Despite the fact that few New Zealanders have ever seen a kiwi in the wild, this nocturnal flightless bird has become an emblem both of the country and its people.
This iconic status is partly due to its unusual appearance. It has a long bill, small head, round body without a tail, and stocky legs, and is easily caricatured.
Does the kiwi’s name come from the sound of its call? The male does claim its territory with a half-whistle, half-scream, usually at dusk, and females answer with a hoarser tone. But the sound is not kee-wee. In some species it is a single rising note repeated up to 10 times. If it was named for its call, then kree would be a more accurate representation. The bird is probably named for its similarity to the Polynesian kivi, a migratory curlew that also has a long beak.
Although it is a bird, the kiwi has been called an ‘honorary mammal’. 1 For millions of years New Zealand had no land mammals except bats. The ancestors of the kiwi took to the ground, filling a role similar to that of mammals such as badgers or hedgehogs in other parts of the world.
Kiwi belong to not one, but several species. They all have mammal-like characteristics:
The kiwi is a member of the ratite group, like emu, ostrich or moa. Like other ratites, it has a flat breastbone without the usual raised keel to which wing muscles would be attached.
DNA testing shows that the closest relative of kiwi is the giant, extinct elephant bird of Madagascar (Mullerornis agilis).
It was once thought that New Zealand had three species of kiwi (Apteryx genus). Now it is thought that there are five.
The North Island brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) has reddish-brown plumage and a quick temper. It was once widespread in lowland bush throughout the North Island. By 2002 there were an estimated 25,000 left – about 8,000 each in Northland, the east coast from Hawke’s Bay to the Bay of Plenty, and on the west coast including the King Country, Taranaki and Whanganui. There are also 1,000 birds in the Coromandel. In Northland, brown kiwi have colonised pine forests.
Once thought to be a variety of brown kiwi, tokoeka (Apteryx australis) are now considered a separate species. They are larger, with softer plumage and more communal habits than the North Island brown kiwi. Some 20,000 live on Stewart Island and about 13,000 in Fiordland. Habitats range from high, snowy mountains to sandy coasts. One form, the Haast tokoeka, is a rare, shy bird of South Westland, inland from Haast. In 2020 its population was thought to be about 400 birds.
The rowi (Apteryx rowi) is the rarest species. In 2015 there were only 450, in the Ōkārito region of Westland. Unlike other brown kiwi, they have greyish colouring and white patches on the face.
The great spotted kiwi (Apteryx haastii) lives in tough subalpine conditions. It is found in north-west Nelson, the Paparoa Ranges and the Southern Alps between Arthur’s Pass and Lake Sumner. In 2002 it was estimated that 17,000 remained. As its name suggests, the great spotted (roroa or roa in Māori) is the largest kiwi (45 centimetres high). Its grey feathers are mottled with white bands.
At 25 centimetres tall the little spotted kiwi (Apteryx owenii) or kiwi pukupuku is the smallest kiwi. It was once widespread throughout New Zealand, but suffered severely from predators, despite its aggressive personality. The largest population of about 1,200 survives on Kāpiti Island, near Wellington. Since the 1980s there have been successful transfers to other offshore islands, and to Wellington’s Karori Wildlife Sanctuary (Zealandia).
Kiwi put far more time and energy into laying and incubating their eggs than caring for their chicks. In relation to the bird’s body size, the eggs, normally white, are unusually large – about a fifth of the female’s weight, in most species. The little spotted kiwi female, only 1.3 kilograms, lays an egg weighing 300 grams.
The North Island brown kiwi takes up to 30 days to produce its 430-gram egg, which in the last days is so large that the bird cannot feed because of the pressure that the egg exerts on internal organs. The egg is up to 65% yolk by volume, almost twice that of most birds’ eggs. The North Island brown kiwi and little spotted kiwi can lay up to six eggs singly in a season (May to February), but the other species normally lay only one.
The large egg takes an unusually long time to hatch – between 65 and 90 days. This is nearly three times as long as for a weka egg, for example. In the case of the little spotted kiwi and brown kiwi, the male alone incubates the egg. The other species share the task.
