The original kiwi: Interview with a kiwi bird


Photo by tara hunt. Kiwi Encounter. (photo of a model kiwi because the real thing is very elusive and park rangers don’t want you taking photos). CC.


Amelia: Here I am on Stewart Island in New Zealand, the place I’m most likely to get a glimpse of the secretive, nocturnal kiwi. I’ll be hiking in this coastal rainforest for three days, so I’m guaranteed to see one, right?

Kiwi: I wouldn’t bet on it.

A: Are those the dulcet tones of a kiwi I hear?

K: Hardly. My call sounds like a little girl screaming.

A:  Finally! I’ve been up all night waiting to see you. Would you mind coming a bit closer?

K: I’m fine right here, thanks. As an endangered bird, I’m not taking any chances.

A: But I don’t want to hurt you-I won’t even take a picture. I know the park staff are pretty strict about that.

K: Nope, not doing it. Humans have done too much damage to our species. I don’t owe you anything.

A: What did we do?

K: Well, as a flightless, ground-nesting bird who evolved on an island without any natural predators, I was toast when your ancestors decided that New Zealand’s rainforests needed to be turned into English countryside. Not only did you destroy our homes under the trees, you decided to introduce rats, opossums and stoats. Our chicks grow slowly, and it takes about 3-5 years before they can fight off a ravenous stoat. Domestic dogs and cats also make easy meals of our young ones.

A: Aren’t those predators a problem for adults too? You may be the size of a large cat, but you’re still pretty helpless looking.

K: That’s what you think. I can beat up a stoat easily.

A: Really? You’re a hairy bird with no wings. How do you manage it?

K: With my feet! We pack a pretty powerful kick, and we don’t put up with any nonsense from predators.

A: So at what age can you start laying those gigantic eggs you’re so famous for?

K: You mean the ones that takes up most of my insides and squishes all my organs into my sternum? The one I carry for 30 days and weights half a kilo?

A: I can see this is a sore point

K: Just a little. We can lay eggs once we’re four years old. We’re generally solitary, but during the mating season we’ll pair up. Generally we mate for life, which can be up to 40 years if we’re lucky.

A: Wow, that’s old for a bird!

K: Well when there’s no natural predators, life’s a walk in the park

A: What’s the secret to such a long partnership with your mate?

K: Once I lay that monster of an egg, it’s my partner’s job to sit on it for 80 days. My bit is done.

A: Wow, that’s a long time!

K: Yep. The upside is that the chicks are nearly independent when they’re born. After two weeks we chase them out of the nest, and they’re on their own.

A: That’s incredible! I’ve been hearing some sneezes coming from your direction. Is everything alright?

K: Yep. It’s a side-effect of having nostrils at the very end of my beak. I look for bugs by plunging my beak deep into the soil. This means that I constantly have dirt up my nose, so I have to sneeze to clear it out. My keen nose doesn’t do me any good if it’s full of dirt. My long whiskers and the sensor on the end of my bill also spot vibrations in the soil.

A: Wait, you have whiskers? Isn’t that a bit weird for a bird?

K: I’m no ordinary bird. There were no mammals on New Zealand before you introduced them, apart from bats. I adapted to fill a mammals’ niche, because obviously they left it open. I have hair-like feathers, solid-marrow bones and live in a burrow like a rabbit.

A: I’m sure you get this all the time: have you ever eaten a kiwi fruit?

K: Um, no. We are the original kiwis. The fruits are actually Chinese Gooseberries that were re-branded in the 1970’s in an effort to get New Zealander’s to buy them. I guess it worked.

A: Thanks for sharing your story with me. I’ll leave you alone now.

K: That’s all I ask.

References:Te Papa museum, various interpretive posters in NZ bird sanctuaries


Maple Madness

Why is a maple leaf Canada's national symbol? Photo by Theresa Thompson. CC.

Why is a maple leaf Canada’s national symbol? Photo by Theresa Thompson. CC.

By rights, Canada’s national symbol should be a pinecone.

Pines grow all across Canada. They resist cold, dry, wet and windy weather like true Canadians.

But we’re stuck with the maple leaf.

Here are some things you may not know about Canada’s national tree.

National Symbol?

Ontario's flag reminds us what the Red Ensign looked like. Photo by abdallahh. CC.

Ontario’s flag reminds us what the Red Ensign looked like. Photo by abdallahh. CC.

The maple leaf wasn’t always on Canada’s flag. In fact, Canada didn’t have its own flag until 1965, 96 years after it became a country. Before that Canada used the British Union Jack or the Red Ensign.

As the centennial approached, there was more pressure for Canada to have its own flag. “The Flag Debate” was a heated time in Canadian history. The Liberals and New Democrats wanted maple leaves. The Conservative party liked the British history of the Red Ensign, but French Canadians understandably did not want a British flag.

A call for flag ideas went out, and 5,900 designs poured into Ottawa. It took parliament 37 days to agree on the one we know today.

As a Canadian symbol, the maple leaf dates back to 1700. It popped up in crests, badges, songs, and on the Canadian soldiers’ uniforms during the World Wars. From 1876 and 1901 it was on the back of every coin, not just the penny.

Not a Canadian Exclusive

There a maples in Japan too. Photo by skyseeker. CC.

There a maples in Japan too. Photo by skyseeker. CC.

Of the 150 maple tree species, China has 100 and Canada only has 10. We make up for it in syrup and maple leaf merchandise.

Most of Canada’s maples grow east of Manitoba. They say one species grows in every province, but that means the arctic territories are maple-less. Like I said, pine trees would be a better national symbol because they grow everywhere.

The maple tree wasn’t actually Canada’s official tree until 1996. Oops. There’s a “make like a tree and leaf” joke here somewhere.

What makes a maple a maple?

Maple Samaras. Photo by Graham Hellewell. CC.

Maple Samaras. Photo by Graham Hellewell. CC.

I’m glad you asked! All maples have winged fruit called keys or samaras. Samara is botany-speak for helicopter seeds. If you see double-bladed helicopter seeds, it’s probably a maple.

I see your true colours

The leaf on Canada’s flag is red, which means all maples turn red in the fall, right? Wrong! It depends on the species. Autumn colours can range from yellow, pink, and orange to deep red and purple. This makes fall in Southern Ontario a veritable rainbow.

You can’t even count on Red Maples to have red leaves-some varieties go yellow or orange. Leaf colour also depends on how hot the summer was, and how cold the fall is.

Killer leaves!

The leaves of the Red Maple can kill horses. Yes, that’s right, these pretty red leaves are toxic when they’re dry. If a horse eats too many their red blood cells start exploding. Not good. They die of lack of oxygen, which red blood cells carry. However, fresh leaves are completely safe for horses. Nature is weird.

How sweet it is

Sugar Maple. Photo by Green Optics. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) CC.

Sugar Maple. Photo by Green Optics. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) CC.

The Sugar Maple leaf is the one on the Canadian flag. As you may have guessed, this is the tree maple syrup comes from. Canada produces 85% of the world’s maple syrup, and most of it is exported.

Humans aren’t the only ones that steal this tree’s sap. Squirrels will eat off the spring buds to get a taste of sweet nectar. Birds and squirrels will also eat the seeds out of the samara. Luckily for them, Sugar Maples have a bumper-crop every 2-5 years.

Ideally, these seeds will turn into baby trees. Unfortunately, deer love to munch on the seedlings. Gulp, no more tree. Seedlings can survive this abuse, but grow into deformed trees. If they survive this long, they can live from 200-400 years.

Sugar Maples have flowers! They’re tiny little green things pollinated by bees. Most trees have both hermaphroditic and single sex flowers. Bizarre.

Prairie Perfect

See how different the leaves of the Manitoba Maple are? Photo by Scott Loarie. CC.

See how different the leaves of the Manitoba Maple are? Photo by Scott Loarie. CC.

Not all maple leaves look like the Canadian flag. The Manitoba Maple’s look really different. These trees are super successful because they grow in a lot of different soils. They like to hang out with their friends in forests, as well as in disturbed areas and along rivers. They are found in most Prairie Provinces. Their seeds are important winter food for birds and squirrels, and moose snack on the twigs.

Invasive maples

A Norway Maple looms threateningly. Photo by Dendroica cerulea. CC.

A Norway Maple looms threateningly. Photo by Dendroica cerulea. CC.

Norway Maples were imported to Canada in 1778 from Eurasia. They were a popular city tree because they resist pollution. After Dutch Elm flattened many urban elms, Norway maples became the favorite tree of urban developers. Now they’re everywhere. If you see a maple with large yellow or purple leaves, that’s a Norway Maple.

Unfortunately, this invasive tree jumped out of cities and started crowding-out and out-competing native maples. It’s very successful because it has a long growing season and makes 2000 seeds a year.

Also, we learned pretty quickly that they are awful city trees. Unlike Sugar Maples, Norway Maples only live around 60 years. At 35 the wood starts to weaken, and you end up with branches on your car after a snowstorm. Needless to say, it isn’t planted any more.

There you go, more than you wanted to know about Maple trees! Now get out there and try to find one.


Lilac locomotion: Humanity’s bizarre love affair with lilacs

Humans have admired lilacs like these for centuries. Photo by RichardBH. CC.

Humans have admired lilacs like these for centuries. Photo by RichardBH. CC.

Lilacs were part of my childhood. We had a lilac bush in my front yard, and the week that it was in bloom I would rush outside and bury my face in its light purple flowers. In Calgary, where the growing season starts quite late, the lilacs always bloomed around exam time in mid-June. For me they were a symbol that spring had finally arrived and that school would soon be over.

I’m a biology nerd and I love how plants work. However, I’m also fascinated by how plants interact with humans. For this post, I’m going to examine lilacs from the biological, and then a cultural perspective, just to see what happens. Here we go.


Lilacs are part of the olive family. There are 21 species of lilac. Most of them come from China, and 2 come from Eastern Europe. They do well in Canada because they are good at surviving in cold climates. In fact, they need a cold dormant period to trigger blooming!

A newly planted lilac won’t bloom for a few years, because it’s getting used to the new environment. Once it is well established and comfortable, then it will start flowering.

Human interactions:

Just like the dandelion, in North America the lilac is an alien invader. They are native to China and Eastern Europe, so how on earth did they get to Canada?

Well, it’s a VERY long story.

A bizarre story about humanity’s obsession with pretty purple flowers.

Which when you think about it, is a pretty strange obsession.

Okay, lilacs do have some practical uses. Green dye can be extracted from the flowers and leaves, and oils from the flowers are used in perfumes. They have also been used as treatments for sore mouth, stomach ache and paralysis.

But mostly, people like them because they look and smell nice.

Our story begins in the European Baltic states, the native stomping grounds of the European lilac. Shepherds, entranced by the beauty and aroma of the wild plant, brought lilac bushes back to their homesteads. These lilac flowers were light purple. The word lilac comes from Persian, and means ‘blueish’.

Eventually lilacs made their way to Instanbul via the silk trade routes. Apparently someone thought they were valuable enough to trade.

In 1563, and Austrian ambassador visiting Instanbul fell in love with lilacs and brought them back to Austria and then later to Paris.

Once introduced to the people of France, lilacs spread around Europe like a fluffy purple disease. They moved from garden to garden as people shared cuttings with their neighbors.

Around 1650, European immigrants brought lilacs to North America in their personal luggage. Lilacs quickly adapted to the cold, temperate climate and soon become a common sight in North American colonies. Even Thomas Jefferson and George Washington planted lilacs in their gardens.Eventually, lilacs in North America escaped from cultivation and became a part of the natural environment.

Remember how I said that most lilac species come from China? Well, prior to 1860 most Europeans had never seen them because China had a closed-door policy on trade. However, when China lost the Opium wars and was forced to trade with Europe, lots of Chinese lilac species were ‘discovered’ by Europeans. Enraptured European plant explorers sent home thousands of ‘new’ species, including lilacs.

Compared to this influx of Chinese lilacs, the wild European lilac was staring to look positively drab. In the 1770s people in Europe, wanting flashier colours, started breeding deep purple and white lilacs.

In 1871 in Nancy, France, Victor Lemoine decided that the wild lilacs were simply not interesting enough. He and his family created 200 different lilac cultivars of all different colours and shapes. A cultivar is a variety of plant made artificially by humans. Think of cultivars like dog breeds. A poodle and a bull dog belong to the same species, but they are different forms that humans have created through breeding. Thanks to Lemoine, France became the hub of fine lilac cultivars.

Today there are over 1500 lilac varieties! Compare that to the original 21 species.

Back in North America, people started breeding their own cultivars. In 1874 John Dougall of Windsor Ontario created the first North American cultivar called ‘White Princess Alexandra’. Yay Canadian pride!

In 1878, not content with breeding new cultivars, lilac breeders started combining species from China and Europe that never would have reproduced in the wild. Combining two species like this is called hybridization.

Thankfully for plants, sex between different species isn’t that big a deal. It actually happens quite frequently because the barriers between plant species are much fuzzier than in animals.

