Stalking the Wild Kiwi

By David T. Schaller

Chapter One
A Kingdom of the Birds

sheep" Imagine a bird that cannot fly. Long ago its wings atrophied to matchsticks. Its hollow bones filled with marrow. Its rump became a feathered knob, as if the tail simply fell clean off one day.

Its skinny beak looks like Pinocchio's--eight inches long (on a bird the size of a chicken), with nostrils at the tip rather than at the base. It plunges that bill deep into the dirt, sniffing out worms and grubs and then snuffling to clear the dirt from its nose. Its thick legs and scaly, clawed feet ward off enemies with a swift, sharp kick. Because it roams only at night, its weak eyes are virtually useless--the bird must rely on a keen sense of smell and cat-like whiskers to find its way.

This is the kiwi, a vestige of prehistory preserved in the hollows and crannies of New Zealand's primitive bush.

I learned about the kiwi from a woman named Susan, who learned about it from a nature film she saw in sixth grade. When we met, she was halfway through her schooling at a small college in Northfield, Minnesota while I had just finished mine at another in St. Paul. She had a sharp, clever wit and a grin that could puncture both gloom and pretension. Six feet tall, with soft brown hair and an aquiline nose, she also cut a striking figure in hiking shorts and a flannel shirt. I spent two and a half years persuading her to fall in love with me.

When she finally did, we basked in each other's admiration for a few months. Then, seeking greater adventure, we decided to go on a trip together. I had half a dozen ideas where we might go; Susan had one. She wanted to go to New Zealand.

sheep" I tried to change her mind. New Zealand, I said, was a long way to go to see fields speckled with sheep and orchards drooling with kiwifruit. New Zealanders run a sedate, honest country. They don't build cathedrals. They don't stage coups. They don't even permit racial friction between the white Europeans and the polynesian Maori. New Zealand is like England without the history, the culture, or the English. "How about Pakistan?" I said.

But she insisted. For ten years she had harbored a desire to go see a kiwi. Here was her chance.

The notion of a trip dedicated to birdwatching struck a chord of nausea inside me. I had always thought of birdwatchers as the kind of people who stuck out their little fingers when they drank tea. "I say, dear, is that a chestnut-sided warbler or a bay-breasted warbler?" Birdwatchers fawned over their life lists. Birdwatchers could derail a road trip whenever they saw a marsh rotting by the side of the highway. Birdwatchers were tedious conversationalists, like Civil War reenactment buffs without the costumes.

But I admitted that whatever notions I had about birdwatchers ought not reflect badly on birds themselves. After all, I don't hold deer responsible for hunters, or Buckingham Palace guards for obnoxious tourists. The kiwi barely qualified as a bird anyway; it seemed more like a relic of another epoch, an ancient beast living in the present.

Spurred on by the sheer weirdness of the bird, I began reading about New Zealand, only to discover what an extraordinary land it was. Like Noah's Ark, it was a repository of primeval nature, sailing across the sea, preserving the flora and fauna of a prehistoric continent called Gondwanaland.

For 500 million years, Gondwanaland was an enormous supercontinent, composed of Australia, Africa, India, South America, and Antarctica as well as New Zealand. It floated as a piece on the earth's molten mantle until, about 100 million years ago, the forces of plate tectonics pulled it apart. Rifts opened up within Gondwanaland, and New Zealand eventually split off on its own and headed north.

At the time (about 80 million years ago), dinosaurs dominated Gondwanaland, while the state-of-the-mammal was a species of tiny shrew-like creatures. It lived only in certain regions of Gondwanaland which, as it happened, did not include New Zealand. When plate tectonics tore New Zealand away from Gondwanaland, the shrew-things missed the boat. For millions of years, they and all their descendents--the plethora of mammals we know today--were kept at bay by the vast Pacific Ocean surrounding New Zealand. This isolation turned these islands into an alternate world, a laboratory devoted to the proposition: what if mammals never evolved?

New Zealand became an exclusive club for those who could fly. The wind carried airborne spores, insects, and two species of bat to New Zealand, but the species that came to dominate the islands were the descendents of the dinosaurs and the masters of flight--the birds.

