Huia, the sacred bird
In the late 19th century, news of a strange antipodean bird with beautiful tail feathers, orange wattles, and a long curved beak spread around the British Empire. To Māori, it was a tapu bird—a sacred treasure. And its song was about to be silenced forever.
No one could have realised the implications of presenting the elegant black-and-white feather to the Duke of York, then heir to the British throne, during his visit to New Zealand in 1901.
Not the high-ranking Māori woman who took the quill from her own hair and placed it in the Duke’s hatband; if she had, she would have chosen a different gift that day in Whakarewarewa. Nor the Duke, who, by wearing it, inadvertently set up a chain of events that sealed the extinction of New Zealand’s most majestic forest bird, the huia.
Of all Tane’s children, the huia was the most sacred to Māori. Other birds, such as the kōtuku (white heron) and amokura (red-tailed tropic bird) were also prized for their plumes, but huia was pre-eminent. In pre-European times, only chiefs of high rank and their whānau wore the distinguished tail feathers in their hair.
The placing of the single feather on the Duke’s head was significant in itself, because the head is tapu for Māori. Indeed, huia derive their tapu status from this association. As William Phillips explains in his definitive The Book of the Huia, “Tapu is catching; so the tapu of the individual became the tapu of the feathers and ultimately the bird.”
Like jewels plucked from a royal crown, huia feathers were given as tokens of friendship and respect. In a culture without money, tribes occupying the huia country of the North Island sent the feathers as gifts, or traded them with other tribes for greenstone, sharks’ teeth and other valuables.
An indication of the extent of Māori barter networks was a spectacular find of huia feathers made in 1892 near the Clutha River in Central Otago. The cache consisted of 70 tail feathers and 20 bunches of scarlet kakakura (red kaka) feathers, stored in a waka huia (literally a huia canoe), an intricately carved wooden box designed specifically to store the precious plumes.
Huia feathers signified more than rank. A marereko consisted of 12 tail feathers worn as a war plume. Feathers were also worn at tangi, and were used to decorate the heads of the deceased. The skins were dried and worn from the ears, and in some cases a special flax headpiece was ornamented with huia heads, “the beaks of which, hanging down all round and coming into contact make a rattling sound as the wearer moves about. These are called ‘pōtae huia’ and no one but a woman of high rank would presume to wear one,” wrote the naturalist Sir Walter Buller.
Nineteenth century biologists prized the huia for reasons other than mana and sacredness. For them, it was the beak that set the bird apart, ranking it, along with the moa and kiwi, as one of the world’s most remarkable birds.
Specifically, Heteralocha acutirostris was the only known bird in the world in which male and female differed radically in the size and shape of the bill. On the basis of this attribute, English taxonomists mistakenly identified the two sexes as separate species.
The hen’s slender curved beak was around ten centimetres long and resembled that of a honeyeater or hummingbird. In contrast, the cock’s stubby six-centimetre beak was stout, like a woodpecker’s. Both sexes were similar in size—bigger than a tui but smaller than a native pigeon.
The function of these spectacular beaks seems to have been to enable co-operative feeding. A pair of huia would forage together, the male vigorously pecking a decaying tree in search of insects like huhu grubs and weta, while the female used her scimitar-shaped bill to seek out insects more deeply embedded or exposed by the male’s percussive chiselling. Recent anatomical studies show that the male was also capable of “gaping”—inserting the beak into decaying wood and forcing its two halves open to split the wood.
Like other large New Zealand forest birds, the huia was not a strong flyer. Buller, who studied the birds at great length both in captivity and in the wild, wrote that the huia “never leaves the shade of the forest. It moves along the ground, or from tree to tree, with surprising celerity of bounds or jumps. In its flight it never rises, like other birds, above the treetops, except in the depth of the woods, when it happens to fly from one high tree to another . . . They are generally met with in pairs, but sometimes a party of four or more are found consorting together.”
Huia built large, saucer-shaped nests which had a small, shallow central cup lined with softer material to protect and insulate the eggs. The breeding season was in early summer, and two to four greyish-white eggs with purple and brown speckles were laid, each 45 millimetres long.
