The Kooky Kiwi: One of the World's Most Unusual Animals


History and Basic Information:

The Kiwi is estimated to have lived in its native country of New Zealand for over one million years, and scientists believe that prior to human settlement, approximately twelve million Kiwi lived on the island. Today, however, there are less than 50,000 of this rare, endemic species still alive. The Kiwi is part of a bird family known as "ratites," and is believed to be related to the African Ostrich, the South American Rhea, and the Australian Emu. The Kiwi is the smallest of the ratites, its size is comparable to that of a chicken. The genus to which the Kiwi belongs is known as Apteryx, meaning "wingless." The Kiwi does, in fact, have wings, but they are small (approximately 5 cm long), vestigial, and do not support flight. Although the Kiwi is technically a bird, it arguably has more similarities to small mammals--
it boasts "well-developed senses of smell and hearing; a face covered with whiskers; bones containing marrow instead of air sacs; shaggy, hair-like plumage; and a body temperature of 37-38 degrees C" (2,4).

The Kiwi's Ecological Niche:

There are six different varieties of Kiwi--namely, the North Island Brown Kiwi, the Okarita Brown Kiwi, the Stewart Island Brown Kiwi, the Haast Brown Kiwi, the Little Spotted Kiwi, and the Great Spotted Kiwi. The majority of North Island Brown Kiwi occupy Northland; the Okarita Brown Kiwi are found on the South Island; the Stewart Island Brown Kiwi reside in Fiordland and on Stewart Island; the Haast Brown Kiwi live in the Haast region of the South Island; the Little Spotted Kiwi used to be common on the South Island; but are now extinct from the mainland and only occupy Kapiti Island; and the Great Spotted Kiwi is found on the South Island in Nelson, Westland, and Canterbury.
beaktest2.jpgDepending on the specific variety, Kiwi's occupy different types of habitats within their respective locations throughout New Zealand. "Kiwi live mainly in native forest, but they are also found in pine forests, sub-alpine tussock, scrub and rough farmland" (4). For example, the Okarita Brow
n Kiwi dwell in forests, the Haast Brown Kiwi live in high mountain basins, and the Great Spotted Kiwi occupy harsh hill country (4). Regardless of where in New Zealand they reside, all Kiwi are natural burrowers and live in burrows, in hollow trees, under logs, in rock crevices, or within thick undergrowth. This live-style is easily supported by Kiwi's strong legs that easily create burrows and break up rotten logs (4).
The Kiwi feeds on a diet consisting of worms, spiders, grubs, bugs, and fruit by poking its long beak into the ground. The long beak, however, is useful as more than just a means of consuming food. The Kiwi is the only bird known to have external nostrils at the end of its beak, and this characteristic provides the bird with an impressive sense of smell (4).

The following legend survives in the native New Zealand Maori culture as an explanation for why the Kiwi bird lives on the forest floor:

"One day the king of the forest, Tanemahuta, was walking through the forest. He looked at his trees and noticed that they looked sick. They were being eaten by the bugs that lived on the forest floor. Tanemahuta told his brother Tanehokahoka (King of the sky) what had happened to his children the trees.

Tanehokahoka wanted to help his brother so he called all the birds together for a meeting. Tanemahuta said to them all, 'The ground bugs are eating the trees. I need one of you to give up your life in the sky and come and live on the forest floor so the trees will be saved. Who will come?' Tanemahuta and Tanehokahoka waited and listened – but everything was quiet, and not a single bird spoke.

Tanehokahoka turned to Tui. 'Tui, will you come down from the forest roof?' Tui said 'Oh no Tanehokahoka –it is too dark and I am afraid of the dark.'

So then Tanehokahoka turned to Pukeko. 'Pukeko, will you come down from the forest roof?' Pukeko said 'Oh no the ground is too wet and I don't like getting my feet wet.'

