Kiwi: The People’s Bird
by Neville Peat
Otago University Press, 2006.
208 pages, paperback. $45.00.
Reviewed by Debra J. White
Eight years after publication, Kiwi: The People’s Bird, by Neville Peat, appears to have established itself as a classic of New Zealand natural and cultural history.
Summarizes the publisher’s blurb, “Back in 1990, when Neville Peat wrote The Incredible Kiwi, New Zealands national bird was in retreat from habitat loss and the severe impact of predation. The kiwi was not well understood, being nocturnal and hidden in the forest. During the 1990s, saving the kiwi became a popular cause. Community kiwi conservation projects have emerged all over the country.”
New Zealanders have commonly called themselves “kiwis” since the 19th century, exhibiting self-identification with an animal to an extent matched, perhaps, only by rural Vermonters who call themselves “woodchucks.” After World War I, officers kept restive New Zealand troops busy at Bulford Camp in Britain by directing them to carve a giant kiwi into a chalk cliff overlooking the village of Bulford, near Stonehenge. Soldiers who had rioted when ships were unavailable to take them home created a unique memorial visible from space.
Kiwi: The People’s Bird extensively updates the scientific and biological information about kiwis.
The kiwi, a peculiar bird shaped like a pear, has a gawky set of legs. Instead of feathers and plumage, the kiwi’s body is covered with thick bristle-like hair. Some researchers term the kiwi an “honorary mammal.” Kiwis don’t even fly. Distantly related to much larger flightless birds including the ostrich, emu, rhea, cassowary, and the extinct moa, one of the largest birds ever, kiwis evolved to fill much the same ecological niche as rodents.
Except for Vermont “woodchucks,” humans tend to avoid identification with rodents. Yet New Zealanders, according to Peat, wholeheartedly embrace the “flightless, bewhiskered” kiwi. Peat deftly blends details of kiwi history, habitat information, mating patterns, food sources, and the little bird’s remarkable comeback from near extinction. On page 14 Peat identifies the five recognized kiwi subspecies.
Kiwis inhabit both main islands of New Zealand, as well as the outer islands such as Stewart and Red Mercury. Some species, such as those of Stewart Island, forage for food during the daytime, while most kiwi species are nocturnal. Nearly all are plump; some are visibly taller. All have a long narrow beak, ideal for digging up food such as worms, centipedes, slugs, snails, or insects.
Kiwis may live in forests, wetlands, coastal dunes, or grasslands. They can also be fierce. Sturdy legs and a short hind toe give the kiwi enormous climbing power. The back toe helps them scale steep terrain or to rake intruders invading their space. Male kiwis are territorial, vigorously defending their turf. Even humans who get too close to kiwi habitats have their boots attacked.
“A video camera monitoring a nest entrance showed a kiwi beating up a possum,” Peat recounts. This was a brush possum, native to Australia, believed to have been introduced to New Zealand by fur farmers before 1850.
Nineteenth century observers alleged that male kiwis chased their rivals “like fighting cocks until one of them would back off.”
Before the Maori discovery and settlement of New Zealand circa 1250-1300 CE, Peat says there were likely millions of kiwis. Today, a mere 30,000 to 35,000 live on the North Island, one of the two main islands in New Zealand, with fewer but a greater variety of subspecies along the western side of the South Island.
Who or what caused the kiwi’s demise? Several factors are involved. Stoats, a weasel-like animal introduced from Britain in the 19th century to be hunted, stray or unleashed dogs, feral cats, possums, and various other predators target kiwis as a food source. The New Zealand Journal of Ecology in 1996 published a study identifing stoats as the leading threat to kiwis, with dogs probably second, especially when pairs are able to hunt together. Although the Kiwi is a potent defender, its enemies often overpower the bird, especially hungry dogs in packs. Loss of habitat due to logging, agricultural activity, and development also contributes to kiwi endangerment.
So what’s being done? The 2006-2010 Kiwi Recovery Plan, reauthorized through 2016, emphasizes killing feral predators. Aggressive campaigns to hunt, trap, poison, and outlaw the possession of non-native predators, however, run afoul of the reality that stoats, dogs, and feral cats, in particular, are the most successful predators of rats and mice, who are kiwis’ major rivals for habitat. The Bank of New Zealand’s Save the Kiwi Trust sponsors kiwi recovery efforts., including breeding kiwis on predator-free off-shore islands, but long-term survival will require rebuilding populations on the North and South islands large enough to withstand normal and inevitable predation pressure.