Forget Jurassic Park T-Rex. This is way more scary.
That goat scene will never leave your memory. What had the goat done to deserve this anyway? But it could also have ended so beautifully – like that Tiger in Russia who decided to not eat his takeaway-goat-dinner but befriend it instead. But according to Spielberg, it’s the dinosaurs who are out to get us. Well, we have news for you. For on two islands in the South Pacific, whose rainforest covered mountains, treacherous gorges and snow-capped peaks have fascinated humankind since their arrival over 800 years ago, it was the birds you really have to worry about.
New Zealand’s 65 million years of isolation from any other landmass and consequent lack of mammals (apart from bats that flew over the sea at some point and some seals that swam there) meant the islands’ native flora and fauna is unique to say the least. Where Africa boasts large mammal carnivores that keep the eco-system healthy and Europe’s soils are kept fertile by burrowing moles, New Zealand didn’t have as much as a single wallaby to stop the shrubs from taking over. Nevertheless, the Kiwi eco system is incredibly complex and diverse thanks to birds, reptiles and insects taking over ecological niches usually filled by mammals.
When humans first arrived in New Zealand, there were as many as 131 species of terrestrial, freshwater and coastal birds as well as another 65 species of seabirds, of which 115 were only found in New Zealand. If at this point you’re like “meh, I know what a pigeon looks like”, then take in a face-full of these awesome creatures:
1) The Kakapo
Yeah, its name might make you snigger, but so will video footage of it shamelessly humping Stephen Fry’s cameraman. This flightless, nocturnal parrot isn’t only the world’s largest and longest living, but also the world’s only non-monogamous parrot (which means he’s a bit of a slag). Its name actually translates from Maori to Kaka (“parrot”) + po (“night”) and only uses its flightless wings to balance or break its fall should it leap the wrong direction out of a tree. Not needing them for flight makes the Kakapos feathers extremely soft, which unfortunately meant they were often made into items of clothing by the Maoris, which on top of being easily hunted and eaten straight off the ground by settlers pets such as dogs, cats or ferrets, resulted in the Kakapo becoming critically endangered. Bummer. Randomly, Kakapos are also said to smell really nice (no irony here).
2) The Kea
Staying with roughly the same kind of bird, let New Zealand introduce you to the Kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. About 48cm long and mostly olive green and grey, it feeds on all kind of stuff, including sheep. Or so farmers from the 1860s believed so they could kill it for bounty. Luckily keas are rather smart and flew back into the mountains, helping each other out and preparing and using tools to get what they need to survive. Yup, it’s all caught on camera. As of 1993, so is a group of kea attacking sheep. So the farmers were right after all – Sir David Attenborough says it. Seriously. These are your sheep-killing parrot-predators.
On this note, a group of kea is referred to as a ‘circus’ and they are rarely found on the North Island, debunking claims they actually want to get somewhere warmer but are just a bit lost. Often called “the clown of the mountains”, keas will do what all parrots do: wreak havoc. Investigating backpacks, skis, snowboards, boots, clothes, cars, flying off with anything that’s light and not bolted down (including one unfortunate Scottish man’s passport) and generally trashing places are only a few reasons they are no longer kept as pets.
3) The Moa
Another bird you probably don’t want as a pet is a moa. Mainly because it was up to 3.6m tall and weighted up to 230kg. That’s a lot of bird feed per week. Moas also display different sizes for males and females, with one being up to 150% taller and 280% heavier than the other. Interestingly, it’s the female that’s the larger one. Hellooooo ladiiieeees. The difference was so big that until 2003, the bones were attributed to distinct species but those clever DNA people at CSI Miami quickly cleared that one up. Despite their size, moas fed on plants, twigs, leaves from trees, shrubs and your mum’s rose bushes. Think of filling the niche of a prairie-wondering giraffe, deer or buffalo. They swallowed several kilos of stones to help them digest coarse material and you can still find them on the beach today if you know what to looks for (ask Jonny at the Purangi winery for tips!).
The other main reason you won’t want a moa as a pet is that it will be dead. Due to over-hunting, the last living moa to grace the face of this earth kicked the bucket around 1445 AD. There are, however, thirty six whole moa eggs still in existence in museum collections, so if you want to run your own Jurassic Park style re-animation-breeding program, we’re sure there’s a kickstarter audience out there for you. In fact, Jonny has it on good authority that someone has already succeeded in his neck of the woods. There have been sightings… don’t shoot the messenger. Remember you didn’t believe the sheep-eating parrot thing either, before Sir Dave confirmed it.
4) The Haast’s Eagle
We have established that at 3.6m height and 230kg, moas are massive. Think the body mass of an average pony. So what on God’s green earth could the main predator that hunts moa look like? A tiger? A bear? An eagle? … hang on… EAGLE? You heard correctly, the answer to New Zealand’s lack of large mammal predators is… stick some massive wings on a massive raptor’s body and voila: you have your apex killer.
Interestingly, DNA evidence shows that both the haast’s eagle and the moa used to be way smaller but were able to just get larger and larger due to lack of competition. This is called “island gigantism” and resulted in a bird weighing over 16kg and a compact but nevertheless impressive wingspan of 3m. To give you a comparison, a haast’s eagle’s lower beak bone has been measured at 11.4cm vs the largest beak of modern day eagles only get up to 7cm long. We have to say ‘modern day’ eagles as unfortunately, as moas were turned into fancy new Maori handbags in the 15th century, haast’s eagles lost their main food source and died out.
5) The Kiwi
Kiwis are awesome. We saw Atu and her friend Kevin, a great spotted and brown Kiwi in Otogohanga’s Kiwi House, who were so surprisingly fluffy, cute and actively bopping around their little night time forest enclosures, we didn’t realize half an hour had passes since we started watching them. It may surprise you to learn that kiwis are related to ostriches, emus and cassowaries, but at the size of a domestic chicken. Furthermore, kiwis more closely related to huge Malagasy elephant birds than they are to native moas. They are the only bird to have nostrils at he end of their beaks, possess bone marrow and lay the largest eggs in relation to their body size of any bird in the world. An egg will be 20% of the female’s body weight. Compare that to an ostrich’s measly 2%.
Just like Brett in Flight of the Conchords, New Zealand’s birds have got it going o-oh-ooohhhn. The Islands’ unique setting cut off from the rest of the world has made it’s animals and plants incredibly creative, so when you visit, it will look like nothing else on the planet. And if you take a closer look at these amazing creatures, their dinosaur ancestry suddenly becomes apparent. Maybe it’s the dinosaurs (in modern form) you need to be afraid of after all.