Kiwis

Not particularly cute, but lovable all the same; the kiwi is a New Zealand national icon, and is virtually sightless, and definitely flightless. The kiwi is a ratite related to the emu and the ostrich, and to the elephant bird of Madagascar, long extinct. The elephant bird, as its name and the image below indicate, was huge, its weight often exceeding 1000 pounds. By comparison, the kiwi is about the size of a plump roasting chicken.

I was able to catch a “Species” podcast on CBC Radio. Here are some facts about the kiwi as noted in the podcast, together with some gems sourced elsewhere.

  •  The kiwi is so named by New Zealand’s Māoris, who likened “kiwi” to the sound the bird makes.
  • There are five types of kiwi, with the brown kiwi the most common, numbering about 35,000 (out of a total kiwi population of 68,000 or so). Plus there are great spotted kiwis, little spotted kiwis, tokoeka, and rowi kiwis. The rowi is the rarest type of kiwi, with only 450 in existence.
  • Kiwis are an endangered species, and there are kiwi sanctuaries (some 20 or more) and breeding programs throughout New Zealand. Consider that the only mammals native to New Zealand are bats. What came next, compliments of humans, were dogs, cats, stoats (the greatest predatory threat to kiwis) and more. Thus only 5% of kiwi chicks survive to adulthood; with 2% of the kiwi population dying each week. A stoat pictured in the following.

It was during the late nineteenth century that rabbits were introduced into New Zealand, as game to be hunted and a source of food. Rabbits tend to proliferate and before long New Zealand had a rabbit problem. Stoats were then introduced to control the rabbit population, and of course, following the law of unintended consequences, the stoats became a more serious problem, especially their impact on birds, and kiwis in particular.

  • The female kiwi lays large eggs — about 20% of her body size. To put this into some kind of perspective; to match that a woman would have to give birth to a baby of 40 pounds.
  • The kiwi has been called an “honorary” mammal by the New Yorker magazine, and for good reason. Its beak, unlike other birds, has nostrils at the tip, and its feathers resemble hair, while airborne birds have feathers with hollow shafts. Kiwis have a remarkable sense of smell and whiskers — not very bird-like — which enable them to seek food, as they forage at night. Daylight hours are spent in their burrows.
  • Kiwis are monogamous, and that can mean long and loving relationships, as they may live for 50 years. I say loving because they may mate as many as three times daily during the breeding period, and they will go at it for weeks until an egg is produced. I don’t know of any 50 year olds having sex three times a day; but I may ask around.
  • The brown kiwi will leave the burrow after just a month, presumably to make room for the next egg, if not to give the parents some time to  themselves to resume their mating ritual.

It was three years ago, on a golf holiday to New Zealand, that great friend Kim, new friend Maureen and I were able to play at the Wairakei Golf + Sanctuary (above). It is stunning, just a short distance from Lake Taupo. The golf course is the 8th ranked course on New Zealand’s North Island, and is owned by Gary Lane, a prominent Auckland businessman.

Not often one hears of a golf course AND sanctuary. Perhaps there should be more. Mr. Lane decided to have a 5.5 km, 2 metre high fence erected around the course to keep out predators and pests that could find their way in by climbing and burrowing. Game wardens patrol the perimeter to ensure the varmints stay out. The course is a haven for kiwi birds.

One final word or two about the kiwi. The Royal New Zealand Air Force has chosen to include the kiwi as part of its logo: yes, a flightless, almost sightless bird. Ironic?

TE TAUAARANGI O AOTEAROA? Māori for “New Zealand Warriors of the Sky.”