At the foot of a towering fern, Pete Kirkman pushed his hand through a curtain of dead branches into a burrow. His fingers settled on a lump of feathers. Gently, he withdrew a fist-sized hatchling.
Baffled by the daylight, the chocolate-colored nocturnal bird shook its pencil-like beak from side to side. “You’re OK,” Mr. Kirkman, a conservationist, said soothingly, as he made the discovery last week. Then he heard a scratching from the burrow. He watched in delight as another hatchling charged out, searching for its sibling, and fell into his arms.
The kiwi — a native bird so beloved by New Zealanders that its name has long been a shorthand for them — once roamed throughout the country. Starting in the 1800s, millions were slaughtered by nonnative predators like stoats, a mammal related to the weasel. Now only 70,000 or so kiwis remain, most in remote parks or islands. Accordingly, any hatchling is special. These two, however, were remarkable.
The burrow they were born in lies three miles west of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, in the suburb of Makara. The bustling city’s dangers meant that the kiwi vanished from this part of the country for more than a century. But last year, following a half-decade effort to reduce stoat and rat numbers, dozens of kiwis were reintroduced to the hilly farmlands of Makara.
The two hatchlings found by Mr. Kirkman were the first to be born in the wild in the Wellington area in living memory, experts said. While Mr. Kirkman cautioned that they still need to survive their fragile childhood, he called it a “special moment” in the push to make the kiwi a permanent part of the city’s landscape.
The resurrection of the kiwi is part of an intensive government program established in 2016 with a highly aspirational goal: eliminate most nonnative avian predators from the country by 2050. Many were introduced by humans. For instance, stoats were brought to New Zealand in the 1800s as a way to reduce the number of rabbits — themselves shipped in by humans — that were destroying sheep pastures.
In addition to the kiwi, the predator free program has had notable success.
Earlier this year, prehistoric-looking takahē and Muppet-like kākāpō were reintroduced to New Zealand’s main islands after a decades-long absence.
With the kiwi, conservationists have become more ambitious. At first, it seemed impossible to turn Makara, an expanse of coast comparable in size to Manhattan and Brooklyn combined, into a safe haven. Many residents were skeptical, said Paul Ward, the director of Capital Kiwi, a conservation group.
Still, he said, “Everyone was so supportive. Who isn’t keen to care for kiwi?”
Experts estimate that there were once 12 million kiwis in New Zealand, across five different species. They are eccentric: flightless and nocturnal, with the whiskers of a mouse and dinosaur-like legs, usually growing just two feet tall but laying eggs so large that, in human terms, they are the equivalent of giving birth to a 3-year-old.
They can seem a surprising choice for a national symbol. But after a shoe polish company named after the bird became a favorite supplier for the British Army during World War I, the kiwi became New Zealand’s most recognizable animal.
To protect the birds, Capital Kiwi laid almost 5,000 predator traps across Mākara, relying on a coalition of volunteers, from the farmers on whose land the traps were set to the mountain bikers who frequented nearby tracks.
A local school even set traps outside its classrooms. Now, teachers give lessons in math with the rats and stoats they catch, while the students feed the corpses to the eels that live in a local stream.
Eventually, so few pests remained that Capital Kiwi asked a kiwi sanctuary whether it could bring some of its birds to Makara. Gradually, they released about 60 birds.
“I had sleepless nights,” said Terese McLeod, a Capital Kiwi volunteer. “I dreamed of rats and mice and weasels for a long time.”
More than a year on, however, all the birds appear to have survived.
For Ms. McLeod, who belongs to Taranaki Whanui, a local Maori tribe, there was another reason to be proud. The kiwis introduced to the area descend from birds rescued from the tribe’s territory.
While kiwis are shy, locals have already begun encountering them. One evening in September, as Sean Duggan navigated his mountain bike around a sharp bend, he spotted two strange shadows. It took him a moment to realize what the whiskered feather balls were.
“They looked like avocados with long legs,” he joked. “You just don’t expect to see them.”