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Why Are Kiwi Birds Called Kiwis: The Fascinating Origins

The kiwi bird, a unique and enchanting creature native to New Zealand, has long captivated the imagination of people around the world. 

With its small, round body, long beak, and distinctive appearance, it is no wonder that this flightless bird has become an icon of New Zealand’s wildlife.

However, have you ever wondered why are kiwi birds called kiwis? The answer lies in the rich cultural heritage of the Māori people, the indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand.

In this article, we will delve into the intriguing origins of the kiwi bird’s name, exploring the Māori language, cultural symbolism, and the fascinating connection between this beloved bird and the nation it calls home. 

Join us on a journey to uncover the secrets behind the name of the kiwi bird.

Kiwi Birds Called Kiwis

Why Are Kiwi Birds Called Kiwis?

Let’s explore the origins of the kiwi bird’s name, shedding light on the various reasons behind its association with this remarkable avian species.

Resemblance to the Kiwi Fruit

One of the most commonly cited reasons for the kiwi bird’s name is its resemblance to the kiwi fruit. 

The kiwi bird’s small, brown, and fuzzy appearance bears a striking resemblance to the fruit’s exterior texture and color. This visual similarity likely played a role in the bird being named after the fruit.

Maori Mythology and Cultural Significance

The indigenous people of New Zealand, the Māori, have a rich cultural heritage that includes various myths and legends. In Māori mythology, the kiwi bird holds a special place. 

According to one legend, the kiwi bird was tasked with retrieving the first-ever egg from the goddess of the night, Hine-nui-te-pō. This mythological connection between the bird and the Māori culture likely contributed to its name.

Nocturnal Nature

Kiwi birds are primarily nocturnal creatures, meaning they are most active during the night. 

This behavior aligns with the Māori concept of “kiwi,” which refers to something or someone that is active or awake during the night. The bird’s nocturnal habits may have influenced its name, emphasizing its unique behavior.

Unusual Vocalizations

Another reason behind the kiwi bird’s name could be its distinctive vocalizations. Kiwis produce a variety of sounds, including high-pitched whistles, screeches, and snuffling noises.

These vocalizations are quite unique and may have reminded early observers of the sound “kiwi,” leading to the bird being named after its own calls.

British Army Connection

During World War I, New Zealand soldiers were often referred to as “kiwis” due to their national emblem, the kiwi bird. The soldiers embraced this nickname, and it became a symbol of national pride.

Over time, the term “Kiwi” became synonymous with New Zealanders. Consequently, the bird itself came to be known as the kiwi bird, further solidifying its association with the country.

British Slang

In British slang, the term “kiwi” was used to refer to someone from New Zealand as early as the late 19th century. This slang term likely originated from the Kiwi bird’s association with New Zealand. As a result, the bird inherited the name “kiwi” due to its connection with the country’s people.

European Botanical Connection

In the early 19th century, European botanists discovered a unique plant native to China called the Chinese Gooseberry. When this fruit was introduced to New Zealand, it thrived and became popular.

Eventually, it was renamed the “kiwifruit” due to its resemblance to the kiwi bird’s brown, fuzzy exterior.

This renaming may have further solidified the association between the bird and the fruit, leading to the bird being called the kiwi.

British Ornithologist Connection

In the late 19th century, British ornithologist Walter Buller played a significant role in popularizing the name “kiwi” for the bird. 

Buller extensively studied New Zealand’s bird species and published a book titled “A History of the Birds of New Zealand” in 1873.

In this book, he referred to the bird as the “kiwi” and helped establish the name in the scientific and popular literature.

Simplification and Convenience

The name “Kiwi” is short, easy to pronounce, and memorable. It is a simple and convenient way to refer to the bird, especially in casual conversations and popular culture. This simplicity and convenience may have contributed to the widespread adoption of the name.

The name “kiwi” for the unique and fascinating bird native to New Zealand has multiple origins. 

From its resemblance to the kiwi fruit to its cultural significance in Māori mythology, the bird’s name has evolved over time.

Additionally, its nocturnal nature, unusual vocalizations, and association with the British Army and British slang have all contributed to the widespread use of the name “kiwi” for this remarkable avian species.

Where Are Kiwi Birds From?

Where Are Kiwi Birds From

Kiwi birds are native to New Zealand, a country located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. They are endemic to this region, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world naturally. 

New Zealand’s unique isolation allowed for the evolution of many unique species, including the kiwi bird.

Geographic Distribution

Within New Zealand, kiwi birds are distributed across various habitats, including forests, scrublands, and grasslands. 

They can be found in both the North Island and the South Island, as well as on several offshore islands. Each species of kiwi bird has its own preferred habitat and range within these islands.

North Island Brown Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli)

The North Island brown kiwi, also known as the “Tokoeka,” is the most widespread kiwi species. 

It is found in the northern and central parts of the North Island, including areas such as Northland, Waikato, and the Coromandel Peninsula. This species prefers a range of habitats, including forests, farmlands, and coastal areas.

Great Spotted Kiwi (Apteryx haastii)

The great spotted kiwi, also known as the “Roroa,” is primarily found in the northwest part of the South Island. 

Its range extends from Kahurangi National Park to the Okarito Forest. This species inhabits a variety of forested areas, including lowland and montane forests.

Little Spotted Kiwi (Apteryx owenii)

The little spotted kiwi, also known as the “Kiwi pukupuku,” has the smallest distribution of all kiwi species. It is found on several offshore islands, including Kapiti Island, Tiritiri Matangi Island, and Mana Island. These islands provide a protected environment for this endangered species.

