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How did the kiwi get to New Zealand?
The kiwi is much more than just a native New Zealand bird, it’s an iconic symbol of the nation. Although the kiwi is a bird, kiwi are not able to fly. This isn’t unusual in New Zealand, which is home to more species of flightless birds than anywhere else in the world. The unique location and history of the country has meant historically birds didn’t need to fly to avoid land-based predators, they could happily forage and nest on the ground.
The fact the kiwi could only really have evolved in New Zealand, combined with their quirky characteristics, makes them the perfect symbol to represent the unique characters you’ll meet on a trip to New Zealand.
Although kiwi can’t fly, there is one way for them to get up in the air, as Pete the Kiwi knows all too well.
The great kiwi mystery
One mystery that still baffles experts is how the kiwi found its way to New Zealand in the first place. The kiwi’s closest relatives live 1000s of kilometres away in Madagascar and Australia, which is a long journey for a flightless bird travel. Although the kiwi is a strong swimmer, it’s not likely to have paddled all the way.
There’s a few theories as to how the kiwi did it, it might have used stepping stones or small islands that have long since sunk back into the water. It could also have been that kiwi evolved from a New Zealand ancestor that lived millions of years ago, before the many islands on Earth broke away from the main land masses that exist today.
However, one of the strongest theories is that the many years ago an ancestor of the kiwi could still fly, and that over the centuries this ability was lost due to there being no ground-based predators to attack the kiwi.
You can find more facts on the New Zealand Department of Conservation website.
- There are 68,000 kiwi left in New Zealand.
- The unmanaged kiwi population is declining at a rate of 2% a year because of predators introduced by humans.
- Kiwi usually live to between 25 and 50 years of age.
- They are the only bird with nostrils at the tip of the beak, meaning they have a great sense of smell.
- Their powerful legs make up a third of their bodyweight, making them fast runners.
If you want to learn even more about the kiwi, one option is to fly to New Zealand where you can see them in the wild or in captivity at the many zoos and ecological centres. You can also learn more about this amazing bird and efforts to save them on the Kiwis for Kiwi website.
The kiwi is truly unique
It is a bird, but it has features more characteristic of a mammal.
- It has tiny wings, but cannot fly.
- It has loose feathers that are more like fur and unlike other birds the feathers moult throughout the year.
- It is the only bird in the world with nostrils at the end of its beak.
- Its sense of smell is second to none.
- It has no tail feathers, but does have whiskers, like a cat.
- It has marrow in its bones, just like a human.
- Very unusually, females have two ovaries, most birds have only one.
Kiwi are mostly nocturnal
Which means that they come out of their burrows after nightfall to forage for insects, grubs, earthworms, fallen fruit and native plants. Other night birds are equipped with big powerful eyes so they can see at night. The kiwi is different. It has a well-developed sense of smell with the part of the brain controlling this sense being much larger and more like a mammal’s structure than a bird’s. Kiwi’s small eyes do not see as well at night, instead it feels, smells and hears its way around.
It takes between 16 months to three years for birds to be sexually mature enough to breed. Breeding usually occurs between July and February. The female North Island Brown Kiwi has two functional ovaries which is unusual in the bird-world.
The kiwi have one of the largest egg-to-body weight ratios of any bird. The egg averages 15% of the female’s body weight (compared to 2% for the ostrich). Incubation is done by the male and can take anything from 74-90 days. When first hatched, the belly of the chick is swollen with yolk which will sustain them for their first few days. Female kiwi grow to be larger than males (up to 3.3 kg and 45 cm).
Kiwi are omnivorous and although worms form a major part of their diet, they will also readily eat woodlice, millipedes, centipedes, slugs, snails, spiders, insects, seeds, berries and plant material. Kiwi feed at night and probe into the ground with their bill up to a depth of 12cm.
Big ear openings provide a very good sense of hearing and the long graceful whiskers and sensitive bill help it locate food in the soil and leaf litter. Kiwi chicks are instinctive feeders and are not taught by parent birds to forage for food.
Stoats, ferrets and weasels are the biggest threat to the survival of Kiwi, closely followed by cats and dogs – only 5% of all Kiwis hatched in the wild survive to adulthood. The feather patterns allow kiwi to protect themselves by disappearing into the dark and fading into the forest vegetation. When distressed a kiwi freezes, disguising itself from aerial predators.
The kiwi is often given away by the sound of its uniquely placed ‘noisy’ nostrils at the tip of its bill. As it walks it taps the ground with its bill, probing the soil and sniffing loudly.
Kiwi are long-lived, and depending on the species live for between 25 and 50 years.All of the kiwi held onsite are regularly health checked and are monitored closely by a dedicated team of husbandry staff.