For the Birds Radio Program: The Kiwi

Original Air Date: Feb. 22, 1988

This program was sparked by an article in the Duluth News-Tribune about kiwi fruit with the headline “Fruit named for a bird sprouts wings of its own,” which seemed an inappropriate reference to a bird which has no wings at all, not even metaphorical ones.

Duration: 3′59″



(Recording of a Chicken)

A couple of weeks ago the Duluth paper ran a story about a current craze–kiwi fruit. I’m not very knowledgeable about kiwi fruit–to tell you the truth, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one–but I do know about kiwis. The headline–“Fruit named for a bird sprouts wings of its own” seemed an inappropriate reference to a bird which has no wings at all, not even metaphorical ones. A kiwi’s vestigial wing stumps are completely hidden under its shaggy feathers, and are far smaller than the wings of ostriches, penguins, and other flightless birds.

The newspaper writer explained that the kiwi is “a flightless, brown, hairy feathered chicken.” The plumage of kiwis does look hairy–it’s made up entirely of down-type feathers. Chickens and most other birds have a smooth covering of what are called contour feathers over their downy insulation–the contour feathers give birds their familiar shapes and colors. Because kiwis lack these, they have a shaggy appearance which is comical but isn’t really hairy.

If you’ve ever cut up a chicken, you probably noticed that the breastbone has a strong keel, large enough to anchor its massive flight muscles. Kiwis, ostriches, emus, and a few other flightless running birds lack this keel–their sternum is shaped like a raft. Although ornithologists haven’t determined whether these birds are closely related or whether they developed similar breastbones independently, they refer to them collectively as “ratites.” All ratites are definitely not related to chickens.

Kiwis are unique in the bird world in several ways. For one thing, a four-pound female kiwi lays eggs weighing a full pound each–that’s comparable to a human mother delivering a 30 pound baby. It takes a month for each egg to develop inside the mother, and two or three more months for the egg to hatch. But the yolk is so large and nutritious that when the chick finally does emerge, it’s fully feathered, open-eyed, and active.

Kiwis are also unusual in having a well-developed sense of smell. The long, curved bill has openings for air passages at the tip, and the kiwi can smell out its surroundings better than it can see them. Kiwis are nocturnal, but have very small eyes compared to whip-poor-wills and owls. Kiwis can see well enough to run from danger through dense underbrush, but apparently prefer smell to sight when searching for food.

Kiwi’s eat mostly earthworms, along with other small invertebrates and some plant material–especially fleshy fruits. So they probably manage to eat at least a few kiwi fruits themselves.

There are three species of kiwis, all endemic to New Zealand, unlike kiwi fruit, which is really the Chinese gooseberry. Modern New Zealanders adopted the kiwi unofficially as their national emblem, and when they discovered that Chinese gooseberries grow well in New Zealand, they decided to attract attention to the delicacy by renaming it the kiwi fruit.

Although historically kiwi fruit was unavailable to the Maori, real kiwis provided native New Zealanders with both food and clothing. Both the large, nutritious eggs and the kiwi itself were eaten. Unlike chickens, flightless kiwis don’t have white meat. But before they became legally protected, kiwis probably appealed to dark-meat lovers because one third of their body weight is in their leg muscles. Which leads to the obvious question–why did the kiwi cross the road? Because he wasn’t chicken.

(Recording of a chicken)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”