Kiwi are monogamous and often mate for their adult lives – between 10 and 30 years. But they are not inseparable, and spend over half the time going their own ways.
Just before it hatches, the chick absorbs the remainder of its yolk, which gives a good start to life. It emerges fully feathered.
The parents leave the chick to fend for itself, and by the end of the first week it starts to look for food. The young bird normally stays in the area where it hatched for two or three years before finding new territory. Territories vary in size from 1.6 hectares (little spotted kiwi) to over 40 hectares (North Island brown kiwi). The birds occupy the same area for life, moving from one den to another and fighting fearlessly to defend their ground.
Because kiwi hatchlings are left at such a young age, they are vulnerable to predators. It is speculated they might have become nocturnal to avoid the Haast’s eagle and Eyles' harrier, now both extinct.
Introduced animals are a more severe threat. The most dangerous are stoats, which feast on the young birds. Kiwi chicks can resist stoat attacks once they weigh about 1 kilogram, but this is not until they are 40 weeks old. Other predators include dogs, feral cats and even wild pigs, which dig up kiwi burrows. Weka are known to eat kiwi eggs.
Only about 5% of wild kiwi chicks survive the first six months. Once there were an estimated 12 million kiwi, but by 2006 there were fewer than 100,000.
Kiwi were given official protection in 1896. The Department of Conservation (with the Bank of New Zealand) began a programme of research and protection in 1991. One project is Operation Nest Egg, which began in 1994. Eggs are taken from the wild, incubated artificially and the resulting chicks placed in a predator-free ‘crèche’, such as an offshore island. When they have reached a safe weight they are returned to the area they came from.
Offshore islands such as Kāpiti and Little Barrier remain important in kiwi conservation. There are also mainland sanctuaries, such as at Ōkārito and Haast in Westland, where predators have been controlled. Kiwi are also kept in captivity at 14 kiwi houses around New Zealand.
Māori always regarded the kiwi as a special bird. They knew it as ‘te manu huna a Tāne’, the hidden bird of Tāne, god of the forest. Kiwi feather cloaks (kahu kiwi), originally made by sewing kiwi skins together, were taonga (treasures) usually reserved for chiefs. Kiwi feathers, now woven into flax cloaks, are still valued. Māori also ate kiwi, preserving them in the birds’ fat, and steaming them in a hāngī (earth oven).
Among the few Europeans who ate kiwi was the 19th-century explorer Charlie Douglas. He thought the eggs made great fritters when fried in oil from the kākāpō bird, but was less sure about the meat. After spraining an ankle he came across two kiwi, and being famished, he ate them. He said the best description of the taste was ‘a piece of pork boiled in an old coffin’. 2
From the first, Europeans regarded kiwi as unusual birds. The first skin was taken to England in 1812 and inspired the first illustration of the bird, looking more like a penguin. As early as 1835, the missionary William Yate described the kiwi as ‘the most remarkable and curious bird in New Zealand.’ 1 In 1851, the first living bird was sent to England as a specimen for the London zoo.
As the kiwi began to disappear from the bush, its image began to appear as an emblem. In the second half of the 19th century, it was used as a trademark – for veterinary medicines, seeds, drugs, varnishes, insurance, on the Auckland University College crest, and on Bank of New Zealand notes.
When the first New Zealand pictorial stamps were issued in 1898, the kiwi was on the sixpenny stamp. About 1899, one observer said, ‘From the fact that bank notes, postage stamps and advertisement chromos generally have a portrait of this unholy looking bird on them, it is evident that the kiwi is the accepted national bird of New Zealand.’ 3
In the 20th century the kiwi began to represent the nation. In August 1904 the New Zealand Free Lance printed a cartoon which showed a pluck kiwi growing into a moa after New Zealand’s rugby 9–3 victory over Great Britain. This was possibly the first use of the kiwi as a cartoon symbol for the nation. The next year the Westminster Gazette printed a cartoon of a kiwi and a kangaroo going off to a colonial conference. In 1905 Trevor Lloyd also drew his first sporting cartoon using a kiwi when he showed the bird unable to swallow Wales following the defeat of the All Black rugby team. Lloyd more often symbolised the All Backs with a moa during that tour, but by 1908 the kiwi had clearly become the dominant bird symbol in cartoons, especially sporting ones.
