gumboots banged their claws together and made loud shouting noises. It was all quite terrifying. Then it all happened again, and again and again.

Then most of the gumboots went back up the hill and just two or three quiet ones seemed to stay down by the breakfast door.

And then a very strange thing indeed happened. The big opening thing that the breakfasts came through was opened wide, much wider than usual, and the quiet gumboots put down big piles of interesting leaves in the space outside the opening. Then the quiet gumboots walked away and back up the hill to where the rest of the gumboots were waiting for them.

Scratch and Skittle peeped cautiously through a patch of long grass. The two oldest chicks, they saw, had spotted the inviting piles of leaves and were making for the opening. "It's always the same with those twins" said Scratch, "all curiosity and no common sense at all". Some of the other chicks were following. Then they saw Rocky and Kiki on their way out too. "How did they get out ?" Then Scratch noticed that their own breakfast door was wide open too. "Well" he asked Skittle, "shall we ?" And off went Scratch and Skittle as well, but very cautiously.

They found it was such a good big collection of leaves. A really special collection with a really tasty dampness about it. There were insects and worms and all sorts of scurrying things, a feast for the jabbing beaks of the excited weka. They had all felt that the breakfast had been a bit scanty that morning.

Suddenly there was a gentle "click" behind them and the opening to their world seemed to have shut. Perhaps they should take a little walk and see what the "outside" was like.

There was a sudden flapping and crashing and Rocky and Kiki shot past them and disappeared into the bush. The piles of leaves had been well raked over now and some of the chicks were already wandering uncertainly off. "Right", said Scratch, "let's go a little way", and they both headed off up the side of the valley, soon glad to be in the shelter and security of the trees.

They had almost forgotten about the great crowd of gumboots who had been watching the weka so quietly that they might almost have been sworn to silence. As the weka spread out and began to make their way into the bush the silence broke. Once again the gumboots were chattering wildly and banging their claws together with a sound like thunder. The weka felt glad that they could escape from this terrifying noise and go deeper and deeper into the bush. They could tell at once that this was a world that had no sign of weka at all, yet somehow and in some strange way it felt like "home" to them at last. It was a wonderful new world to be explored and it wouldn't take long for the busy weka to know every inch of it.

That night the calls of the North Island weka could be heard from many parts of the valley. In their homes far and wide, and some within earshot of the long valley, the gumboots were chattering about the day they had just seen, and rejoicing for the weka and wishing them well.

T h e E n d

Footnote - A few years ago, on 4 November 2002, my wife and I were on bird-feeding duty in the sanctuary. At one feeding station we were almost besieged by two kaka, anxious for new food. These then had to fight off tui that were determined to share in the sugar water. An opportunist blackbird managed to seize a moment's peace to make off with a date from the feeding tray. At the next feeding station we had a pair of courting saddlebacks sharing their new sugar water, and bellbirds came in as soon as the saddlebacks had gone. It is more than a century since saddlebacks were on the New Zealand mainland. Trees are in flower throughout the valley and new leaves are everywhere. As Scratch and Skittle observed, there is a new scent in the valley. The calls of tui can be heard throughout the valley, and the sound of the saddleback after their century of absence.

There is a 500-year restoration vision for the sanctuary valley. That may sound like an awfully long time but human settlement has set back the natural environment at least that far. Giants of the New Zealand forest will take that length of time to achieve the majesty of their gianthood. But the process has made a great start and now we can truly say "How green is our valley already".

But we can surely never regain the garden of Eden that the early settlers destroyed.

By now, namely 2011, it seems that weka have disappeared from the valley, probably as the result of the poison that has had to be used to eliminate mice from the valley. Weka are scavengers by nature and would have absorbed poison by eating dead mice. They have not now been seen for about two years. Within a project whose purpose was to redevelop a whole ecosystem, the presence of active scavengers like weka was always likely to be a risk to creatures such as lizrds, frogs, weta and the like in its early stages. Their apparent disappearance is probably more of a benefit than a loss.

We now live in what is becoming a rapidly changing world. Problems of climate change, population and sustainability have suddenly become front-page news. The world economy, which had long seemed to be growing inexorably, has run into very rough waters and it is now affected by having become such a tightly interlocked worldwide network. Whereas once upon a time a single country could run into deep trouble without affecting other countries, that no longer seems to be the case. This turbulence has had an immediate effect upon such local operations as the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. It had developed as a major tourist attraction, rebranded as Zealandia and built up with large financial assistance from the City Council and government, optimistically planning to market its undoubted conservation achievement to a growing international tourist market. Worldwide economic conditions now threaten that optimistic forecast. It may once again have to fall back on local enthusiasm to maintain its fundamental conservation progress and its pest-free status.

Many of today's young people are coming to realise that their own lives and survival depend on the successful conservation and intelligent management of the earth's finite resources, and that biodiversity is not just a happy catchphrase but a vital component in the survival of our own race. It is perhaps ironic that it may take the major impacts of climate change and peak oil to penetrate the world's collective blindness and that of most of our politicians and bureaucrats. Meanwhile the efforts of conservationists seem to remain as one of the few bright signals along the road to the future, even if still lacking the major political traction that is so urgently needed.

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