New Zealand’s most famous iconic bird and national symbol!
Although some jokingly describe it as ‘a creature that can’t fly, can’t see, sleeps all day and is bloody near extinct’, this nocturnal, flightless bird with a long bill is dear to the hearts of most New Zealanders. In fact, so much so that Kiwis (capital ‘k’) is the name given to New Zealanders.
Despite the fact that most tourists and even most New Zealanders will never see this shy nocturnal bird in the wild, this is truly a fascinating bird and its story is even more poignant due to its continuing fight against extinction.
No two ways about it—the kiwi is a strange-looking bird. The five different species are endemic to New Zealand, differing mainly in size but sharing the following characteristics: round-shaped in appearance, no tail or tail feathers, strong legs with prominent claws, generally brown or grey in color, long bill the base of which is surrounded by whiskers, small eyes, large earholes. Most bird feathers interlace. The kiwi’s don’t. This gives kiwi feathers a droopy appearance almost like fur.
Similar to so many other New Zealand birds, kiwi are flightless although they do have tiny, non-functional wings that are about the length of matchsticks and generally remain hidden.
Kiwi have a well-developed sense of smell and large brain similar in size to a parrot’s brain. Much of its brain is in fact dedicated to its sense of smell. Their long bill is unique in the bird world in that it has nostrils on the tip of it which kiwi use to sniff out their prey. Along with this there is a vibration sensing organ on the tip of the bill. It is believed that kiwi smell the ground and then probe it gently sensing for the vibrations made by worms and insects. Kiwi will insert their bill up to its full length into the ground to retrieve food.
Their diet consists of mainly earthworms along with other insects and some fruit.
They have poor eyesight particularly for a nocturnal animal, but excellent hearing.
Kiwis live a long time generally 20-30 years. They also have a very low metabolic rate for birds of their size.
Kiwi is the Maori name given to the bird. It is believed they named the kiwi after a species in their Polynesian homeland, the kivi, which has a long slightly down curved bill, although some claim the bird’s Maori name comes from its call which sounds somewhat like ‘kiweee’.
Kiwi Family Tree
Birds evolved from dinosaurs. Then about 100 million years ago, two superorders of birds, termed Neognathae and Palaeognathae, evolutionarily separated from each other. The Neognathae group includes virtually all living birds today, while the Palaeognathae, a considerably smaller group, includes a group of flightless birds (often called ratites) and another group of birds called tinamous. The flightless birds include the cassowary, emu, moa, rheas, ostrich and kiwi. They are characterized by having a flat sternum without a breastbone (keel) where the pectoral muscles (flying muscles) in flying birds attach.
For many years it was thought that when what is now New Zealand broke off 80 million years ago from Gondwana, the supercontinent, the progenitor of the kiwi was brought along and the kiwi evolved from that. More recent molecular genetic evidence suggests a slightly different story. It is felt that the kiwi was once able to fly and somehow more recently flew, swam or island hopped here in the last 65 million years where it has since evolved.
The kiwi is genetically most related to the emu and cassowary in Australia.
Why is the kiwi nocturnal? During its evolutionary development, it must have been advantageous for the kiwi to forage at night either to compete with other animals or to protect itself from daytime predators.
Why is the kiwi flightless? It is believed that the kiwi’s ancestors did fly (hence the vestigial wings) but evolving in the New Zealand environment where there were particularly no ground mammal predators made it unnecessary to fly. Flying takes up a lot of a bird’s energy.
The story is much the same as with other native flora and fauna in New Zealand. Man arrives. Out of the necessity to survive, ignorance of the interplay of species, or just the wanton disregard for other life forms or some combination of the three, plant or animal species are destroyed. It’s not that this story hasn’t occurred throughout the world, but rather because of New Zealand’s long isolated development, its plants and animals were and are particularly vulnerable and prone to extinction.
When the Polynesians, who were to become the Maori, arrived here, there were millions of kiwis in New Zealand. The dog, which they brought with them and introduced, killed many kiwi. The rat, also brought by the Polynesians, competed with the kiwi for its food further threatening its survival. The kiwi was also hunted by the Maori for food and the feathers used to make feather cloaks called kahu kiwi. Burning of the forests destroyed large swaths of the kiwi territory.
Then the Europeans arrived. As a quick aside, surprisingly Captain Cook along with his naturalists who seems to have documented virtually everything that existed on New Zealand did not come across a kiwi. The Europeans brought with them more dogs, more rats and also cats, pigs, possums and hedgehogs. Along with this in the late 1800’s, they imported the worse three kiwi predators, stoats, ferrets and weasels to control the escalating rabbit population. Combine this with the further taking of kiwi for food, for fashion wear and by collectors, not to mention the continued degradation of much of the environment where the kiwi thrived. This flightless bird, which nests on the ground, never had a chance.
The first kiwi skin found its way to England in 1812. It is hard to appreciate the novelty of Europeans seeing the first kiwi skins and bones. Indeed, initially they were felt to be so strange (fur-like feathers, whiskers like a cat, no tail, nostrils on the tip of its bill) that many were suspicious that the skins had been altered or foul play was involved.
Initially the kiwi was classified by George Shaw, the keeper of zoology at the British Museum, as a type of penguin and represented as standing upright, not surprising since the zoologist had never seen a live kiwi. Later it was more accurately classified as a ratite (see above). This first species was given the name Apteryx australis meaning ‘southern wingless bird’.
Over the next years other species of kiwi were identified and named but not much happened until 1838 when Professor Richard Owen, the eminent British comparative anatomist of moa-discovering fame (see my previous post on the moa) more accurately classified and investigated the kiwi.
Currently, five species of kiwi are identified based on genetic investigation.
1) Brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) – lives only on the North Island, spiky brown plumage (18 inches tall)
2) Little spotted kiwi (Apteryx owenii)– smallest (about 10 inches tall), pale grey in color
3) Great spotted kiwi (Apteryx haastii) – spotted appearance, found in three discreet populations on the South Island
4) Rowi (Apteryx rowi) – only identified as a separate species in 2003, found only on the South Island
5) Tokoeka (Apteryx australis)– found on South Island and Stewart Island
Watch this: I am unable to display this video directly in this post but here is a link to an excellent video of a kiwi in the wild.
(continued in Part 2)
By Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust (http://www.maungatrust.org/news/default.asp) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons