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