New Zealand’s Iconic Kiwi Bird

(Photo credit: Tom McHugh/Getty Images)

While just over a century ago, kiwi birds numbered over 20 million, today New Zealand is home to less than 70,000 of these unique birds. (Photo credit: Tom McHugh/Getty Images)

The kiwi bird is such an important part of New Zealand culture that New Zealanders call themselves “kiwis.” But, while just over a century ago these birds numbered over 20 million, today there are less than 70,000. What has caused their population to drop so drastically and can anything be done to bring these unusual birds back from the brink of extinction?

The flightless kiwi bird is about the size of a chicken. Its dominant feature is its long slender beak. At the end of its beak is a pair of nostrils that the birds use to sniff out food resources such as invertebrates as they probe through the ground litter. The kiwi bird has the second largest olfactory bulb relative to its forebrain size that aids its excellent sense of smell. In fact, a kiwi bird’s sense of smell is second only to that of the condor. The nostrils also help the kiwi bird sense vibrations underground, allowing them to find prey species up to three centimeters underground. Scientists think that the kiwi bird’s ability to feel vibrations with its beak may be even more important than its keen sense of smell when searching for food.

Kiwi birds are nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night. During the daytime, kiwi birds spend their time in burrows or dens in dense vegetation or hollow logs. There are five species of kiwi birds; all are classified as either threatened or at-risk.

Because kiwi birds are flightless, they are particularly vulnerable to ground-dwelling predators. An average of 27 kiwi birds are killed on a weekly basis by predators. Chicks are most vulnerable to stoats, a weasel-like animal that was introduced to New Zealand to control rabbit and hare populations. Adult kiwi birds are most vulnerable to dogs. In addition to predator vulnerability, kiwi birds also have to compete with non-native rodent species for food resources. And habitat modification, including the construction of roads and highways, has led to significant loss of kiwi birds due to vehicle strikes.

Twenty percent of the kiwi bird population is actively managed. Research indicates that on managed lands where predator populations are controlled, chicks have a 50-60 percent survivorship. In areas where the land is not managed, 95 percent of chicks do not survive to breeding age. Currently, there are over 90 community- and iwi- (Maori) led groups working to protect kiwi bird populations, accounting for more than 200,000 hectares of protected land. In the Coromandel predator-control area on New Zealand’s North Island, kiwi bird populations are currently doubling in size every decade–good news indeed for this unique bird found nowhere else on Earth.

More to Explore
Facts and Threats to Kiwi
Saving New Zealand’s Endangered Birds
About Kiwi
Kiwi Bird Genome Sequenced


Country: New Zealand

Location: New Zealand is located southeast of Australia in the South Pacific Ocean.

Area: 267,710 sq km (land and water) (about the same size as Colorado)

Climate: New Zealand has a temperate climate.

Terrain: The terrain of New Zealand is mainly mountainous with large coastal plains.

Natural Resources:  Coal, gold, hydropower, iron ore, limestone, natural gas, sand, and timber.

Economics: $160.8 billion (est. 2014)

Environmental Issues: Deforestation, native flora and fauna hard-hit by invasive species, soil erosion

Source: CIA – The World Factbook (

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