North Island brown kiwiKiwi nui
The kiwi is a symbol of Aotearoa – and one of the strangest birds in the world.
North Island brown kiwi
Scientific name: Apteryx mantelli
Found: North Island
Super-sensitive beak, feathers like warm fur, powerful waewae (legs) – this flightless national icon is perfectly adapted for a nocturnal life on the forest floor.
Where did the name ‘kiwi’ come from? ‘Kiwi’ might be from the ‘kee-wee’ call of the male. Listen to a male North Island brown kiwi.
Audio by Department of Conservation CC BY 4.0.
Or it might come from ‘kivi’ – a wading bird in the Pacific with a long curved ngutu like our kiwi, and a similar body size. When Pacific peoples arrived in Aotearoa, the strange new wildlife was often named after animals back home.
Can you spot the differences between this kivi, or bristle-thighed curlew, and a kiwi?
Kiwi beaks are super sensitive
Kiwi are the only birds with nostrils on the tips of their beaks – good for sniffing out kai under the soil.
Having a long beak also makes it easier to dig around for noke and grubs. And tiny pits on the bill can sense vibrations made by prey underground.
Kiwi lay huge eggs – six times bigger than normal for a bird that size.
That means when pīpī hatch, they’re fully feathered and ready to run.
But they’re vulnerable to predators until they grow to about a kilo in size – that takes 6 to 12 months. After that, stoats and other hungry hunters could get a powerful kick from those sturdy waewae (legs).
See how much room the egg takes up? Wehi nā, amazing!
Shaggy, fluffy, and snug – kiwi feathers are more like scruffy fur.
Kiwi, emus, ostriches, and Aotearoa’s extinct moa all belong to the same group: ratites. These manu have loose-fitting feathers, rather than the tight interlocking feathers of birds that fly.
Kiwi feathers are good camouflage too – patterns on their huruhuru help keep them safe from predators.
Kiwi feather cloaks – made for VIPs.
Māori chiefs sometimes wear kahu kiwi – ceremonial cloaks made from kiwi feathers. Kahu kiwi are highly prized taonga they carry the wairua of the kiwi whose feathers make up the cloak.
To make kahu kiwi today, feathers are gathered from kiwi that die naturally, or are killed in road accidents or by predators.
Flying takes heaps of energy – why not walk?
For millions of years, kiwi didn’t need to fly. Aotearoa had few ground-based predators, and the kiwi’s feathers camouflaged it from flying hunters – so it was safe to walk.
Kiwi still have wings, but they’re tiny and not much use. Kiwi’s ancestors probably flew to these islands – then evolved to become flightless.
How the kiwi lost its wings
Long ago, insects were devouring the trees of Aotearoa. Tānemahuta, guardian of the forest, called all the birds together. He asked if one would come down to live on the floor of the ngahere and eat the insects to help protect the trees. All refused, except Kiwi.
Tāne-mahuta warned Kiwi: ‘If you do this, you’ll lose your wings and never fly again.’
Kiwi didn’t change her mind. She helped save the trees – and became Aotearoa’s most well-known and beloved manu.
Flightless, almost sightless
Can those tiny eyes see much? Not really.
But you don’t need keen eyesight when your touch and smell are fine-tuned. Kiwi ‘see’ with their whiskers and ngutu all you need when most of your kai is on the forest floor or underground.
Catlike bird? Te rerekē hoki!
See these whiskers, like a cat’s? They're pretty long for a bird.
Kiwi use them to find their way in the pō, sensing rākau and other things around them. They evolved whiskers to make up for their poor eyesight.
A kiwi’s ears are not like other birds’ ears.
Lots of birds have small ear openings, but a kiwi’s are big. A rawe sense of hearing helps them to find their way in the dark, along with touch and smell.
Kiwi can hear soft and distant sounds, and use their ears to detect predators – and to listen out for juicy prey.
Digging, running, fighting – kiwi legs are built tough.
Sturdy, powerful legs help kiwi to fight and dig burrows. They’re also good for high-speed running – essential if you’re rerekore.
Faced with a hungry predator, a kiwi uses its feet and legs to jump and kick its way to safety.
Help protect kiwi
Join a community group that helps protect kiwi against predators like stoats – this one was caught in Cobb Valley, near Takaka. Find out more about kiwi conservation projects near you at kiwiforkiwis.org
Naming a new species of kiwi
In 2003, Te Papa scientists helped work out that the rowi kiwi is a separate momo from the brown kiwi, which looks very similar.
Kiwi – they’re everywhere!
Real kiwi can be seen at many places in New Zealand, including these.