To those who would contend evolution 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.
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 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 so by New Zealand farmers because of their round, brown, and fuzzy appearance.
New Zealanders are so proud of their bird—found nowhere else—that it has become a national demonyn, with citizens referring to themselves as “Kiwis.” The practice began in the 19th century, when the country’s armed forces adopted it as its symbol, an ironic designation for military forces given the kiwi’s 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, depicted in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s centennial mural From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Evolution and Diversity of Birds, is the largest of the five species of kiwi, though it’s not actually spotted.
“Naturalists thought this bird was a hoax when it was first described in the 19th century,” says Jane Kim, artist and founder of Ink Dwell studio. “The cultural reverence for the kiwi comes from the fact that it’s so unusual. That’s something to celebrate.”
For Kim, capturing the kiwi’s essence was a matter of shape and positioning. “The kiwi is such an important symbol,” says Kim “so I wanted to put it in its most familiar pose. Here, it’s leaning forward, foraging. Its prodigious beak seems to be directing the kiwi, not the other way around.”
Its whiskers, more prominent than its tiny eye, are tense and spread wide, searching for earthworm vibrations. A dark dot of acrylic paint marks the kiwi’s uniquely placed nostril. “In both nature and art,” says Kim, “sometimes the smallest details make big differences. Painting the nostril was a little ironic, because all it took was a tiny speck of paint to highlight such a significant part of the bird’s anatomy.”
Kiwis are diggers, excavating both burrows and their prey; this painting gives weight to the bird’s feet. Bringing the bird’s feathery volume to life, says Kim, took “thousands and thousands of brush strokes.”