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Original Issue


When it comes to zoological symbolism, sovereign nations are generally less anthropomorphic than American educational institutions. Countries often are—and some for centuries have been—associated with an animal, but in essentially heraldic ways. We think highly of our bald eagle but don't think or speak of ourselves as eagles after the fashion of Boston College alums. The British don't proclaim that they are lions. Russians do not chant "Go, Bears!" in moments of collective passion. However, there's an interesting exception: New Zealand.

All of New Zealand, all of the time, is Kiwi Land in the overt way that central Texas in the fall is Longhorn Country. In explaining their society and character, New Zealanders will say in a matter-of-fact way, "Kiwis feel a bit cut off from the rest of the world"; "Oh, Ian, he's a regular Kiwi boy, lives for his rugby and beer"; "Sport is the religion of Kiwis." Newspaper headlines may read KIWI PROTESTERS MEET U.S. SUB Or KIWI BATSMEN PATIENT IN TEST. There are Kiwi motels, restaurants, real-estate developments, used-car lots and much more. Stylized kiwi emblems adorn everything from T shirts to the national TV network, which signs off each night with a cartoon of a sleeping kiwi. (In the flesh a kiwi bird looks something like a frowzy guinea pig mounted on the chassis of a bittern. It's a very easy creature to caricature with a few pen or brush strokes.) There has never been an official proclamation nationalizing the bird, nor a specific happening that resulted in the residents calling themselves Kiwis. The custom evolved mainly because the first people to arrive in these islands—Polynesian mariners who came about 1,000 years ago—became fascinated by the birds. With good reason.

Three very similar species of kiwis are found in New Zealand and nowhere else. Taxonomically they are members of the family Ratite which includes ostriches, emus and the extinct moas, which were formerly found in New Zealand. The kiwis are among the most ancient birds in the world and probably have inhabited New Zealand longer than any other bird or mammal. They arrived from somewhere about 70 million years ago, when the present islands were part of a vast southern continent—made up of Australia, Antarctica, South Africa and South America—which contemporary geological historians refer to as Godwanaland.

Before the breakup of Godwanaland, many floral species reached the New Zealand territory, but the topographical gangplank, so to speak, was raised before much in the way of fauna could come aboard. Until the arrival of people, there were only two species of mammals, both of them bats. There were no snakes, no turtles, only a few reptiles and amphibians. Birds were the principal members of the zoological community but were less varied than in continental regions. However, the species that did establish themselves lived for millions of years in what amounted to an isolated avian paradise. The islands were covered with lush, edible vegetation, and there were virtually no predators. (There were two native hawks, two owls and one giant eagle, now extinct.) Because the islands were so benign, many species found that flying wasn't energy efficient, and eventually they became flightless.

But, having been left undisturbed for eons, the specialized birds were unable to resist the sudden invasion of competitive, aggressive creatures from the outer world. The huge, giraffelike moas—the only major source of protein in the islands—were rapidly wiped out by the Polynesian pioneers, and other less edible birds suffered the same fate. In addition to being predatory, the Europeans who first came to New Zealand in the early part of the 19th century were inclined to make massive environmental changes. Millions of acres of indigenous forests were slashed and burned. Early settlers also imported a great array of foreign plants and animals for their profit or pleasure. Many of these established themselves in the wild and, meeting little resistance from the fairly docile native species, tended to overwhelm them. Feral goats and pigs, deer, elk, chamois, wallabies, Australian possums and rabbits mowed down the vegetation, which was often replaced by wiry thickets of introduced gorse, blackberries and thistles. Cats, rats, ferrets and weasels played predatory hob with many native birds, while others were shoved out of their ancient niches by flourishing immigrant populations of aggressive mynahs, magpies, sparrows and starlings.

It became apparent that because of the ecological errors and the misguided enthusiasms of the first several generations of European settlers, there was a real possibility that New Zealand would become an eroded, weedy wasteland more or less devoid of native flora and fauna. In consequence, through much of this century there has been a persistent and expensive national effort to replant forests, to poison, trap, shoot and otherwise control unwanted plants and animals, and to preserve at least some of the original ones.

