In the south Pacific Ocean lies the beautiful island nation of New Zealand. Comprised of two main islands and hundreds of smaller surrounding islands it was said this land was pulled from the sea by the Polynesian demi-god Maui.
The earliest human inhabitants of these islands were the Maori. Many animals found on this island nation bear the traditional name given by these indigenous people – one animal – a small, flightless, nocturnal bird has become the national symbol of New Zealand – the kiwi.
Despite being a member of the bird family that includes large birds such as ostrich, emu and cassowary, the kiwi is about the size of a chicken with 1 inch wings that are hidden behind shaggy, almost hair-like feathers. Unlike most birds, kiwi do not have a tail but they possess strong muscular legs that allow them to run faster than a human.
A distinguishing feature of kiwi is their extremely long beak. Protruding from their face around the base of their beak are cat like whiskers and at the the very tip of their beak – their nostrils. In fact, kiwi are the only birds with their nostrils located at the end of their beak.
This special trait, along with their heightened sense of smell, and special sensory pits at the tip of their beak allow them to detect vibrations from prey moving underground. Their long beak allows them to probe the soil and feast on a variety of foods such as worms, grubs, crickets and spiders. There have even been kiwi observed feeding in small streams on crayfish and eels.
Kiwi are strange birds, to say the least. They live in burrows and sleep standing up. They have unusually large ears and despite being nocturnal they have small eyes – kiwi may have the poorest eyesight of any bird.
They have a small cat-like claw on the tip of their tiny wings and four toes rather than the two or three that most other flightless birds have.
A kiwi’s bones are not hollow like many birds, but are filled with marrow and make up a third of their body weight. The kiwi also has the lowest body temperature of any bird – often as low as 98 degrees Fahrenheit.
With so many characteristics that are less like a bird and more like a mammal they have often been referred to as New Zealand’s “honorary mammal.”
There are 5 species of kiwi found in various regions across New Zealand.
Though perhaps once common, the little spotted kiwi is the only species to become extinct on the mainland. Today the nearly 2,000 remaining birds are found on neighboring island sanctuaries including Kapiti Island.
The brown kiwi is the most common species found today. It is the species that lives closest to human habitation, and the main species on display at zoological facilities around the world. The brown kiwi is faster at breeding than other kiwi, producing up to two eggs a clutch, and one to two clutches a year, as opposed to the more usual one egg per year in other kiwi species. Today, four geographically and genetically distinct forms of brown kiwi have been identified.
The largest kiwi species, the great spotted kiwi – also known as roroa – live in the top half of the South Island and usually at higher altitudes in some national parks.
The tokoeka and the rowi are the two rarest kiwi species. Both of these species live in managed and protected sanctuaries. The tokoeka are found in the steep and cold regions of the South Westland. The rowi are located exclusively in the nearby Okarito forest.
Unlike other birds, female kiwi have two ovaries (another trait they share with mammals). A kiwi egg is enormous compared to the bird and can take up to 20% of the mother’s body. A kiwi egg is 65% yolk which produces a fully feathered, independent chick that can provide for itself within the first week – kiwi rarely have to feed their chicks. A female kiwi can lay up to 100 eggs in her lifetime.
Despite being the national symbol of New Zealand and a treasure to the Maori people – over 80 percent of the kiwi’s habitat has been destroyed and kiwi are often killed by many of the introduced predatory animals on the island such as stoats, dogs, possums and ferrets.
In 2019, it was estimated there were 68,000 kiwi left, and the population is still steadily falling – though efforts from the New Zealand Department of Conservation, the Kiwis for Kiwi organization and cooperation among leading zoological facilities not only in New Zealand but in several countries around the world are leading the way in preserving this amazing animal.
Native to the mountains of New Zealand’s South Island is a fascinating bird. Considered one of the most intelligent birds on the planet it is also the only cold-weather parrot species.
Sometimes known as the New Zealand Mountain Parrot it is most commonly known by its original Maori name: the Kea. The Kea is the world’s only Alpine parrot, found primarily in mountainous ranges up to 6500 feet above sea level though during winter the Keas tend to spend most of their time at the lower altitudes where food is more plentiful.
Kea grow up to a foot and half long and are olive green in color with a yellow crown and blue webbing between their flight feathers. The underside of their wings are orange-red with yellow banding. Their tail feathers are blue green with a stunning yellow-orange underside. Females are slightly smaller, lighter in color and have a shorter bill.
Kea are opportunistic omnivores who will feed on a great number of plants and animals. Common foods include grasshoppers, beetles and larvae as well as more than 200 different native plant species found across their habitat. Kea have also been known to feed larger animal species such as birds and even small mammal carcasses such as stoats and possums. Most famously though, some kea have been observed attacking sheep.
