Capturing the Essence of the Bird Version of the Hedgehog

New Zealand's armed forces adopted the kiwi as its symbol, an ironic designation for military forces given the its disposition as a defenseless half-blind bird that waddles through the darkness slurping up insects. But perhaps that's why you don't hear of New Zealand starting many wars.
The great spotted kiwi is the largest of five kiwi species. It is not spotted. (Photo by Danza Chisholm-Sims/Ink Dwell)

The Bird

To those who would contend evolution is a humorless process, see Exhibit A: the kiwi. Round and squat, flightless and half-blind, this strange bird has become a cultural icon despite—or perhaps due to—its lack of physical elegance.

New Zealand evolved as a kingdom of birds, so it’s fitting that the eight families representing this region were some of the first that artist Jane Kim completed while painting the Wall of Birds, a 70′ x 40′ mural at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology depicting the 375-million-year evolution of birds in images of more than 270 species.

In an archipelago historically devoid of mammals, birds filled unoccupied ecological niches. The kiwi, a nocturnal insectivore, became the avian doppelgänger of the hedgehog.

The huge mural depicts the 375-million-year evolution of birds, showing 271 species. The historic mural will be the only one in the world showcasing all the families of modern birds in one place. (Image courtesy Ink Dwell)

No feathered animal bears a closer resemblance to mammals. It lives in burrows and is unique among birds in that it has two functioning ovaries and nostrils at end of its beak. It lays the largest egg in comparison to body type of any bird, weighing up to one-quarter that of the mother. This uncomfortable physiology is comparable to a 120-pound woman giving birth to a 30-pound baby.

Its oddities are what have made it iconic. The kiwi’s “furry” body, writes evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, gives “the impression of a double blob (small head and larger body) on sticks.” Yet kiwis appear on tins of shoe polish, serve as countless logos and mascots, and have lent their name to the Chinese gooseberry, or kiwifruit, dubbed —> Read More