Story: Kiwi

The flightless, nocturnal kiwi is an oddity, and perhaps an unlikely choice for a national symbol. But the round body, long beak and short legs invite curiosity and affection – and it’s an easy bird to draw. It appears everywhere, on coins, stamps, shoe polish, T-shirts and websites. And yet few New Zealanders have ever seen these threatened birds in the wild.

Story by Jock Phillips
Main image: Stewart Island tokoeka

Story summary

All images & media in this story


Kiwi are found only in New Zealand. With tiny stubs for wings, these funny-looking birds can’t fly, and they have other mammal-like features: 

  • feathers that are more like shaggy hair
  • cat-like whiskers
  • short, strong legs.

Like hedgehogs, kiwi come out at night, sniffing out worms, insects and fruit. They will fight fiercely to defend their ground.

Eggs and chicks

The kiwi egg is huge, and females lay only one at a time. Kiwi parents don’t look after their chicks once they have hatched. Predators such as stoats, dogs and cats often eat the baby birds.


There are five species of kiwi: North Island brown kiwi, tokoeka, rowi, great spotted kiwi and little spotted kiwi. Each species lives in a different area.


Once there were about 12 million kiwi, but because predators eat so many chicks, there are now fewer than 100,000. The Department of Conservation and many community conservation groups are helping to build up kiwi numbers. They take eggs from the wild and release the chicks in predator-free zones such as an island or fenced sanctuary. When they are big enough, they are returned to the wild.

People and kiwi

Māori always thought kiwi were special. They called them the hidden bird of Tāne, the god of the forest, and they still treasure cloaks made with kiwi feathers.

The kiwi shape is easy to draw and has often been used in trademarks – for shoe polish, medicines, insurance and other products. It is also used on coins and stamps. In the 1900s, cartoonists began to use the kiwi as a symbol for New Zealand. During the First World War, people began to call New Zealand soldiers Kiwis, and the name has stuck, even though most New Zealanders have never seen a real kiwi in the wild.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Kiwi', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 September 2007, reviewed & revised 15 May 2015