Kiwi Birds – The Honorary Mammal of New Zealand

Full Grown Kiwi Flightless BirdKiwi birds are a member of the ancient group of flightless birds called the ratites. That means that they’re related to emus, ostriches, and cassowaries. Kiwis are the smallest of this group and are native to the island of New Zealand. Their Latin name Apteryx means wingless, but these birds actually aren’t wingless, their wings are just really small, about an inch long. Like other flightless birds, the kiwis had to develop other means of defense and escape other than flying, which means that their legs, which are actually quite long, and very strong. Kiwis can outrun humans, even though they’re about the size of a chicken.

Kiwis are nocturnal, spending all of the night foraging for their food. Kiwis are very territorial. They will mark their territory and fight any others who enter. The only other kiwis allowed in are their mate and children, both young and adult. Kiwis typically mate for life. I say typically because it is sometimes the fact that the female kiwi will find a male she likes better than her current mate and leave him for the new bird.

Adult Kiwi Sits on EggsKiwis have unusually large eggs, with the incubation period lasting 2 to 3 months. Kiwi chicks are completely covered in feathers when they break out of their shells. They stay in the burrow for a few days, but after that they are prepared to head out into the forest. For a few weeks, they will stick around their father. Like with emus, it is common for ratite fathers to be the most active parent. For the rest of the chicks’ lives, they may stay in the parents’ territory. Unfortunately, many chicks do not grow up due to predation. There are no native predators of kiwis but dogs introduced by humans have filled that role. The good news is, though, that this issue has recently been gaining more attention and efforts are being made to protect kiwi habitats from dogs.

Kiwi Bird Stands Next to Kiwi FoodKiwi birds get their name from the sound that they make, not from kiwi fruit. It was the early 1900’s when the fruit was introduced to New Zealand, called the Chinese gooseberry. Farmers began to call it kiwifruit because of the similarities it bore to the birds in order to make them more popular and it worked. Now few know what it was called before.  So actually kiwi fruit was named after the bird and not the other way around.

 

 

Kiwis are different from other birds in other ways, too. For one thing, their nostrils are at the end of their beaks, which is unusual. Most birds’ nostrils are closer to their faces. This means that kiwis have an excellent sense of smell. Because kiwis don’t need their feathers to fly, they have adapted to be similar to fur. This fur-like appearance gives them the title of honorary mammal. Because New Zealand has no native mammals, it is believed that kiwis have developed to fill that niche, just like other ratites, namely emus, have evolved to fill roles left empty in their environment.

Kiwis developed in a very isolated environment. They had lost the ability to fly before they went to New Zealand and so scientists are not sure how they got there. They do know that kiwis appeared as the species they are today about 8 million years ago and have changed very little in the intervening time. That is because they didn’t need to: they were safe and successful as they were and so they remained the same.

 

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