F came to New Zealand with high hopes of seeing the country’s most famous fauna, including the kiwi. Unfortunately these shy little nocturnal creatures are difficult to spot in the wild, like we had originally hoped to, and so we resorted to visiting the West Coast Wildlife Centre in Franz Josef to get our fix. (We didn’t leave enough time to visit the Kiwi Birdlife Park when we were in Queenstown). And in order to learn a bit more about this national treasure, we also purchased a “backstage pass” with our ticket.
The West Coast Wildlife Centre runs an incubation and captive rearing program for several species of the kiwi, including the Rowi, which is the rarest. Eggs are collected from the wild (usually by the Department of Conservation) and the chicks are raised until they are large enough to be considered as “predator-proof”, after which they are then released back into the wild. Only 5% of wild-hatched and raised kiwis survive until adulthood, and this program is helping to increase that rate to up to 65%.
There are a few things that I learnt on speaking with the rangers during our visit that made me realise what a peculiar and unique bird the kiwi is:
- Kiwis have tiny wings, but cannot fly. When they feel threatened, they still instinctually extend these tiny wings to scare predators away, even though these wings cannot be seen beyond the fuzz of their feathers.
- Their main defence, apart from extending their wings, is to stand very still in the presence of the predator. Unfortunately, the kiwi has a very distinctive smell, so this is a very ineffective tactic.
- Unlike other birds, the kiwi’s nostrils are located at the end of their beak. This means that the nostrils often get blocked whilst the kiwi is digging in the dirt for food, and so they “snuffle” to clear the airways. You can usually hear a kiwi snuffling before you see it.
- Kiwi feathers are incredibly soft and are almost fur-like.
- Kiwis have really poor eye sight, but have an incredible sense of smell. They also have excellent hearing due to very big “ear holes”.
- Kiwis have whiskers! (Who knew, right?!)
- The kiwi egg is the largest of all the birds in terms of relationship to the mother’s body size – up to a quarter of the mother’s weight!
- Kiwis are not shy, they are very territorial and often have to be separated in the Centre’s rearing enclosures due to aggression.