22 Jul 2019

Matt Elliott: Kiwi as

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 2:31 pm on 22 July 2019

It's had fruit named after it. Bacon, shoe polish, a bank, even a nation of people. What makes the kiwi so unique?

One of the great debates about the kiwi is when its flightlessness occurred - and it’s ongoing, says Matt Elliot, author of The Kiwi: Endangered Icon.

“We know that from the time Polynesian explorers came here, the bird was a source of food, it also later became a source of clothing. The fascination with it begins then, as a prized bird it was obviously seen as quite different.”

For Pākehā living and working in the bush it was a source of food but it quickly became a status symbol, says Elliot, people loved to display the bird and its eggs. 

“Kiwi were being sent over to Europe, their feathers were being used in hats and milliners were using kiwi bird feathers along with other native bird feathers. There was a feeling among some scientists that well, they’re going to die out anyway so let's just get a whole lot of specimens while we can and put them in museums in New Zealand and send them overseas before they all die.”

Elliot says in a perverse way it was actually quite good because there are big collections of kiwi specimens in overseas institutions.

Towards the end of the 1800s, people began to talk about protecting kiwi.

Each type of kiwi is different to another, both in the way they look and in their family relationships.

The Rowi for example are quite a family bird and can stay around the burrow for up to five years whereas the brown is quite independent. 

“We’re finding out more about them all the time.”

The kiwi is a very unusual bird, says Elliot, with big feet, cat-like whiskers, nostrils on the end of its beak and a massive egg.

“If you put six mad scientists in a room and got them to come up with a crazy bird, would they get anywhere near the kiwi?”

The feathers feel a lot like fur and its body temperature is closer to a human than another bird, he says.

“For a time in the 1800s, as New Zealand was establishing its identity and particularly internationally - we were called Māoriland and Moa Land for a while - we look to the start of the 19th Century and there was a cartoon representing the All Blacks as a kiwi when they beat Great Britain in 1904.”

From 1905, J.C. Blomfield, a famous newspaper cartoonist, was using the kiwi as a national symbol and during the First World War produced political cartoons featuring the bird.

“The bird became established as our emblem around that time, the New Zealand rugby league team first had it on their jersey in about 1919, it was part of our establishing who we are and that point of difference and perhaps a little bit of identity with this bird that was so unique.”

The first kiwi specimen ended up with the Zoological Society in London in the early 1800s but was a complete mystery to them - some even thought it was a hoax, says Elliot.

It took them years to understand it, originally they thought it must be a penguin-like bird.

Human intervention with the kiwi has been really important, he says. Kiwis breed very slowly, some producing only one clutch a season. 

“This is part of the problem for the population for the birds because if you’ve got kiwi that are reproducing so slowly…[and] the offspring of these predators are multiplying so quickly.

“They are so dependent on us, which in a way is right because we were the ones who introduced these predators and interrupted their idyllic life.”

Scientists are also worried about the impact climate change will have a kiwis. As the earth becomes dryer, they aren’t able to crack the ground with their beak to get food, says Elliot.

“It’s a cause for concern.”

Kiwi facts:

  • Are able to swim

  • Can sleep standing up but often sleep like cats, with their heads tucked to the side

  • The Smithsonian Zoo sends back the feathers that are discarded from the birds so they can be used in traditional garments.

  • Live in a burrow that can be 70cm deep

  • Are born with feathers

  • The sensory part of their beak alerts them to movement

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)