What do these three things have in common?
A) Brown fur-like hair
B) Referred to as a “Kiwi”
C) Avoids being seen in public
All of the above! When’s the last time you asked a kiwi fruit if its cool being publically investigated all day by hungry shoppers? I’ve made a point to check-in with them lately, and the general consensus seems to be, “We’re green! We’re Mean! Privacy – We’re Keen!”
It should be clear that this post focuses on the “kiwi” – mostly the bird, although I’m also going to talk a bit about the kiwi people. ~Foreshadowing~ there was a mystery on my hands for quite some time, and finally, after months of wondering and waiting….the mystery has been solved. But first, please sit back, relax and enjoy as I attempt to toss a heap of information in your direction as gracefully and coherently as possible.
I also should be transparent here: I have an agenda, and that agenda is to get you to appreciate the kiwi bird as much as I do. If you are not comfortable with manipulation via exciting ancestry, personified continents and adorable pictures, do refrain from continuing.
It all started with Gondwana. 160 million years ago, the earth looked like this:
Below, you will find a close-up of the Australian and New Zealand parts of Gondwana. Now, if you have never before seen a present-day map, you better buckle your seat belt, because you are in for one big surprise.
The continents started to break apart. Only 1/3 of the New Zealand we know today was above water.
SURPRISE look it is the Earth today
Okay, what does this have to do with the kiwi bird? I will be honest, attempting to put together an accurate timeline of the kiwi’s evolution proved to be a difficult task; internet posts and tours and information plaques have a quite a bit of conflicting information. I’m going to word vomit the timeline that I hear the most:
New Zealand’s now extinct giant Moa bird (my favorite animal of all time, besides dogs, meerkats and elephants) is related to Australian’s emu and cassowarie. When Gondwana split into pieces, separating the countries we now know as Australia and New Zealand, New Zealand’s only animal inhabitants for quite some time were birds. Birds birds birds lotta biiiiirds. And also there was the giant Moa, which probably evolved from Aussie’s emu and cassowarie.
The Giant Moa is, unfortunately, now extinct and has been since 1440 due to over-hunting by Maori people, as well the giant scary Haast Eagle.
Because there were no land predators (this was well before the Europeans came and messed it all up with their rabbits and possums), birds began to evolve to be ground dwellers, which is how the flightless little kiwi bird came to evolve.
Pictures of Kiwi Birds (one is fake, can you guess?):
Very Interesting Facts About the Kiwi Bird (none of these are fake):
- They are nocturnal.
- Kiwi are the only bird to have nostrils at the end of their very long bill. Because beak length is measured from nostril to beak tip, this means they have one of the smallest beaks of all birds, despite the fact that their nose appears so long!
- They have one of the largest egg-to-body weight ratios of any bird. After the female kiwi gives birth, she BOLTS and the male takes over, presumably because the labor process for a bird whose egg takes up 15% of their body must be downright miserable.
Shifting gears a bit. You may remember that in the beginning of this post, I hinted towards a “mystery that was on my hands”. That mystery is about to unfold. Dim the lights, draw your red curtains and light up the candles.
The Pressing Question: Why do New Zealander’s refer to themselves as Kiwis?
“Why…why? Whyyyyy?” I wondered as I strolled through the Kiwi Birdlife Sanctuary in Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand. It was April 2015 at this point, and the question had been on my mind since the beginning of my travels in November 2014.
Folks get about as far as, “Well, we’re named after the bird…” at which point, confused looks take over when they realize that they aren’t sure about why “kiwi” – of all the unique animals, people and customs to inspire a nickname – was ultimately the one that stuck.
Ray – the walking encyclopedia who I met during my time in the Coromandel Peninsula – did not have my answer. And neither did Carol – the retired woman who split up her time volunteering at TWO museums.
How is it that the origin of such an iconic, internationally recognized nickname remains a mystery to so, so many New Zealanders?
Finishing up my stroll at the Kiwi Birdlife Sanctuary, the question was on my mind. I had almost mentally confirmed my decision to stay quiet and leave without asking anyone when SUDDENLY … The Kiwi God of Curiosity and Perseverance pulled beside me on a gentle, poofy cloud and guided me towards the information desk in the gift shop.
“Um…hey. I’ve got a question…What’s the origin of the “kiwi” nickname? I mean, I know it’s after the bird, but like, why?”
The woman behind the desk tilted her head back and sideways, beckoning a man organizing something on a clipboard. “Nathan! This person has a question for you, and I think you’ve got the answer.”
Nathan had the answer.
It all started with the Maori legend about how the kiwi lost his wings. The story goes like this: Tāne Mahuta – the legendary giant kuari tree that still stands today (1,250-2,500 years) was walking through the forest when he noticed that his tree children were dying. He called his brother, Tanehokahoka, who gathered up all the birds in the forest. Tāne Mahuta asked,
“Something is eating the trees. Tui bird, will you come from the trees to protect the forest floor, thus protecting my children (the trees) and your home?”
Tui bird said no.
“Pukeko bird, will you come from the trees to protect the forest floor?”
Pukeko bird said no.
“Kiwi bird, will you come down from the trees to protect the forest floor?”
The kiwi bird agreed.
Tāne Mahuta was joyous, but felt he needed to warn the kiwi of what would happen.
“Kiwi, do you realise that if you do this, you will have to grow thick, strong legs so that you can rip apart the logs on the ground and you will loose your beautiful coloured feathers and wings so that you will never be able to return to the forest roof. You will never see the light on day again.”
The kiwi still agreed. Of course, no legend is complete without a little retribution.
“Tui, because you were too scared to come down from the forest roof, from now on you will wear the two white feathers at your throat as the mark of a coward.
Pukeko, because you did not want to get your feet wet, you will live forever in the swamp.
But you kiwi, because of your great sacrifice, you will become the most well known and most loved bird of them all.”
This legend cemented the kiwi as the beloved, national icon of Aotearoa (New Zealand).
So…fast forward to 1906. William Ramsay invented some mighty fine shoe polish which he called “Kiwi” as a tribute to his NZ wife. The kiwi bird, being such a beloved bird, was the go-to way to pay homage to a New Zealander. Also #marketing – the sleek plump little bird looked dang good on the shoe-shine tins, according to Ramsay.
During World War I, HEAPS of the “Kiwi” shoe-shine was sent to soldiers (plus, New Zealand troops all featured Regimental Signs with the kiwi bird emblazoned), and the nickname for New Zealand soldiers started to take off from there.
There you have it! The “kiwi” nickname for New Zealanders began in the military, and it was through Maori legend that the bird gained its significance.
This is my last post that I’ll be publishing from my year in New Zealand. I spent a total of 363 days in the country (minus a couple weeks in Oz), and I’m now settled in my home in Ellicott City, Maryland. I apologize for the 6 month hiatus! I fell in love with a Kiwi human as I was halfway done with this post in May 2015, and her lovely accent distracted me from writing ever again for 6 months. Alas, when I got home, my parents said, “Hillary – why have you never published the kiwi post you kept telling us was “almost finished”?” ❤ ❤ This one’s for you mom&dad ❤ ❤