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What is a Kiwi Bird?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A kiwi bird is a bird in the family Apterygidae. Kiwis are native to New Zealand, and there are five recognized kiwi species living today, all of which are endangered. These small brown birds are also the national bird of New Zealand, and they have been used in regimental standards, crests, and other decorative devices which symbolize New Zealand since the 1800s. In fact, the kiwi is so closely associated with the national identity of New Zealand that New Zealanders sometimes refer to themselves as “kiwis.”

These birds are occasionally jokingly referred to as evolutionary leftovers, and they are in fact the lone survivors of a once much larger bird family. They have a number of bizarre traits, including a few which are found in no other bird species in the world. Kiwis are ratites, meaning that they lack a keel to which flight muscles can be attached, so they are incapable of flight. They are the smallest of the ratites, weighing in at around the size of a domestic chicken, and they also have the stubbiest residual wings.

Kiwi hens are capable of laying eggs around the size of ostrich eggs, giving the birds the largest egg to body size ratio of any birds. When baby kiwis are born, they are covered in a scraggly version of adult plumage, and they survive on yolk reserves for a week or so until exploring the outside world. Mature kiwis are light brown and rather chubby, with very long beaks. Unlike other birds, kiwis have their nostrils at the end of their beaks, and biologists suspect that this allows kiwis to sniff out their prey, compensating for the extremely poor eyesight which characterizes these birds.

Kiwi birds are hard to spot in the wild. They are seminocturnal and very shy, preferring to hide from humans and potential predators. Many people only get a chance to see a kiwi in captivity, or in photographs and engravings which depict these birds. The strange appearance of the kiwi gives the bird a slightly comic appearance, and biologists who work with kiwis claim that the birds also appear to have a mild sense of humor, playing games with each other as well as organizing tricks on their keepers.

If you're wondering whether the bird or the fruit came first, the answer is that the kiwi bird preceded the kiwifruit. “Kiwi” is a Maori word which imitates the call of the bird. The kiwifruit was named in the 1950s, when exporters feared that the original name, “Chinese gooseberry,” wouldn't appeal to a broader market. Taking advantage of the associations of kiwis with New Zealand, clever produce marketers created an instant market for the fruit by giving it a name which was associated with an exotic and distant locale.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By lluviaporos — On May 13, 2011

@KoiwiGal - A lot of people don't realize that the best way they can help endangered wildlife is to keep control of their pets. Dogs and cats can kill a lot of local animals, or disturb their nests or homes.

You might think you know what your dog does at night, but you probably don't, unless he is locked inside. Dogs will instinctively chase down and kill birds like the kiwi, which are almost defenseless. Cats can be even bigger pests.

People should either keep their animals inside, particularly overnight, or give them bells on their collars, so at least the birds can hear them coming.

By KoiwiGal — On May 12, 2011

It's a shame that kiwis are endangered but conservation efforts have managed to increase their numbers recently. Introduced predators like rats, stoats, cats, dogs, weasels and so on are the biggest threat to kiwis, although destruction of their habitat certainly helps.

If you want to see kiwi and support conservation efforts, you should visit one of the "mainland islands" which are areas of native forest that are completely fenced in, without predators.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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