All the facts about kiwi, New Zealand’s national bird

If you don’t count the extinct ones, there are about 16 species of flightless birds in New Zealand. (If you do count the extinct ones, there used to be 32. Thanks a lot, humans.) These include penguins, a parrot, ratites, wrens, a couple of adzebills, and, of course, the kiwi.

There are several kinds of kiwi, including the brown kiwi, the little spotted kiwi, and the great spotted kiwi.

A national symbol of New Zealand

Kiwi have become the avian symbol for Aotearoa New Zealand (so much so that New Zealanders are known as “kiwis”), which is funny, because in a lot of ways the kiwi behaves more like a mammal than a bird. They even leave droppings to mark their territory, just like cats and dogs.

Kiwi under threat

Sadly, there are currently only about 68,000 kiwi left in New Zealand, and therefore the world, and, according to the Department of Conservation, we are losing 2% of the unmanaged kiwi population in Aotearoa every year, which equated to approximately 20 per week.

This is due to three primary threats: introduced predators, loss of habitat, and the fragmentation of kiwi populations.

From the North Island brown kiwi to the little spotted kiwi: the five kiwi species

All New Zealand kiwi are part of the Apteryx family, which comes from Greek and means “without wings“ – other birds in this classification include emus, ostriches and cassowaries.

There are five known species of kiwi: North Island brown kiwi, great spotted/roroa kiwi, little spotted kiwi, rowi and tokoeka.

The brown kiwi is a classic

In turn there are four types of brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli), all based in the North Island: the Northland brown, the Coromandel brown the Western brown and the Eastern brown.

When you think of the kiwi bird as a symbol, and as New Zealand’s national bird, it’s probably a brown kiwi you are picturing.

Great spots!

The great spotted kiwi / roroa (Apteryx haastii) is the largest species of kiwi. This kiwi lives in the north laf of the South Island, mostly at high altitude in national parks. If you’re ever on the Heaphy Track, listen for the roroa’s distinctive call.

A little kiwi

Its wee cousin, the little spotted kiwi (Apteryx owenii) is extinct on mainland Aotearoa, and only exists now on predator free islands in New Zealand.

There are 1,200 of them on Kapiti Island, all descended from an original five birds who were translocated there around the time of the first world war.

Rare as

The rowi (Apteryx rowi) is the rarest of all the kiwi. The rowi grow up fast – their kiwi chicks are self-sufficient straight out of the kiwi eggs – but they breed slow, producing just a single egg each year, making them really vulnerable to predation.

Operation Nest Egg in New Zealand is a programme that takes rowi eggs from the nest, hatches them in captivity and keeps the chicks until they are strong enough to fend for themselves, then releases the birds back into the wild.

The only place a population of rowi live in he wild is at at Okarito, on the West Coast of the South Island. Visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre to see rowi in real live, or head out with Okarito Kiwi Tours.

The Southern brown

Finally, the tokoeka has three genetically distinct groups: Haast tokoeka, Fiordland tokoeka, and Rakiura (Stewart Island) tokoeka.

The tokoeka (which means “weka with a walking stick”) is also known as the Southern brown kiwi bird, maybe to distinguish it from its North Island cousin.

The Fiordland and Rakura versions are sometimes larger than the North Island browns, and can even outgrow the Great Spotted Kiwi bird.

Did you know? A few fun facts about Aotearoa New Zealand’s famous kiwi birds

From grammar to sleeping habits, like New Zealanders (or Kiwis) themselves, kiwi are unusual in more than a few ways.

No matter how many birds you have, there’s no ‘S’ in kiwi

Because the word “kiwi’ comes from te reo Maori, there is no ‘s’ on the plural of kiwi. Whether you have one kiwi, or a dozen kiwi, or a whole lot of kiwi chicks, the word is the same.

Kiwi can smell with their beaks

Kiwi birds are nocturnal, and, as omnivores, they come out at night to snuffle in the leaf litter and feed on worms, bugs, fallen fruit, and plantlife. Because they eat in the dark, they have nostrils at the end of their beaks to help them sniff out a feed – they are the only bird on earth with “beak nostrils”.

Kiwi look furry for a reason

Kiwi feathers are more like fur than feathers – they are feathers, but they are long and thin, like hair. These are more suited to life on the ground. They are warm and provide camouflage in foliage like bracken and tussocks.

Kiwi eggs are really big

Kiwi have one of the largest eggs of any bird in the world, with an egg-to-weight ratio averaging 15% of the female bird’s body weight – by comparison, the percentage is 2% for an ostrich.

While the females lay one egg (most birds lay more), she has two ovaries (most birds have one). Also unusually, the male incubates the huge egg, minding it for up to three months.  

It’s hard to outrun a kiwi

It may be a flightless bird, but a kiwi can move fast. A kiwi bird has big, muscular legs which can account for a third of their body weight. A kiwi can run faster than a human, and the female kiwi are the ones to beat – their body size is larger than their male counterparts.

Furthermore, Kiwi are tough

Kiwi are very tough. They pack a nasty punch, or kick, thanks to their strong legs. They also have big claws, which they use to dig out the nesting burrow they live in during daylight hours, but which can also be used for self defense.

Kiwi have even been known to kill possums.

Still, of those hatched in the wild, only 5% of kiwi chicks reach adulthood

Thanks to introduced predators, Kiwi chick deaths in New Zealand continue to be terribly high, and, even worse, only 50% of eggs hatch at all. A total of 70% of young kiwi are killed by stoats and cats, so think twice before letting moggie out at night!

Kiwi evolved without predators, so they are just no build to withstand them. Prior to the arrival of humans in Aotearoa, the only animal to prey upon the kiwi bird was the now extinct laughing owl.

The good news is, 50 to 60% of kiwi chicks survive in areas where predators are being controlled, such as offshore islands – hopefully this means the future is looking brighter for this small bird with a big reputation.