Once in, however, birds found flight an expensive encumbrance, required for club membership but never needed again. Without humans, cats, wolves, rats or other preying mammals to threaten them, flight lost its appeal. Unable to justify the tremendous energy necessary to get and stay aloft, many birds developed new specializations and skills more suited to their environments, often losing the ability to fly at all.

In this avian wonderland, the birds of New Zealand flowered into marvelous, often preposterous shapes and sizes to take advantage of every ecological niche. For tens of millions of years, the islands danced with fearless, often flightless birds that filled the forests with life and song. A penguin grew as tall as a person. A mysterious parrot slept all day and awoke at midnight to perform a slow, courting dance for its mate. A skyscraper of a bird, too big to ever fly, browsed on leaves twelve feet off the ground. A giant eagle with an eight foot wingspan preyed on whatever it found appealing, probably inspiring ancient Maori stories of a terror bird that soared down from the mountains and snatched up people. And the kiwi--a relatively small bird in comparison but utterly peculiar nevertheless--snuffled its way about the forest floor.

The two main islands of New Zealand, along with several smaller offshore isles, stake out a remote corner of the South Pacific. Australia is the nearest continent, over 1,200 miles away. This isolation kept humans away until quite recently--Polynesians found it first, in 800 A.D., followed by Europeans a thousand years later. Both races quickly began ravaging the island ark, which had erected no defenses against the habits of mammals. The past millennium has seen the classic tale of man versus nature played out again, this time staged amongst some of the most beautiful of landscapes and performed by some of the strangest creatures on earth.

This history lesson clashed so dramatically with my stereotype of a bland New Zealand that the two contrary images stuck stubbornly in my head, like a checkbook that wouldn't balance. How could a country with such an extraordinary past inspire such a bovine reputation? In the contrast lay something I had to understand.

The kiwi, having survived not only eons of prehistory but a thousand years of human settlement, seemed an appropriate symbol of New Zealand's bizarre natural environment. I began thinking of it as a canary in a coal mine, or what biologists call an "indicator species"--a key species whose own health reveals the health of the entire ecosystem. By seeking the bird, Susan and I might not only see the bird itself but also discover for ourselves how the fantastic ecology of primeval New Zealand had fared in the modern world.

From this angle, New Zealand sounded like the most intriguing place on earth. We began laying plans to go.


Susan, it seemed, had spent the last twenty years preparing for this search for the kiwi. Raised by birdwatchers, nourished by nature movies at monthly Audubon Society meetings, and tested by teenagers she led on wilderness canoe trips, she was an expert naturalist. She had field knowledge of animals and a fondness for them tempered by respect.

My own qualifications for the trip fell short in comparison. Against her reservoir of wilderness expertise, I could offer only a few accumulated years of travelling experience, which lately had turned towards backpacking trips in the mountains. But I was bewitched by New Zealand. Any thoughts that I might be unprepared for such a search never crossed my mind.

Susan and I calculated a trip budget and pooled our money. The pathetic splash it made sobered us, so we began saving to build up our coffer. Fairly fresh out of college, Susan had been doing odd clerical jobs through a temporary agency while trying to find a "real" job. Once we decided to go to New Zealand, she set that task aside and devoted herself to temporary work, trying to seriously make and save some money.

I too was a "temp"--a secretary. Though I stumbled into the vocation during an ill-fated job search, it had become a convenient way to support a passion for travelling that I acquired while studying abroad in college. To pay for trips around North America, Europe and Asia, I filled in for vacationing or childbearing secretaries in banks and insurance companies around St. Paul and Minneapolis: answering phones, typing memos, and fixing the photocopier. Intoxicated by the luxury of vacations measured in months rather than weeks, I accepted travel and temp work as an alternative career. My temp agency encouraged this notion with a steady stream of work when I wanted it, and even treated me to flowers and a fashion show on National Secretaries Day.

Between job assignments I travelled, usually alone but often enough with friends to know about the conflicts that travelling together can foment--stresses that could rupture a trip, not to mention a relationship. Susan and I needed to practice living together in close quarters, to habituate ourselves to each other's quirks and aberrations so they wouldn't rankle us unduly in New Zealand.