Rowi (Apteryx rowi)

The rowi, also known as the “Okarito kiwi,” is one of the rarest kiwi species. It is found in a restricted area along the west coast of the South Island, primarily in the Okarito Forest and the Ōkārito Kiwi Sanctuary. Efforts to conserve and protect this species have been successful in recent years.

Haast Tokoeka (Apteryx australis)

The Haast tokoeka, also known as the “Haast kiwi,” is found in the remote and rugged mountains of South Westland and Fiordland on the South Island. This species has a limited distribution and is adapted to the alpine and subalpine habitats of these regions.

Where You Can Go and See the Kiwi Bird?

Where You Can Go and See the Kiwi Bird

If you’re interested in seeing kiwi birds in their natural habitat, there are several places in New Zealand where you have a chance to spot these elusive creatures. Here are some popular locations:

Zealandia, Wellington

Located in Wellington, Zealandia is a unique eco-sanctuary that aims to restore the area’s natural ecosystem. 

It offers visitors the opportunity to see a variety of New Zealand’s native wildlife, including kiwi birds. Zealandia has a dedicated kiwi enclosure where you can observe these birds up close.

Rainbow Springs Nature Park, Rotorua

Rainbow Springs Nature Park, situated in Rotorua, is known for its conservation efforts and kiwi breeding program. 

They have a purpose-built kiwi enclosure that allows visitors to see kiwi birds in a naturalistic setting. The park also offers informative talks and guided tours to learn more about these fascinating creatures.

Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park, Otorohanga

The Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park, located in Otorohanga, is a popular destination for Kiwi bird enthusiasts. 

They have a nocturnal kiwi house where you can observe kiwis in a dimly lit environment, simulating their natural habitat. The park also houses other native bird species, providing a comprehensive wildlife experience.

Kiwi Birdlife Park, Queenstown

Situated in Queenstown, the Kiwi Birdlife Park is dedicated to the conservation and preservation of New Zealand’s native wildlife. 

They have a kiwi house that allows visitors to see kiwi birds during their active night-time hours. The park also offers educational presentations and encounters with other native animals.

Stewart Island/Rakiura

Stewart Island, located off the southern coast of the South Island, is known for its pristine wilderness and abundant wildlife. It is one of the best places to spot kiwi birds in their natural habitat. 

Guided night tours are available, offering visitors the opportunity to hear the distinctive calls of kiwis and potentially catch a glimpse of them in the wild.

Why Is the Kiwi Bird So Special?

Why Is the Kiwi Bird So Special

The kiwi bird is considered special for several reasons, making it a unique and iconic species. Here are some key factors that contribute to its special status:

Evolutionary Uniqueness

The kiwi bird is a remarkable example of evolutionary adaptation. It is flightless, with vestigial wings, and has a long, slender beak that is used to probe the ground in search of food. 

These adaptations are a result of New Zealand’s isolation and the absence of mammalian predators, allowing the kiwi bird to occupy ecological niches typically filled by mammals.

Nocturnal Behavior

Unlike most birds, kiwi birds are primarily nocturnal. They have adapted to a nocturnal lifestyle, with specialized adaptations such as large nostrils at the tip of their beak, excellent hearing, and a keen sense of smell. This unique behavior sets them apart from diurnal birds and contributes to their special status.

Cultural Symbolism

The kiwi bird holds significant cultural symbolism in New Zealand. It is a national symbol and is often used to represent the country and its people. 

The kiwi bird’s association with New Zealand’s identity and cultural heritage adds to its special status and makes it an important cultural icon.

Endemic to New Zealand

Kiwi birds are endemic to New Zealand, meaning they are found naturally nowhere else in the world. 

Their restricted distribution adds to their uniqueness and makes them a source of national pride. The fact that they are found only in New Zealand further contributes to their special status.

Conservation Concern

Kiwi birds are classified as endangered or vulnerable, depending on the species. Habitat loss, predation by introduced mammals, and other human-induced factors have significantly impacted their populations. 

The conservation efforts dedicated to protecting and preserving kiwi birds highlight their special status and the importance of their survival.

Distinctive Appearance and Behavior

The kiwi bird’s appearance is distinct and easily recognizable. Its small size, round body, long beak, and brown, fuzzy feathers make it visually unique. 

Additionally, their behavior, such as nesting in burrows and their distinctive vocalizations, adds to their charm and fascination.


Are kiwi birds endangered?

Yes, many species of kiwi birds are classified as endangered or vulnerable due to habitat loss and predation by introduced mammals.

How many species of kiwi birds are there?

There are five recognized species of kiwi birds: North Island brown kiwi, great spotted kiwi, little spotted kiwi, rowi, and Haast tokoeka.

Can kiwi birds fly?

No, kiwi birds are flightless. They have vestigial wings that are not capable of supporting flight.

What do kiwi birds eat?

Kiwi birds are omnivorous and primarily feed on invertebrates, such as insects, worms, and spiders. They also eat fruits, berries, and seeds.

How long do kiwi birds live?

Kiwi birds have a relatively long lifespan compared to other bird species. In the wild, they can live up to 25-50 years, while in captivity, they may live even longer, reaching up to 60 years.

Bottom Line

The name “kiwi” holds a deep significance that goes beyond a simple label for a bird. It is a testament to the cultural heritage and connection between the Māori people and the land they inhabit. 

The kiwi bird’s name reflects the respect and admiration the Māori have for this unique creature, as well as their deep-rooted connection to the natural world.

As we continue to appreciate and learn about the kiwi bird, let us also honor the Māori culture and their rich traditions. 

By understanding the origins of the kiwi bird’s name, we gain a deeper appreciation for the intricate tapestry of New Zealand’s history and the importance of preserving its unique biodiversity.

So, the next time you encounter a kiwi bird, remember the story behind its name and the cultural significance it carries.

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