I had been living with a Kiwi for four and a half years before I finally caught sight of his avian namesake. It probably says something about the national consciousness of New Zealanders that they chose a nocturnal, flightless bird as their national symbol. I think it has something to do with their love of the underdog- this is a country that manages to spin its rugby team as the underdog in most contests, despite the fact that the All-Blacks are currently ranked number one and are almost always ranked in the top three. The kiwi bird is definitely an underdog. It is singularly ill-adapted to compete with the mammals man has introduced to its native habitat: it can't fly, doesn't see well, and produces a large (and presumably tasty) egg that is up to 25% of the mother's weight. Still, the kiwi has not gone extinct. It is on the endangered list, but fights on, and, thanks to the help of the human Kiwis, has even made a comeback in some areas.
This is not to say that the kiwis are plentiful enough that you can hope to see them in the wild on the main New Zealand islands. They are still a rarity. Therefore, my first bona fide kiwi sighting came in a kiwi house, which is an enclosure that is kept dark so that the kiwis' internal clocks are reversed and visitors can see the nocturnal kiwis during the day. I did not enter this kiwi house with much hope: I had been in many other similar enclosures before, and never had any luck in spotting a kiwi. However, this time I was in luck. I saw not one, but two kiwis. They are extremely unbirdlike, and also a bit comical. Their vestigial wings are completely hidden under their shaggy brown "fur", which is of course actually feathers. They do have a beak- a long, thin thing they use to forage for grubs and other insects- but it is also rather unbirdlike, in that it has nostrils on the end of it, which allow the kiwi to sniff out food. In other birds, the nostrils are at the top of the beak. The kiwi also has a Monty Pythonesque silly walk. It bobs up on one leg and seems to swing the other leg forward. Still, I found the kiwi a bit cute.
Clearly, I was not the only one who thought the kiwi was cute. The male kiwi took a fancy to the female kiwi, and I think we saw kiwi sex. Or perhaps we only witnessed a grooming routine. I am not an ornithologist, and my web searches on the subject have done little more than demonstrate that there are porn sites dedicated to New Zealanders. Anyway, one of the kiwis (presumably the male) hopped on top of the other, who seemed completely unperturbed by this and continued foraging for food. A short while late, the other kiwi hopped back off, and resumed foraging, too. If this is indeed their mating routine, the fact that their eggs and young are a favorite food of so many of the introduced mammalian predators might not be the only reason they are on the verge of extinction.
My kiwi encounter took place during a visit to the Mt. Bruce Bird Sanctuary in New Zealand. We had spent Christmas with my in-laws, and were heading to a small beach town to experience a true New Zealand beach holiday. We stopped at the bird sanctuary on our way. In addition to the kiwis, we saw the kakariki (a bright green parrot that is often kept as a pet), the kokako (a bluish-grey bird with a bright blue throat), and the kaka. The kakas were my second favorite birds (after the kiwis, of course). They are not brightly colored, but they are still a lot of fun to watch. They have a strong beak, which they use to crack open tree cones to extract the seeds. They also use their beak a bit like a third leg. We watched them maneuver around the chain link fence separating their area from the wild by biting a link in the fence in the direction they wanted to go and then swinging their legs around underneath them again. They are quite adept at this, and could move along very quickly.
All of these birds are endangered in the wild, because they have not fared well in competition with the mammals man has introduced to New Zealand. Before the Maori arrived in ~1000 C.E., the only mammals on the islands were two species of small bats. The Maori brought the dog and the rat. The Europeans later brought cats, stoats, possums, and more dogs and rats. These introduced species compete with the native birds for habitat and in some cases eat the birds. For instance, the kiwi chicks are particularly vulnerable to predation, and it is estimated that stoats and cats kill 95% of kiwi hatchlings each year (see the NZ Department of Conservation website). New Zealand is now fighting hard to protect the kiwi and its other native birds. They have set up bird sanctuaries on some of the smaller islands, after painstakingly eliminating all non-native animals. The difficulty of this effort is underscored by a recent experiment performed with a single male rat. "Razza" was fitted with a radio collar and released on an uninhabited island. He settled in, and then managed to elude all attempts to recapture him for the next eighteen weeks. In fact, at some point around week ten, he showed up on a neighboring, previously rat-free island, swimming across ~1300 feet of open ocean to get there. The native New Zealand birds are indeed up against some stiff competition.