Finally, the Canadian Connection! Isabella Preston, the first female hybridizer in Canada, put Canada on the lilac map in 1920. Preston produced the ultimate lilac for Canada’s harsh climate by crossing Chinese lilacs. And she did her work right here in Ottawa, at the Central Experimental Farm! This un-sung Canadian horticulturalist also created Canada-friendly cultivars of roses, lilies, crab apple, and iris.

For anyone living in Ottawa, there is a whole website about lilacs at the Central Experimental Farm, including the best places to find them.

After doing this research, I realized that there are a lot of people throughout history who really cared about lilacs. It was their jobs to make new cultivars to sell to people. Also, people liked lilacs enough to carry them across trade routes and across oceans. Not bad for a hardy little bush with purple flowers!


Click to access cs_syvu.pdf

Click to access cs_syvu.pdf

Blown away by Dandelions

The answer is blowin' in the wind...Dandelions are very efficient at spreading their fruits using tiny parachutes. Photo by Paul Hudson, CC.

The answer is blowin’ in the wind…Dandelions are very efficient at spreading their fruits using tiny parachutes. Photo by Paul Hudson, CC.

The tulip festival is in town this week, and the streets of Ottawa are lined with the slender stems of these bobbing flowers. Tulips are pretty cool, especially in the huge numbers seen at the festival. However, for me the coolest part of the tulip festival is to see how many tourists come from all over the globe…just to take photos of tulips. I guess the botany nerd in me should be happy that people are so interested in flowers!

Okay, upon reading the Tulip festival website, there are some pretty good reasons for tourists to take photos of these flowers:

1) It is the largest tulip festival in the world

2) The tulip is Ottawa’s official flower (who knew?)

3) The tulips are a yearly gift from the Netherlands. They are thank-you to Canada for helping liberate the Dutch during WII and for harboring the Dutch Royal Family while their home country was occupied by the Germans

4) While the Royal Family was here, Princess Margriet was born at the Ottawa Civic Hospital, making her the only royal ever born in North America. Canada temporarily made the hospital part of the Netherlands, so the Princess could have full Dutch citizenship. Yessir, we take our constitutional monarchy status very seriously here!

If the title of Ottawa’s official flower was based on abundance, I think the dandelion would win. But then, it would also be the official flower of most other Canadian cities, so I think Ottawa should stick to the tulip.

The dandelion has a bad reputation for defiling perfectly manicured lawns with its bright yellow cheeriness. Those fluffy seeds are also pretty good at spreading the plant’s progeny far and wide.

In North America, the dandelion is an alien invader. Run for the hills!

Okay, it came from Europe, not outer space. Small detail.

In fact, many of our common ‘weeds’ were brought over by early European immigrants for sentimental reasons. Women brought seeds from their gardens back home to plant in the New World. This small familiar flower in a new country was no doubt comforting, but it wreaked havoc on the Canadian ecosystem.

Here are some fun dandelion facts:

A dandelion is actually made of many tiny flowers! Photo by Sam Droege, Dandelion, side_2013. CC.

A dandelion is actually made of many tiny flowers! Photo by Sam Droege, Dandelion, side_2013. CC.

1. A dandelion is not just one flower, but a monsterflower! The flowering head is made up of hundreds of tiny flowers. As anyone who has made a wish by blowing on a dandelion can attest, each of the mini-flowers produces a tiny fruit with its own parachute. Botanists call dandelions compound flowers, but I like the term monsterflower much better. How did this plant spread its seeds before there were humans to blow on them? Why, by using the wind, of course!

2. Much to the despair of anyone who as pulled dandelions out of their lawn, dandelions can completely regrow from tiny pieces of their very long taproot. Imagine if humans could do this!

3. Ever wondered why you don’t see dandelions in the woods? It’s because they need lots of sunlight to grow, and have trouble breaking into natural habitats. Artificial habitats created by humans like lawns and gardens are their favorite spots! We’re encouraging them, really.

4. Why should you care about dandelions? Well, because bees think they are awesome. The flowers bloom in early spring when bees are just waking up and food is scarce. They also bloom in late fall, when bees are stocking up on food for the winter. Why should you care about well fed bees? Well, because they pollinate many of our crops. For free. No bees means no apples, berries, almonds or cucumbers.

Now go impress your friends with your dandelion knowledge. And if you’re in Ottawa, go check out the tulip festival!

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