So we rented a basement apartment with low rent and a six-month lease, along with a landlady who wore a strapless black leather minidress to work every Saturday morning. Though the apartment was euphemistically called garden level, our windows provided views not of flowers but dandelions, and of our neighbor's terriers fertilizing the lawn every morning. The dogs at least had no designs on our apartment. As dusk fell one summer evening, a stray cat positioned its butt against the screen window and sprayed our couch.

On weekends we escaped to the woods, where Susan taught me to see. She had astonishing vision: her eyes could pry a garter snake from a rustle of leaves or a deer track from a slosh of mud. She showed me how a woodpecker drills for grubs, pointed out the stillness of a stalking heron, and demonstrated how female mallard ducks "quack" while male mallards "puck." I followed along, looked where she looked, and went home at night to read up on what we'd seen.

It was a crash course in nature studies and I could only hope to become proficient enough in the basics before we left for New Zealand. But what I remembered most vividly from those months was not something I read but what I saw one morning in the forest, during spring warbler migration. I actually managed to identify a few warblers that posed on the path for me, but it was not the individual birds so much as the tremendous number of them that thrilled me. All around us, the forest was bustling with warblers. The trees were knobby with birds perched on branch and trunk. The air buzzed with their hovering and dashing. And the forest floor, wrinkled with gray leaves left over from the fall, twitched with life. It was a heady feeling, surrounded by such a marvelous abundance of life that hardly noticed our presence. But it was still only one variety of bird. New Zealand promised an extravagance beyond even this.


As the end of our lease approached, we counted our money: it was enough to get us to New Zealand and keep us there for three months, assuming we searched for the kiwi with austerity. So we ordered our airplane tickets, canceled our newspaper subscription, and put the furniture into storage. We stuffed two backpacks with enough camping gear to penetrate the kiwi's wilderness haunts. We had compact binoculars for birdwatching (though I had to admit they would not help us find the nocturnal kiwi). We had two cameras and thirty rolls of film. We had sturdy hiking boots, a compact cookstove, and a water purification filter. We had moleskin for blistering feet and a trowel for bush toilets. And we had a miniature tape recorder to capture a kiwi's voice and take it home.

But by the time we left for New Zealand in September 1989, the kiwi had come to symbolize even more than New Zealand's primal ecology. It represented the entire world as it once was, before we humans began changing it to meet our needs. Susan and I had grown more sensitive to those changes and more concerned about what they were doing to the natural environment. The heat of another summer of drought had baked the specter of global warming into our minds. Americans, who invented the concept of the national park, were pushing into the last wild pockets of the continent, determined to pump out the profits that lay buried. The New World was following the Old into a nature-free zone where the only wildlife most people ever saw were the pigeons painting city buildings white.

New Zealand lay on the other side of the world, where spring was about to break. Secluded in a quiet corner of the globe, insulated from the pollution and overpopulation spilling across the continents, New Zealand was known as a green refuge, protected from blight as its birds had been from mammals. It was a natural wonderland, brimming with mysterious forests, mountains, volcanoes, glaciers and geysers. By now we had heard so many stories about the country--"the eighth wonder of the world," according to Kipling, a land where nature was not tamed but admired, according to many others--that we wanted to go and see for ourselves how much truth lay behind these claims.

But Susan and I also knew that human settlement had been catastrophic for the native birds. The details of this destruction intrigued us, as they would in any disaster epic, and we wanted to learn about the ways in which New Zealanders have reshaped their adopted land against its natural grain.

"In a way," Susan told me once, "birdwatching is really just an excuse to go for a walk in the woods." In the same way, our search for a kiwi had become an excuse to explore New Zealand. It would take us through the towns and fields, along the borders between civilization and the bush, and into the natural wilderness world. What had started simply as a romantic escapade had grown into some sort of quest. By seeking the kiwi, we also sought an understanding of its homeland. And by finding the bird, we hoped to discover how much of its strange, unique sanctuary still survived.

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