As one of the world’s rarest shore birds and nationally critical to Aotearoa, the small, striking New Zealand shore plover or tūturuatu deserves the spotlight this #WildWork Wednesday.

Weighing in at around 60 grams, and with only around 240 surviving across five of New Zealand’s predator-free islands, it was imperative that when the Department of Conservation (DOC) asked Auckland Zoo to help a young chick abandoned by its parents, that we were able to step in to save this special little life.


Tūturuatu on Motutapu Island

Our staff helped to 'soft release' 22 of these rare and special birds onto the island

Pūkaha Mt Bruce National Wildlife Centre and Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust have been captive-breeding juvenile plovers and releasing to predator-free islands since the 1990’s, but this is the first time a wild chick has been hand-reared. For Auckland Zoo staff, hand-rearing involved sending volunteers to collect seaweed and sand-hoppers to provide a natural diet, providing a safe space with artificial UV light until the chick was big enough to live in an off-display, outdoor aviary, regular weigh-ins to ensure the chick was growing properly, and routine veterinary care. 

When the young juvenile was ready to be returned to Motutapu Island, it coincided with the ‘soft release’ of another 22 New Zealand shore plovers that had been captive-reared at Pūkaha and Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust, meaning Auckland Zoo’s head of birds Carl Ashworth, had a slightly bigger job on his hands than anticipated. It involved a trip to the airport to collect the birds, a car trip with the birds, followed by a boat trip to the island, and then a week-long Motutapu stay to care for and monitor the plovers in their on-site soft-release aviary. Auckland Zoo bird keepers Suzie Keith and Sarah Anderson joined the efforts on Motutapu to care for them, involving twice daily feeds, and close monitoring to ensure they were eating and behaving normally and fit for release . After nearly two weeks, on Monday 18th February the aviary doors were opened, and the nationally critical birds were on their way to prosper, and hopefully contribute to their species. 22 birds may seem a small number, but it represents a 10% increase in the global wild population. Plovers still face many threats, even on predator-free islands, so there’s a long road ahead for those fighting to save this little known taonga of Aotearoa.

We are so lucky at Auckland Zoo to not only have expert keepers that can hand-rear a nationally critical species, but also a world-class vet hospital and the world’s first National Centre for Conservation Medicine. During the pre-release monitoring in the aviary on Motutapu, one bird was seen to have a foot condition and deemed unfit for release and is now in the Auckland Zoo Vet Hospital where it will stay until it is fit enough to survive in the wild. When you next visit Auckland Zoo, be sure to check for any procedures in the vet hospital through our public viewing window, or prior to your visit on our Vet Hospital page. When you visit Auckland Zoo your entry fee contributes to the fascinating Wild Work and research our team undertakes every day.