Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Kiwis are Amazing. And Weird.

(Okarito Brown Kiwi, Apteryx rowi)
12 x 16 inches, painted to reflect actual size
Oils on board

Kiwis are amazing. And weird. 

Kiwi birds, that is.   If you look up “kiwi” online, you're more likely to get listings for a fruit of the same name, or else New Zealanders themselves.  And while the latter are amazing and weird as well, I'm going to prattle on a bit about the birds

First of all, despite their being birds, they can't fly.   At all.  They wouldn't even be able to glide if you forcibly chucked one from Auckland's Sky Tower.  Their wings are practically non-existent nubs, far less useful than what a penguin has.  (Because hey, at least penguin wings work underwater, right?)  Fascinatingly, these nub wings also sport a wicked-looking but harmless claw at their tip.  Bonus fact: kiwis don't have breastbones or kneecaps.

Kiwis are, in some ways, more critter-like than bird-like.   Some even call them “honorary mammals”.  Their shaggy feathers are furry and brown, and some are stiff and function as whiskers.   They don't nest in trees but dig out burrows in the ground.  Their bones aren't hollow like other birds but filled with heavy marrow.  Female kiwis have two ovaries instead of the usual one that most birds have.  Even their cooler base body temperature (100F/38C) is closer to mammals than their hot-blooded relatives.

Like owls and teenagers, they are creatures of the night and are rarely seen in daytime.  But unlike owls and teens, their eyesight isn't all that great so they make up for this be having superhero levels of hearing and smelling.  In fact, the kiwi's nostrils are located all the way at the utmost tip of their beaks, so they can keep their nose to the ground like a bloodhound while probing around for food. 

Kiwis reportedly mate for life and can live upwards of 60 years.  A female kiwi usually only lays one egg per clutch, probably because it takes up so much space in her body:

 That can't be comfortable. 

While in New Zealand, Chad and I were fortunate enough to see all five unique species of kiwi.  

"There are FIVE?" You ask.  

Yes, five: Apteryx haasti, A. owenii, A. australis, A. mantelli, and A. rowi.  I've only listed the scientific names because the common names can get confusing, as you will see.  Each one is under threat because as I previously mentioned, they cannot fly and stoats, dogs, cats and other kiwi-munching animals introduced by humans have put a severe dent in their population.

The rarest of the rare is Apteryx rowi.  Also known as the Okarito kiwi or Okarito Brown or Rowi kiwi or Rowi or simply, Bob.*   Distinguished by their softer, grayer feathers and occasional patches of white, there currently are just 450 or so left in the world.  Let me say that again: only 450 left in the world.  Most are found in the Ōkarito forest on the mist-laden western coast of South Island. There is a heroic effort to boost their numbers though a conservation effort dubbed, “Operation Nest-Egg” where kiwi chicks are hatched and raised in fenced enclosures – sort of like grassy play-pens – until they're large enough to defend themselves in protected parks or predator-free islands. (Approximately 95% of kiwis don't survive to adulthood).  The day we visited the West Coast Wildlife Centre near Franz Josef Glacier, we were treated to an extraordinary sight: a rowi was hatching!  The egg was pale, large, and labelled in pencil with a catalog number; and we could hear the plaintive, wheedling calls of the chick as it tried to break out of the shell.  A couple hours later it succeeded.  A birth of any creature is a miracle, but there was something special knowing that there was just one more of these odd, rare birds in existence. 

A finicky kiwi chick being fed at Pukaha Mt. Bruce Wildlife Center 

Despite last month's crazy schedule, I managed to finish the painting that appears at the top of this blog post. I'd been working on it on-and-off over the past year; but like a young kiwi chick, it very nearly didn't make it. The original plan was to paint it with a simple background as seen in the finished piece; but then I got maniacally ambitious and began laying in a rain forest with trees and twisting vines and primordial ferns...and the result was a mess. The main problem, as I found out, is that I didn't have any proper reference sketches or photographs to work from, and trying to use simply my imagination to “cook things up” (as wildlife painter Robert Bateman would say) and so the whole thing became a botanical nightmare. So after being saved from the trash and spending a few months in storage I decided to salvage it; carefully cutting the canvas down to size, then mounted it on hardboard with archival gel medium. After the medium had dried for a week, I then proceeded to paint out the distracting background with layers of neutral tones. After THAT had dried for a few more weeks, I decided to have a go at hand-lettering with a brush and – hooray!  The painting was done. 


I'm hoping that, as time goes by, I'll be able to look back on this piece I created in 2015 and say,It's hard to believe, but there was a time when we thought the rowi was nearly extinct – and now look! You can't walk anywhere in New Zealand without tripping over one in the dark.

Seriously they totally blend in.

* (Just joking. It's actually Robert. *grin* I told you the common names were complicated.)


Rosemary Cox said...

I'll never forget just after AJ and I got married and we went camping in the Northland Kauri forests. All night you would hear the Kiwi screeching. It was really creepy sounding. But amazing.

Love that you did this piece :) So cool.
(NB - The city is Auckland - sorry, pet peeve of mine :P )

Laura G. Young said...

Thanks for stopping by, dear Rosie! What a cool memory to share. (And how on earth I misspelled Auckland is beyond me -- perhaps I was thinking about auks...??)