Which creature shares the name of a fruit and the term locals from a certain island nation call themselves?
Meet the Cousins
The kiwi, a relatively small bird, is related to some of the largest birds that grace our planet, including:
and Australia’s Cassowaries
How’s that for getting the short-end of the family gene pool?
The Symbol of a Nation
Although Kiwis are only one of the species endemic to New Zealand, they are the most iconic. For this reason, New Zealanders call themselves Kiwis. Maori, Indigenous peoples of New Zealand, see the Kiwi as a taonga (meaning treasure). Maori create Kiwi feather cloaks, called kahukiwi, for people of high rank in their tribes.
The admiration for these small flightless birds has gained them governmental protection. In the Treaty of Waitangi back in 1840, the governments of New Zealand and Maori dedicated an entire section to outlining species recovery guidelines specifically for Kiwis.
That is one loved bird!
Why are these birds so special?
Kiwis are a flagship species, meaning their health is an indicator for the health of their overall environment. Flagship species are often chosen for their irreplaceable roles in the ecosystem. As omnivores, Kiwis can tell conservationists a lot about the abundance, or lack of, food in New Zealand’s wild places. Kiwis enjoy feasting on worms, seeds, leaves, and even fungi. They have also been known to fish for eels and tuna.
Kiwis live in diverse habitats, from mountain slopes to forests filled with non-native pine trees. Unfortunately, this ability to adapt has not proven effective against other introduced species.
A Controversy in Conservation
In 2015, New Zealand announced their conservation program titled “Predator Free by 2050.” This program plans to eliminate all non-native predators, including stoats, rats, ferrets, and possums, by the year 2050.
The eradication of so many animals has led to a global controversy. On one hand, people argue that this is the only way to allow for the recovery of New Zealand’s native birds, such as the Kiwi. On the other hand, people – including some conservationists – believe this program is inhumane, and claim that there are other, more humane ways for the government to address their predator issue.
How are humans impacting kiwis?
Predators are not the only threats to kiwis’ survival. Vehicular accidents are another concern. Kiwis’ small population size contributes to inbreeding and, in turn, loss of genetic diversity. Habitat loss has led to restricted mobility for the short-legged birds. This makes them extra vulnerable to localized, fatal events such as a fire or disease outbreak.
In the 20th century, there were 12 million Kiwis. Now there are about 68,000 left.
The question remains: is there another conservation program that could help New Zealand’s birds – one that does not include harmful techniques? Some food for thought as we appreciate our feathered friends.