National Kiwi Hatchery manager, Emma Bean. Photo by Mead Norton.

Emma Bean, Kiwi Whisperer


When people ask how they could work with adorable baby kiwi, Emma Bean apologises in advance for what could be considered dark humour.

“We all joke that someone on the team would have to die,” she laughs. “It’s seriously so good. No one ever wants to leave. Someone retired and moved away recently, and they immediately got roped into kiwi monitoring around their new home. We just love what we do so much.”

UK-born Emma always wanted to work with animals. She completed a biological sciences degree at Birmingham University, and then an undergraduate thesis in microbiology before finding work in conservation.  

Emma kiwi whisperer portrait INP

Emma Bean, National Kiwi Hatchery Manager with a kiwi chick. Photo by Mead Norton

“I was lucky enough to work with elephants and gibbons in Thailand and when I got to New Zealand, I wanted another conservation project. I started with kiwi monitoring around Whanganui and visited the National Kiwi Hatchery in Rotorua as a geeky tourist. I had a camera around my neck, and I was taking notes. They thought I was a reporter,” she laughs.

Emma was offered a volunteering position and applied for a full-time job covering maternity leave.

“I got it, and sixteen years later, I’m still here. The kiwi is essentially a species that is biologically unique, and it's really captured me from that perspective.”

One of Emma’s favourite parts of the job is candling an egg where a light is shone to illuminate the embryo inside.

“I love it when I'm on the inside side of the glass with manuhiri (visitors) watching what we do. As part of the egg health check, we put the egg on the bench and whistle to it. The chick will move around making the egg wobble. I look up to see people’s reactions. We're mammals, so we’re used to babies and thinking of an egg as an ingredient in a recipe. There’s a light bulb moment when they suddenly get why we're in a protective suit and being so careful. There’s a baby inside and these eggs are precious.

The kiwi seems a fragile species, but Emma explains they were doing fine before humans arrived.

“When our land mass broke off from Gondwanaland, it literally was birdland. It’s estimated there were around 12 million kiwi. That number is now closer to around 68,000,” she says. “Kiwi didn’t have to defend themselves against predators until humans came along. I'm careful not to demonize the mammals, they're just doing what they're designed to do. It's our fault, and we need to recognise what we did.”

Emma kiwi whisperer egg INP

When Emma Bean whistles to a kiwi egg, the kiwi responds. Photo by Mead Norton.

Emma says as well as having unique traits like nostrils at the end of their bills rather than close to their face (officially giving them the shortest bill length of any bird because scientists measure from nostril to tip) kiwi also feel unlike any other bird.  

“Their feathers are more hair-like, so some are spiky, but they’re very soft and downy at the base. When we hold a kiwi chick, we’re careful of their delicate tummy. They don't have the strong sternum that other birds have.”

Newly hatched chicks weigh around 350 grams and get released into the wild after around five months.

“It’s emotional because you know you're helping save them,” Emma says. “We need to get them to  three times their hatch weight, to a size that we describe as ‘stoat-proof’ where they can defend themselves. We basically keep them safe when they're most vulnerable.”

The survival rate for kiwi chicks hatched in the wild is a bleak 5% while those in Operation Nest Egg get a much brighter 65% chance of reaching adulthood.

“We are an ecotourism organisation in its purist form. We're not for profit and 100% of the ticket revenue goes straight back into the kiwi programme,” Emma says.

Emma kiwi whisperer chick

One of the chicks at the National Kiwi Hatchery. Photo by Mead Norton.

The Rotorua facility usually hatches about 120 kiwi each year. Last year, that number was 153 – the biggest year yet – and the recent move to a new premises has doubled capacity.

“If I was to be run over by a bus tomorrow, I’d be okay with what I've done in life,” smiles Emma. “I can say I've hatched over 2,000 chicks, so to be able to put that on my headstone, yeah, I'm pretty happy with that. It’s an absolute privilege.”


Story by Debbie Griffiths for the Autumn 2024 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Debbie Griffiths is a freelance writer who contributes to AA Directions Magazine.

Explore more from AA Directions magazine while you're here: 

More from AA Directions

Find out more

Flossie Pallesen, Balloon and Bubble Artist

Flossie Pallesen is a Nelson-based children's entertainer, specialising in giant bubbles and balloon art.  Read the story . . . 

Find out more

Sue Court, Equine Therapist

Sue Court is a counsellor who specialises in equine therapy, using horses to connect with people.  Read the story . . . 

Find out more

Mark Harris, Stunt Performer

Mark Harris has been working as a stunt coordinator and stunt driver for film and television for 39 years.  Read the story . . . 

Find out more

Drew Stanton, Location Scout

Drew Stanton is a location scout who's job it is to find many of the spots that appear on our screens. Read the story . . .