Happily, kiwis have done better than most of the indigenous avian residents. One of the three species, the Little Spotted, has become very rare, but the other two, the Great Spotted and the Brown, remain fairly numerous on the main islands. They have thrived because they possess characteristics that have enabled them to cope with the turmoil of the past few centuries. Also, for such an ancient species they have proved to be surprisingly adaptable.

Though flightless (they have rudimentary wings under their bushy feathers) kiwis eschewed gigantism, the evolutionary route taken by many of the Ratitae. As things have turned out, this restraint was wise, if unwitting. Being of modest size (18-20 inches tall and weighing three to four pounds), kiwis were less obvious and inviting prey for human hunters. And rather than becoming open-country browsers as did most of the ostrichlike birds, kiwis retreated to the dense and protective forests. There they have come to look and behave somewhat like a shorebird, but one that forages in ground litter rather than along the water. The kiwi's long legs are set with three splayed, clawed toes and a formidable rear spur. The bills are heronlike, and with them the birds probe the forest humus for grubs, worms and other invertebrates.

Kiwis are exclusively nocturnal, passing the daytime hours asleep, curled in tight balls under windfalls or in holes. Reflecting the fact that they are creatures of the night, kiwis have good hearing and an excellent sense of smell, one of the most acute of any bird. And they are distinctively vocal. The females have a resonant booming call, while the males favor sharp, whistling screams which some believe sound as if they were repetitively yelling "kiwi-i-i."

Having so few predators to contend with, many New Zealand birds became peculiarly unwary as compared with continental species. Even today, surviving native species tend to flutter curiously around rather than flee from intruders. In defense of territory and other self-interests, they will attack and buffet one another, sometimes fatally, using beaks and feet. They are particularly feisty during the reproductive cycle, which is long and odd. Females lay two or three enormous eggs (they are twice the size of those of a domestic hen) in a natural or scooped-out den, which is often located between protective tree roots. The male alone incubates the clutch, seldom leaving the nest during the 70 to 84 days required to hatch the eggs. While her mate is thus occupied, the female takes up a sentry position nearby from which she will rush out to challenge an intruder.

The Maoris, the descendants of the Polynesian pioneers, were—and are—of the opinion that this brave, eccentric creature was a direct ancestor of the Tane Mahuta, the God of the Forest, and that it continues to enjoy his special favor. Not wanting to incur his wrath, Maoris didn't ordinarily hunt the birds, and in fact placed them under a powerful tapu, the Maori version of taboo. Commoners and slaves who accidentally or intentionally molested a kiwi were summarily executed. This was a strong deterrent against casual poaching. On the other hand, it was obvious to the upper classes that such a semidivine creature had powerful mana (medicine) which they themselves coveted. Therefore, after suitable prayers, some kiwis were killed and their feathers used to make ornate ceremonial robes for important persons.

By the 20th century, as domestic food supplies became more plentiful—and kiwis much scarcer—European opinions about the bird became somewhat similar to those of the early Maoris; that for ethical, esthetic and nostalgic reasons, the community interest was better served by preserving kiwis than by killing them. A national act gave the species complete protection; since 1953 it has been illegal to hunt or capture kiwis except for ceremonial purposes, e.g., to be displayed for public good in zoos and museums. Because of this ecological tapu—and also because of successful efforts to eliminate introduced mammalian predators—kiwi populations are now recovering.

There may be a moral here: that of all the creatures of the world, this modest, down-to-earth bird is the only one whose name has been adopted and is constantly evoked by an entire nation. Lions, bears, dragons and eagles are much flashier, to be sure, but their characteristics—or at least the ones we symbolically assign them—may have become obsolete and counterproductive for purposes of contemporary heraldry. One can look a long way before finding a beast that provides a better present, and presumably future, role model than does this tenacious survivor, the non-predatory but doughty, ancient but adaptable kiwi.