Besides the moa, other symbols for New Zealand at this time included fern leaves, a small boy and a young lion cub.
Until the First World War, the kiwi represented the country and not the people – they were En Zed(der)s, Maorilanders or Fernleaves. During the First World War, New Zealand soldiers were often described as Diggers or Pig Islanders. But by 1917 they were also being called Kiwis. It was probably not because they were thought to be, like the birds, short, stocky scrappers – this was a more common image of Australians, while New Zealanders liked to emphasise their stature and good manners. It was simply that the kiwi was distinct and unique to the country.
The kiwi had appeared on military badges since the South Canterbury Battalion used it in 1886, and it was taken up by several regiments in the First World War. Cartoonists also used the bird often during the war to symbolise New Zealand. At the end of the war New Zealand soldiers carved a giant kiwi on the chalk hills above Sling Camp on Salisbury Plain in England.
An Australian boot polish called Kiwi was widely used in the imperial forces. It was named by its founder, William Ramsay, in honour of his wife’s birthplace.
After the First World War, the kiwi continued to flourish as an emblem at home. When the Reserve Bank released the first New Zealand currency in 1934, the two-shilling coin, and the 10-shilling and one-pound notes all featured the bird. In the 1930s, when the Department of Health promoted eating fruit, a poster was addressed to a ‘healthy Kiwi’.
During the Second World War, foreign people were once again describing the New Zealand soldiers they met as Kiwis. The nickname of the flightless bird was apparently accepted by all except young airmen aspiring to fly. There was a famous Kiwi Concert Party to entertain the troops, and the armed forces rugby team that toured Britain successfully just after the war was known as the Kiwis.
In the First World War New Zealand soldiers were known as Kiwis, but this was sometimes humorously pronounced ‘kye-wyes’ (imitating the New Zealand vowels). Some American marines in New Zealand during the Second World War talked about the ‘K-one-W-ones’.
Between the 1940s and the 1980s, the kiwi was confirmed as the symbol of a nation and its people. Kiwi ‘blokes’ and ‘sheilas’ ate Kiwi brand bacon (promoted by a huge fibreglass kiwi), gambled on the Golden Kiwi lottery, followed the Kiwi rugby league team, watched television until the animated ‘Goodnight Kiwi’ told them to go to bed, were ruled in the 1960s by a prime minister dubbed ‘Kiwi Keith’ Holyoake, spoke a version of English some called kiwi, and exulted when a racehorse called Kiwi won the Melbourne Cup in 1983. Unlike the rest of the world, the one thing they did not call ‘kiwi’ was kiwifruit, the new name, introduced in 1959, for what New Zealanders called Chinese gooseberries (Actinidia deliciosa).
Radical economic reforms in the late 1980s took the kiwi into new contexts. When the currency was floated in 1985, it was labelled the ‘kiwi’. Government businesses were privatised, and the taxpayer retained a Kiwi Share. In 2002 a new government-owned bank was named Kiwibank. Although the Golden Kiwi lottery ended in 1989, it was quickly replaced by a new gambling game, Instant Kiwi. No less than 57 books of children’s fiction about kiwi have been published, all but one since the 1960s.
By the 2000s, the bird was struggling for survival in the wild. But with the countless slogans and signs in the city, New Zealand was indeed a land of kiwi.
Grzelewski, Derek. ‘Kiwi: icon in trouble.’ New Zealand Geographic 45 (January–March 2000): 66–96.
Orbell, Margaret. Birds of Aotearoa: a natural and cultural history. Auckland: Reed, 2003.
Peat, Neville. Kiwi: New Zealand’s remarkable bird. Auckland: Godwit, 1999.
Sinclair, Keith. A destiny apart: New Zealand’s search for national identity. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1986.
Wolfe, Richard. Kiwi: more than a bird. Auckland: Random Century, 1991.