In Māori tradition, all living things on Earth originate from the union of Rangi-nui (the Sky Father) and Papatūānuku (the Earth Mother). All creatures and natural resources are descendents of two of their children, Tāne-Mahuta and Tangaroa. Tangaroa’s children are the fish and other seas creatures, while Tāne-Mahuta created the forests and the birds. According to many traditions, the kiwi used to live in the canopy, not on the ground.
How the kiwi lost his wings
One tradition says that long ago, the ngahere flourished with life and the canopy was filled with birdsong. But insects from the ground crawled up and down the tree trunks, eating as they went, slowly killing the giants of the forest from the inside out.
Tāne-Mahuta and his brother Tāne-Hokahoka asked the birds of the air for a volunteer to leave the canopy and live on the ground to eat the bugs that were killing the trees.
Not a bird spoke, so each one was asked in turn.
Tūī refused. He was afraid of the darkness down on the ground, away from the sun. Pūkeko refused. He found the forest floor too cold and the earth too damp. Pīpīwharauroa, the shining cuckoo, also refused. He was too busy building his nest.
But Kiwi looked up at the sun filtering through the high leaves, down at the damp cold earth, and at his family, and he agreed.
Tāne-Mahuta was filled with joy, for this little bird gave him hope. But he felt he should warn Kiwi of what lay ahead.
“E Kiwi, do you realise you will have to grow thick, strong legs so that you can rip apart logs on the ground? That you will lose your beautiful coloured feathers and wings so that you will never be able to return to the forest roof? You will never see the light of day again.”
Still kiwi agreed.
Since then, Tūī has worn two white feathers at his throat, the mark of a coward. Pūkeko has lived forever in a swamp, with wet feet. And Pīpīwharauroa has never built another nest. Instead, the cuckoo always lays her eggs in other birds’ nests.
But because of his great sacrifice, Kiwi has become the most well-known and most loved bird of all.
Kiwi’s efforts in helping Tāne-Mahuta protect his forest from insect damage display the character traits New Zealanders still admire today: integrity, humility, loyalty, commitment, and courage.
Learn more about kiwi
How you can help
Many hands make light work. Keen to join the mission to save the kiwi? Here are some ways you can help.