After a trip to Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World and Dax’s big bungy jump off the Auckland Harbor Bridge, we decided to finish our tour of New Zealand with a visit to the Auckland Museum. Here we learned once and for all why these mysterious islands were for so long populated only by birds. When the continents of Asia, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica were all connected in the land mass known as Gondwana, birds and a few reptiles were the only creatures to make it as far as the fringe area that would become New Zealand. Once the islands broke away from the mainland, these birds continued to flourish without mammalian predators. Only once humans arrived with their pet dogs, shipborne rodents, and imported predators did mammals take hold and begin to kill off the indigenous wildlife. The stoat, a nasty little ferret-like creature, was brought in by European settlers to control explosive rabbit populations (also a European import) and instead ended up killing a significant percentage of the country’s kiwi birds. Bugger.
The kiwi has become the symbol of New Zealand, which seems a bizarre choice given the bird’s virtual defenselessness and bizarre behavior. It’s hard to understand why New Zealanders would want to identify with a creature that sleeps up to 20 hours per day, comes out for a few hours each night to eat bugs, and when threatened sticks its freakishly long beak and head in the ground in an attempt to hide. (If I can’t see you, you must not be able to see me.) To top it all off, the kiwi has stunted wing stubs that are useless for flying. Basically, it’s not suited for survival in the modern world and would face certain extinction if not for the fervent intervention of the humans who have taken on its name. Even with their help, the kiwi’s future is unclear.
Here is the parallel for New Zealanders and possibly the reason they cling so dearly to their beloved bird. They pride themselves in their uniqueness only to be viewed by much of the world as a subtle variation of Australian. Their government and economy both face challenges that seem to be pointing toward integration with Australia. Both their currency and their sovereignty hang in the balance. By embracing the flightless, fragile Kiwi with vigor (New Zealanders are no wimps), they are symbolically fighting for their very existence. If the kiwi survives, then so, perhaps, can they.
We hunted for kiwis everywhere. Dax found a stuffed one.
Kieran found a metal one.