Kiwi is shy national symbol of New Zealand
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:26 PM
How did the kiwi — a rarely seen, nocturnal, flightless, muddy brown bird — become a national icon? That question floated through my mind as I sat crammed into my Qantas Airline seat on a recent 12-hour flight to New Zealand.
New Zealanders embrace the kiwi wholeheartedly. Everything from key chains to sculptures to plates and jewelry is adorned with images of this fluffy, 18-inch, egg-shaped, sturdy-legged bird with a long, probing beak.
I really, really wanted to see a kiwi. Not just because they are a national symbol, but also because the three species of kiwis are unique within the avian world.
In fact, kiwis are so unlike birds that they have been tagged “honorary mammals.” Kiwis can’t fly, having evolved in New Zealand’s small island environment without mammalian predators. Since their feathers don’t need to support flight, they hang loose like hair, serving as effective camouflage for this deep forest ground dweller. Kiwis don’t molt their feathers every year, as birds typically do.
Birds have hollow bones to make their bodies light enough to fly. However, kiwis’ bones are marrow-filled like those of mammals. Other birds’ blood temperature is higher than mammals. Yet the blood temperature of kiwis is the same as mammals.
Most birds have a poor sense of smell. In kiwis, it is well developed. The only birds to have nostrils at the end of their beaks, kiwis snuffle and snort as they probe the forest floor for worms and insects.
Since kiwis are so unlike birds, you might ask why they are classified that way. They lay eggs—huge eggs! Kiwis lay the largest egg for their body size of any bird.
Shortly after my arrival, I learned from my local guide that kiwis’ nocturnal habits make them very difficult to see. Pairs call to each other as they leave their deep forest burrows a couple hours after dusk. Since I was visiting during New Zealand’s summer, hearing a kiwi would entail being in the middle of a remote forest around midnight.
“I can show you sheep,” my guide replied with friendly New Zealand wit. He continued, “My country has 40 million sheep and four million people, but only about 70,000 very shy kiwis.”
As I traveled though both the north and south islands, I collected myths from the Maori culture and was particularly charmed by this one about the kiwi.
“Why the Kiwi lost its Wings” from the Maori people of New Zealand.
Long ago in the deep forests, the Kiwi could fly just as well as any bird. Mighty Tane, father god of the forest, ruled the land. All was well until one summer when an insect plague swarmed through the forest eating every leaf and blade of grass. So Tane called all the birds together and asked them for help. “Some of you must give up your life in the bright sunny treetops and live on the forest floor. Someone must eat all the creeping things that are killing our forest.”
First Tane asked Kea the parrot. But the parrot looked the other way and said, “My beautiful feathers would not show if I lived in the dark shadows.”
Tane turned to Morepork the owl. But the owl hung her head and said; “I like to sleep high in the trees where it is safe.” Finally Tane spoke to beautiful Kiwi. “Will you do this for me?” Because Kiwi loved the forest even more than his own life in the treetops, he agreed. As Kiwi descended to the forest floor, his wings became useless, his legs grew strong for running and his beautiful feathers fell out as he turned grey as a shadow. He began eating insects with his long bill.
Tane smiled and proclaimed: “You will become a symbol of this land and soon all the people will be proud to take your name.”
So, did I see any kiwis? Sure I saw hundreds if not thousands—the diurnal, upright, mammalian variety. As for the bird, I had to be satisfied with visiting wildlife parks and watching captive birds in darkened enclosures.
Reflecting on my travels in New Zealand, I realized that this unique, adaptable and rather quirky bird perfectly symbolizes New Zealanders. And even though very, very few New Zealanders have ever seen their national symbol in the wild, they proudly call themselves Kiwis.
Frances Wood’s book: Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West is widely available. She can be reached at email@example.com.