Did you know New Zealand’s national bird cannot fly?
Endemic to these South Pacific Islands the kiwi is unique among birds; no tail, the mere trace of wings and nostrils near the tip of its long flexible beak. Add nocturnal behaviour, whiskers, poor eyesight and hairlike feathers – it is not surprising that visitors to these south pacific islands are amused to find New Zealanders calling themselves Kiwi. (especially Americans and others who call our kiwifruit – ‘kiwi’ – the correct name is kiwifruit!)
Ratite’s, the family to which the kiwi belongs, evolved on Gondwanaland. This southern super continent ( Jurassic period, 150 million years ago) split into what eventually became South America, Africa, Antarctica, Madagascar, India, Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand finally separated 85 million years and the flightless birds developed.
As well as the kiwi New Zealand has other flightless birds, all of which are in danger of extinction.
Apart from two bats, New Zealand had no terrestrial mammals until Māori arrived some one-thousand years ago, bringing the kiore,(a Pacific rat). Pakeha (European settlers) arrive some eight hundred years later and brought rabbits, possums, deer, stoat and many other animals.
Before that, with no predators, it seems the birds had no need to fly and so lost the ability.
Introduced animals have devastated these birds and their habitat since their introduction.
Despite being raised to virtual icon status in its home country, the kiwi is a strange bird. Both male and female will fiercely defend their territory against other kiwi. They live in burrows and rotate the use of them to make sure of a wide territorial presence. Kiwi feed mainly on earthworms and a variety of invertebrates such as slugs snails spiders and insects and occasionally have been seen wading in streams for larger prey such as frogs and freshwater crayfish. (koura)
Size varies according to the species, ranging from the little spotted kiwi weighing in at a mere 1150 grams to the great spotted kiwi which is twice that size. Females are usually the larger of the pair by as much as a kilo.
Mating for life the female lays a huge egg, about 20% of her body weight, then promptly leaves it for the male to incubate over the next eighty days. After three weeks this baby bird, a miniature of its parents, leaves the safety of the burrow to fend for itself. The small chick is extremely vulnerable to introduced animals and during its’ first year their mortality rate is high despite strong legs and razor-sharp claws for defence.
Kiwi have shown amazing resilience in the face of habitat destruction by logging, pasture development and trees destroyed by possum as well as predation by stoats, dogs and other introduced animals. We human kiwi are hopeful that we can save the mainland populations of their namesake. We want our bush will continue to hear the hedgehog-like snuffling as they search for food and the hoarse guttural sounds of the female as she calls to her mate.
Some fact about NZ birds
100 endemic (New Zealand only) birds
83 native birds we share with other counties
139 migrants who have found their way here, and
43 introduced birds – such as swans, starlings, sparrows, geese as examples
See more in Birds of New Zealand (Colins Traveller’s Guide) by Julian Fitter and Don Merton ( Haper Colins) ISBN 978 1 86950 851 7