Using their long, narrow and curved beak and powerful claws, they will tear through the wool and eat fat from a sheep’s back or side. Once considered a folk tale which unfortunately led to mass shootings of the birds by farmers, video footage in the 1990s actually captured this behavior. Researchers believe the birds may seek the fatty content to aid in surviving the colder climates. The attacks of course are not fatal, though sheep could become susceptible to infection from the wounds.
In addition to hunting, kea will often use their beaks for picking things apart. Kea have been known to pick and remove rubber stripping and wiper blades from cars.
They are a highly social species, communication between kea is achieved through a combination of diverse vocalizations and postures and displays. Unlike some parrot species, kea are not known to mimic human voices.
They are very intelligent birds who will often work together using items as tools to locate food. They are also excellent problem solvers and are well known for their explorative nature – even finding their ways into buildings. Kea are unusual in that they actively seek out and interact with people and their property. Famous for their antics, a flock of kea are known as a “circus of kea” or a “curiosity of kea.”
Despite being known as strong flyers and residents of high altitudes, keas nest on the ground. Breeding occurs as early as July an up until January. The female cares for the eggs and nestlings, whilst the male forages for the whole family. A kea nest takes four months to raise from eggs to free-flying fledglings.
The ancient people of New Zealand considered the kea to be guardians of the mountains. Today it is estimated there are fewer than 5,000 kea in the wild and they are classified as Nationally Endangered.
New Zealand is home to many unique and fascinating animal species. One native creature is so unique that it is the only surviving reptile species of its kind. With an ancestry dating back to the age of dinosaurs, this lizard-like animal is often referred to as a “living fossil.” Its name: the tuatara.
Despite its lizard-like appearance, tuataras are not lizarads but they are the only beak-headed reptile left in the world. Unlike lizards, tuatara have no external ears, they enjoy cooler weather, and they are nocturnal.
This amazing animal is New Zealand’s largest reptile – males are typically 1 and a half feet long and weigh just over 3 pounds. The name tuatara means ‘peaks on the back’ in the Māori language, referring to the distinctive ridge of spines down their backs. Males will even fan out this crest as a display to females or rival males.
Tuatara a generally an olive green or brown color to an orange-red shade as they gradually change color while they age. They have one of the slowest growth rates of any reptile – slowly but continuously growing in size for up to 35 years. Their typical lifespan may be between 50 and 60 years but it is believed they may live to be up to 100 years old. Like many reptiles, they shed their skin – but only once a year.
The tuatara possess two rows of teeth on the upper jaw and one row on the lower jaw that fits between the upper rows of teeth when the mouth is closed. This arrangement of the teeth helps them tear apart hard insects.
As a nocturnal predator, they feed primarily on insects such as beetles but the have been known to eat lizards, birds and bird eggs. Younger tuataras will hunt during the day, to prevent being eaten by larger adult tuataras.
In addition to their many unique features the make them different than lizards they also possess a trait shared by some other reptilians: a third eye. The “eye” has a retina, lens, and nerve endings, but it is not used for seeing. and is covered with scales a few months after hatching. This third eye is sensitive to light and it is believed it may help the tuatara judge the time of day or season.
Tuatara males can breed once a year while most females are able to reproduce every 3 to 4 years. Oddly, males have no reproductive organ, so reproduction occurs by a breeding pair rubbing their cloacas together. The female can store sperm for 10 to 12 months before laying up to 19 soft-shelled eggs in nesting burrows.
The eggs incubate in the covered burrow for 12 to 15 months before hatching, possibly the longest incubation period of any reptile. The temperature the eggs incubate at determines the sex of the hatchlings – this trait is similar to other reptile species such as sea turtles and alligators.
Tuatara once lived throughout the mainland of New Zealand but today they are only found in the wild on several protected offshore islands. These islands are free of rodents and other predators that were once introduced into New Zealand.
The tuatara was one of New Zealand’s first native species to be fully protected by law in 1895. Before then, hundreds of a were shipped overseas for museums and private collections. The New Zealand Department of Conservation launched a recovery program for tuataras in 1988. Hatchlings are raised by biologists until they are large enough to survive in the wild, a process called “headstarting.” They are then released onto designated predator-free islands.
Today, special permits from the New Zealand government are required for any facility to house tuatara outside of the country and very few accredited zoos in the U.S. have been granted this privilege – including the Dallas Zoo, San Diego Zoo and the Toledo Zoo. These facilities participate in managed care programs essential to ensuring this “living fossil” does not become extinct.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
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