He might not have had the best homing instincts. But a New Zealand native pigeon – or kererū – named Pidge made it back, eventually, to the place of his hatching after 24 years missing in the wild.

Pidge, who was hand-reared at Rainbow Springs – a wildlife and nature park in Rotorua, on New Zealand’s North Island – disappeared in 1996 and was not seen again before his return in August. That would make the bird, identified by a numbered band on his leg, 29 years old; most references list kererū lifespans as between 15 and 25 years.

“To have Pidge up there almost 30, older than some of the keeping staff, was really exciting,” said Emma Bean, the kiwi hatchery manager for the park. He is likely to be the oldest living kererū, she added. The park is investigating reports that a slightly older bird might have lived at Hamilton Zoo and has since died.

The kererū – which triumphed in 2018 New Zealand’s Bird of the Year contest – has a distinctive white feather apron and noisy wingbeats. They are known for their drunk, gluttonous nature – occasionally falling out of trees after an over-consumption of berries – and generously rounded shape.

But Pidge was “skinny” and in poor condition when a keeper found him on the grounds of the National Hatchery at Rainbow Springs, Bean said. The park had kept his return a secret until they knew he was “doing all right,” and he had spent a month feasting on grapes and bananas.

“He’s starting to show signs that he wants to fly, so we’ll be moving him into the aviary this week,” she said.

Records did not show whether Pidge had absconded from the park in 1996 or was released, but keepers assume he had lived nearby and returned for “a bit of TLC in his retirement years” when feeding became a struggle, Bean said.

An 88-year-old trout keeper and another long-time staff member remembered Pidge from the early 1990s and were “delighted” by his return which came at a rocky time, just before the park was able to reopen after New Zealand’s Covid-19 lockdown. International tourists have been barred from entering the country, and the park was forced to lay off some staff before receiving a one-off shot of government relief funds this month to cover operating costs.

“It just syncs in really nicely with the fact that Pidge was hatched and raised here and has come home to roost,” said Bean.

He had also returned home close to New Zealand’s annual kererū census, a citizen science project to find out how many of the birds remain. They are not considered an endangered species but numbers have fallen in recent decades.

One mystery of Pidge’s homecoming remains: kererū are often seen in pairs and it is unknown whether he left behind a girlfriend when he returned to the park.

Once Pidge moved to the aviary, keepers would look out for a bird watching him from outside, Bean said.

“If he does have a partner out there I’m sure she’ll find him,” she said. “It’s only been a month … I hope she hasn’t moved on too quickly.”

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