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Rescue plan to save fading weka

The once-prolific North Island weka is now a threatened species and a captive breeding programme may ensure the bird's survival.

Tomorrow a party of Department of Conservation and Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society officers are going to Kawau Island in the Hauraki Gulf to catch juvenile birds.

With them will be a weka expert, Dr Tony Beauchamp, from Whangarei.

By Sunday the group hope to have about 10 weka pairs on their way to aviaries at private homes and to the Otorohanga Kiwi House where they will be mated with an existing flock of eight young adult wekas.

One of New Zealand's most personable endemic birds, the flightless weka, or woodhen, was once common in the North Island.

But a study this year revealed that numbers could be as low as 1 per cent of their level of 10 years ago.

Only isolated groups, totalling a few thousand birds, survive in the hill country near Gisborne and on the Poverty Bay flats, where they once abounded.

The cheeky birds have disappeared entirely from many other areas where they were abundant until the early 1980s.

However, introduced wekas from the Gisborne region are established in small numbers on Kawau Island and neighbouring Rabbit Island, Arid Island off Great Barrier Island and at Rawhiti in Northland.

Conservation officers are worried that another dry El Nino summer could wipe out the remaining wild weka population.

Gisborne district residents have been asked to help to feed the birds.

The recovery plan also involves about 15 specially designed home aviaries around the North Island.

They will house juvenile birds from Kawau Island.

"These will be fully grown and independent but not yet paired up or firmly established in their territory," said a Forest and Bird officer, Mrs Ann Graeme, of Tauranga.

Hopefully, the birds would thrive and breed in the home aviaries and at the Otorohanga Kiwi House.

In about a year, she said young wekas born and reared in captivity would be released in a well-chosen location to establish populations in the wild.