This edited article about the Kiwi originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 943 published on 16 February 1980.
New Zealand has been called the world’s last remaining Garden of Eden. Certainly, it remains a very beautiful, green and pleasant land, but much of the “paradise” has been systematically destroyed by the irresponsibility of the early settlers.
The first visitors to New Zealand were the hardy Polynesian navigators of the Pacific Ocean, drawn by the sight of the haloes of clouds that encircle the high mountain peaks. They found the most extraordinary wildlife: enormous, flightless birds, nocturnal and carnivorous parrots and primitive frogs, to name but a few examples.
The Polynesians, and the Maoris who subsequently conquered them, totally exterminated the largest flightless bird, the moa. By the time the European settlers stepped ashore in the 18th century, only bones remained to tell of this incredible bird. Yet a close relative of the moa survived – the kiwi.
The kiwi was also regarded as a food delicacy by the Maoris, but, strangely, they killed these flightless birds only in relatively small numbers. As a result, many were still present when the white men came. They, in turn, did their utmost to change this situation.
The settlers hacked down much of the dense, damp forest where the kiwis live, and introduced innumerable new species of animal and bird to replace and augment the existing fauna. Miraculously, the immigrant creatures – such as cats, stoats and hedgehogs – had only a minimal long-term effect on the kiwi population.
The Maori dog, on the other hand, has proved to be more than a match for the poor-sighted kiwis. The little and great spotted kiwis now exist only on New Zealand’s South Island, but the brown kiwi has defied all odds and is still widespread in all the islands. Kiwis are aided in their struggle for survival by the fact that they forage for food only at night. In addition, the chicks are unusually mobile and alert soon after hatching.
The kiwi is the most ancient of the endemic birds of New Zealand. Long ago it lost the power of flight, presumably due to the lack of predators in the past. It has the unique feature of having its nostrils at the end of its long, flexible bill. The kiwi’s highly developed sense of smell, combined with its excellent hearing, compensate for its poor sight.
Recent research has proved that the kiwi locates many of the insects and earthworms that consistute its diet in the wet season of the year by smell alone. Sometimes the kiwi will thrust its entire bill deep into the soil in pursuit of its earthworm prey. In the dry season, it alters its diet, turning to leaves and fallen fruits.
In New Zealand, although the kiwi is not the official national emblem, and does not appear on the state coat of arms, it has become the popular nickname of every person who is born there, and many of them wear a kiwi pin. Several stamps have depicted this famous bird, and it backs the 20-cent coin.
The New Zealand government first introduced measures to protect the wildlife of the country in 1844. Yet it was not until 1896 that the kiwi was granted protection against hunting, collecting and the destruction of its habitat.
Legal protection for the tuatara “lizard” came in 1907. This ancient species is but one of the many which could ably support the kiwi as a national symbol. It is quite unique, being the only remaining species of the order Rhynchocephalia, or “beak-heads”; the remainder of the order became extinct over 100,000,000 years ago.
Its size, some 60 cm in length, and black-brown colour, match the tuatara well to the lizard family, yet it is not a true lizard. It is often described as a small dinosaur, yet its ancesters lived long before the rise of those great creatures. Amazingly, the tuatara has undergone virtually no change in its form for almost 300,000,000 years.
The tuatara can withstand temperatures as low as 7∞C. In these cold conditions, it slows its movements and body functions to such an extent that it has even been known to fall asleep half way through a mouthful of insects. Like the kiwi, the tuatara is a nocturnal creature. It only emerges from its burrow at night, to seek out its prey, which it chases with an astonishing burst of speed.
Tuataras have been known to live anything up to 300 years. The creature’s development is very slow. The eggs take 15 months to hatch, it does not reach maturity until it is 20 years old, and does not stop growing until it is nearly 50.
In the kiwi and tuatara, New Zealand is well represented by two undeniably resilient creatures, which have fought off threats of extinction since time immemorial.
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