8 Fascinating Facts About New Zealand’s Native Birds

From speedy sprinters to fragrant feathers

By Google Arts & Culture

New Zealand, SRTM Shaded Relief and Colored Height (2004-12-14) by NASA/JPL/NGANASA

Around the world New Zealanders are affectionately nicknamed ‘kiwis ’after the fuzzy flightless bird native to their country. Here are 8 fascinating facts about the kiwi and three other extraordinary endemic birds.

Brown Kiwi Brown KiwiSmithsonian National Museum of Natural History

1) Kiwis can outrun humans

Because the kiwi’s nocturnal nature makes it so hard to spot, the Moari named the kiwi ‘te manu huna a Tāne’, which means the bird that Tane hid (the God of the forest). They may have also been hard to find because of their ability to outrun a human. Kiwis are flightless birds with hair-like feathers and strong legs that help them move speedily along the ground.

Apteryx mantelliAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

2) Kiwis mate for life and lay big eggs

Male and female kiwis pair up for life, although they only meet up to spend the night together every three nights. The female birds lay the largest eggs in proportion to their body size out of any bird species – up to a quarter of their mass. This means newborn kiwis are born big enough to run straight away and don’t need to feed for the first 2 weeks of their life! 

KiwiDenver Museum of Nature & Science

3) Kiwis are skilled sniffers

Even though kiwis are active at night, they don't see very well in the dark. Instead they rely more on their sense of smell. Unlike other birds, kiwi’s nostrils can be found at the end of their beak instead of the base. This helps them to root around in the soil and sniff out worms and other insects.

Kakapo (2014-08/2015-12) by Jane Kim, Ink Dwell StudioCornell Lab of Ornithology

4) Kakapos are flightless parrots

The kiwi isn’t New Zealand's only flightless nocturnal bird. Meet the kakapo, the world’s only parrot that can’t fly. The yellow and green-colored kakapo gets around by walking and hiking up tree trunks, using its small wings for balance and for parachuting down from branches. It’s sometimes referred to as an owl parrot for it’s round facial disc of feathers.

Strigops habroptilusAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

5) Kakapos have their own perfume

The kakapo has a distinct musty-sweet aroma that scientists believe helps them find each other in the forest, but unfortunately this attracts predators too. Conservations have considered protecting the birds by developing a deodorant that could mask their scent from the hungry noses of rats and weasels, but it’s feared this would prevent mates from finding each other. 

Tui over Kauri, Te Henga (1966) by Don BinneyAuckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

6) The tui can make all sorts of noises...

The tui is another iconic bird of New Zealand. Its feathers are black, sometimes with iridescent green and purple accents, and it can be identified by the white tufty collar around its throat. It’s a very noisy bird, renowned for the wide range of sounds it can make, which have been compared to whistles, cackles, gurgles, grunts, and wheezes. 

7) ...and even mimic human speech

Tuis have a dual voice box that gives them the ability to mimic other birds  – and humans. In the past the birds have been kept as pets by the Maori and Early European settlers and taught to talk, sing, and recite prayers and proverbs. Legend has it that an inter-tribal war was once started when a particularly talented tui was stolen from one Maori community by a rival one.

Hemiphaga novaeseelandiaeAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

8) The kerera has a taste for alcohol

The kerera, or New Zealand pigeon, is a large green, grey, and white bird known for its swooping flight aerobatics and the heavy-sounding 'whoosh' of its wings. More recently it has earned itself a reputation for something a bit less graceful: its habit of eating fermented fruit from the ground means it’s prone to getting so drunk that it falls out of trees.

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