National Geographic : 1955 Sep
The Kiwi, New Zealand's Wonder Bird 395 BY RON J. ANDERSON ^TMPOSSIBLE!" insisted British scientists | in 1813 when they first learned of New Zealand's unique bird, the flightless kiwi. The creature had been discovered at Dusky Sound by Captain Barclay, of the ship Provi dence. Only when the skin itself was ex hibited in Lord Derby's museum would skep tics admit the existence of this strange in habitant of the antipodes. Little wonder that Britain's men of science at first considered the report in a class with stories of the mythical mermaid and unicorn. Who had ever heard of a bird with whiskers like a cat's and with nostrils at the tip of its long, curved beak? Where else lived a bird that burrows like a groundhog and lays an egg equal to a quarter of its own weight? Who, indeed, had seen a bird with no tail and with useless inch-long wings hidden beneath a coat of silky, hairlike feathers? And yet, they finally admitted, there it was. Apteryx australis, they decided to call the surprising creature. The first name means "wingless." Kiwi Lays King-size Egg When I held a plump, soft-feathered kiwi in my hands, it was hard to realize that the little bird is a distant relative of the ostrich, the emu, and the cassowary. A natural won der rivaling Australia's duck-billed platypus, the shy kiwi differs almost as much from its flightless relatives as it does from birds in general. For its size, the kiwi lays the largest egg known; a four-pound bird may lay a one pound egg (page 398). An ostrich egg of Page 394 + An Aroused Kiwi Can Strike Like a Fighting Cock The flightless, tailless bird has rudimentary wings hidden under hairlike feathers. Whiskers sprout in front of beady eyes. The kiwi is the only bird with nostrils at the tip of its bill. One of the few live kiwis ever seen in the United States, Belle arrived at the San Diego, California, Zoological Garden last December (pages 396, 397). Here she pecks the arm of the zoo's curator of birds. Belle is a North Island brown kiwi (Apteryx aus tralis mantelli). Three other forms exist: the large gray kiwi (Apteryx haastii), the little gray kiwi (Ap teryx owenii), and the South Island kiwi (Apteryx australis australis). Milton Hyman the same proportion would send a scale close to the 75-pound mark. Questions soon brought to light other notable features of the timid bird I held in my arms: its rarity, and the fact that the male incubates the huge egg, then turns the chick loose to fend for itself. One reason for the survival of the flight less kiwi in primeval New Zealand was plain to see the moment I set the bird on the ground. It raced away on sturdy clawed feet. And yet it can move as silently as a rat, Mr. F. Donald Robson told me. Mr. Robson, former curator of the Hawke's Bay Acclimati sation Society's game farm, was the first to breed kiwis successfully in captivity. Shy Apteryx Hunts at Night The kiwi's senses of hearing and scent are exceptionally keen; perhaps this is Nature's compensation for the bird's poor eyesight. The nocturnal kiwi's dark-adapted eyes ap pear to see only a foot or so in daylight, per haps six feet at night. The tip of the long bill, in addition to bearing the nostrils, is a sensitive organ of touch. Both senses are apparently used in locating food. After dark in kiwi country, a camper will occasionally hear the shrill cry, "kee-wee," that gives the bird its name. As the kiwi rambles through the dense beds of ferns that are its usual habitat, making a continual snuffling sound, it scratches away forest litter with its sharp claws. From time to time it drives its long flexible bill into soft earth and rotted logs in search of worms and grubs. I have often watched kiwis as they hunted for earthworms. The search begins as the bird taps the ground to find a burrow. Then, using its bill as a workman uses a crowbar, the kiwi sets to work enlarging the entrance. Once the bird has made a funnel-like opening, it pushes its bill in and takes a firm grip on the luckless worm. On many occasions I have seen the bird, still holding the worm, lean back and remain in the same position without moving a feather. Eventually persistence triumphs and the kiwi, with another steady pull, draws the worm from the burrow. Besides grubs and earthworms, the kiwi's menu includes snails, insects, and berries picked from low bushes.