Tanehokahoka then turned to Pipiwharauroa and asked 'Pipiwharauroa, will you come down from the forest roof?' Pipiwharauroa said 'No I am too busy building a nest for my family'

Tanehokahoka knew that if one of the birds did not come down from the forest roof, not only would all the trees die, but the birds would have nowhere to live. As a last attempt Tanehokahoka turned to Kiwi and said 'Please, will you come down from the skies and save the trees?' Kiwi looked around and saw his family. Kiwi then looked at the cold damp earth and turned to Tanehokahoka and said 'yes.'

Tanehokahoka and Tanemahuta were very happy because this little bird would save the trees. Tanemahuta said “Kiwi do you realize that if you do this, you will have to grow strong legs and loose your beautiful wings and colourful feathers so you blend in with the colour of the forest floor. You will not be able to return to the forest roof and will never see the light of day again.'

Kiwi took one last long look at the sun and whispered a quiet 'goodbye.'
Tanehokahoka turned to the other birds and said 'Tui, because you were too scared to come down – from now on you will wear two white feathers at your throat as the mark of a coward.' 'Pukeko, because you didn’t want to get your feet wet – you will now spend the rest of your days in the swamp.' 'Pipiwharauroa, because you were too busy building a nest for your family – you will never build another nest again. Instead, you will have to lay your eggs in other bird
s nests. But you Kiwi--Because of your sacrifice, you will become the most well known and loved bird of them all'" (4).

Pressures Contributing to Endangerment:

  • Hu
    Stoats like this one are the Kiwi bird's largest threat. (Image Credited to Creative Commons)
    mans: Before man settled in New Zealand, the Kiwi had no natural predators. As humans invaded the Kiwi territory, the number of the birds dramatically decreased. The Maori peoples that began man's inhabitance of New Zealand hunted the birds and used their skinand feathers to make highly prized clothing. As Europeans arrived in New Zealand, they were amazed by the unique bird and captured it to be used commercially in zoos and museums as well as in private collections (4).

  • Other Animals: Cats, dogs, ferrets, and weasels all prey on Kiwi chicks. The most threatening predator, however, is the stoat. Introduced by Europeans, the stoat is a small carnivorous mammal that belongs to the weasel family and is present throughout New Zealand. It moves and breeds quickly, and can eat 25% of its body weight on a daily basis. The stoat preys heavily on Kiwi chicks, and a kiwi is not truly safe from a stoat attack until it is at least one year old (4).

Protection of the Kiwi:

There are only 50,000 Kiwi left in existence, and their numbers are decreasing rapidly--it is estimated that the Kiwi population is reducing by 50% every year and only 5% of chicks survive into adulthood.
In 1991 with the extinction of the Kiwi bird more likely than ever before, New Zealand's government teamed up with the Bank of New Zealand and the Forest and Bird Society to create the Kiwi Recovery Program. The program's goal is to "'To maintain and where possible enhance the current abundance, distribution and genetic diversity of kiwi'" through research, education, Operation Nest Egg, and the development of sanctuaries (4).

Fun Facts!

  • The Kiwi bird produ
    The egg of a pregnant Kiwi bird can almost entirely fill the mother's body.
    ces an egg that is approximately 20% of the female Kiwi's body weight and almost fills the mother Kiwi's entire body. The mother bird cannot eat for two to three days before the egg is laid because there is not enough room for her stomach to be full.
  • Kiwi birds mate for life.
  • Kiwi birds are nocturnal.
  • The Kiwi bird is the national symbol of New Zealand.
  • The lifespan of the Kiwi is between 20 and 30 years.

Works Cited:

"Kiwi." Kiwi Conservation Club. Forest & Bird, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2010.
"The Kiwi Bird's Status as an Honorary Mammal Is Confirmed." Neurophilosophy.
N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2010. <
Nair, Sonia. "Kiwi Bird Facts." Buzzle. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2010.
The New Zealand Kiwi. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2010. <

*Note: Image sources can be found by clicking on the pictures.