The intriguing kiwi – a small, flightless bird, is the national symbol of New Zealand, and as a result, New Zealanders today are commonly – and affectionately – referred to as kiwis. These unique birds, about the size of a chicken, were long known to the Maori people who used them as a food source and also utilised their feathers in ceremonial cloaks.
One of the early European documentations of the kiwi was prepared by the English zoologist George Shaw in 1812. He described the bird as “the southern apteryx”, meaning a wingless creature.
Kiwis are unusual in just about every way:
- They are the smallest of the living ratites – or flightless birds – that include ostriches, emus and cassowaries.
- DNA evidence has revealed that the kiwi is related to the now extinct elephant bird of Madagascar. Perhaps surprisingly, this link is closer than that between the kiwi and the also extinct New Zealand moa.
- Because the kiwi is flightless its feathers have evolved into a unique structure that provides warmth and effective camouflage.
- The beak of the kiwi is not just for feeding. It enables the bird to posses a keen sense of smell and it can also detect the movements of prey beneath the surface of the ground.
- In proportion to its body size, the egg laid by the female kiwi is the largest of all the bird species. Conversely, again relative to size, the eye of the kiwi is the smallest, resulting in a limited visual field.
- A mating kiwi pair remain in a monogamous relationship for life. They are largely nocturnal and a bonded pair will call to each other at night and meet in their breeding burrow every few days. This type of relationship can last up to 20 years.
Over the last 100 years the kiwi population has decreased alarmingly, mostly due to predation by introduced species such as cats, dogs, and ferrets. In areas where these predators are controlled the kiwi population can recover.
Image: A male North Island brown kiwi sitting on an egg. In this family of kiwis, after the female lays the egg, the male is responsible for incubation, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.