The huia was one of the wattlebirds, a family of songbirds unique to New Zealand, and one of the older parts of the endemic fauna. The Callaeatidae family comprises three species—kōkakō, tīeke (saddleback) and huia—and is thought to be distantly related to crows and birds of paradise. The group gets its name from the pair of fleshy wattles at the base of the beak. The North Island kōkakō has blue wattles, the South Island subspecies (now thought to be extinct) had rich orange wattles with blue at the base, and the tīeke has russet wattles. The wattles reach their largest size in adult males, and are thought to indicate breeding status.
The huia was reportedly a quiet and social bird, with pairs bonding for life. “It was most interesting to watch these graceful birds hopping from branch to branch, occasionally spreading the tail into a broad fan, displaying themselves in a variety of natural attitudes and then meeting to caress each other with their ivory bills, uttering at the same time a low affectionate twitter,” observed Buller.
In pre-European times huia ranged over the whole of the North Island, as evidenced by subfossil remains that have been found from North Cape to Wellington. By the 19th century, however, they were largely confined to wilder mountain areas in the southern half of the North Island: the Ruahine, Tararua, Huiarau and Kaimanawa Ranges. A single waiata and reports collected by Buller refer to huia once living in the Marlborough and Nelson districts, but there is no other evidence.
Like many New Zealand birds, huia began to succumb to the twin pressures of hunting and habitat destruction soon after the arrival of Māori in Aotearoa around 800 years ago, although hunting was regulated to some extent by traditional protocols. The main hunting season was from May to July, when the plumage was in peak condition. A rāhui, or ban, was enforced during the spring and summer breeding season, allowing numbers to build up.
Huia were easy prey. Māori stalked the birds through the forest, imitating their calls to attract them, then slipping a noose on the end of a carved pole over the head of the female. The male, attracted by its mate’s distress call, was then easily snared in the same way. The birds were skinned with the beak and wattles attached, and the wings and legs removed. Skins were stretched out on slicks in front of a fire to dry, with the tail feathers bent over the back to avoid soiling their white tips. The feathers were packed in tōtara bark and wrapped with flax, while the dry skin was scented with forest plants, to be worn as an ornament from the neck or ear.
Huia were named after their loud distress call: a smooth, unslurred whistle sounding like the words “Who-are-you-u.” The call was skilfully mimicked by Māori hunters, who added variations made up of the notes used while the birds were feeding or searching for food. These flutelike notes were described by German naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach as “a quick, very softly uttered call consisting of triplets and slurs”.
There can be but few people alive today who have heard a huia, but, thanks to technology, it is possible to get an idea of how it sounded. English ornithologist and composer David Hindley recently recreated the huia’s song using a synthesiser and computer, after listening to recordings made by the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation of tracker Hamana Henare imitating the bird’s complex call in 1954.
After familiarising himself with other New Zealand bird songs such as the tieke and tui, Hindley took the recordings and slowed them down until it was possible to hear their rich musical complexity, which he was then able to capture on a computer-generated score. While by no means a perfect imitation, the new recording does give an impression of the huia’s dulcet tones.
Many other Māori records of the huia survive. One myth tells of a chief who placed a magic spell on his favourite huia, so that it would appear before him on command. On one occasion when the chief summoned the bird, it had been nesting and its tail feathers were ruffled. The chief was angry and asked the bird why it had appeared before him in such a dishevelled state. On hearing the reason, the chief said: “I will provide you with a means that will enable you to keep your tail feathers in good order when next I call you.” He picked up the bird, which was a female, and bent its beak into a circular shape, telling it that whenever it sat on its eggs it was to pick up its tail feathers with its beak and lift them clear of the nest.
Another legend states that if a newly married man dreams of skulls decorated with feathers, his wife will soon have a child. If the feathers are those of a huia, it is a sign they will have a daughter; if the feathers are from the kōtuku, they will have a son.
The hallowed huia-ariki, literally “chiefly huia”, were especially prized. These rare birds had a brownish rather than greenish-black plumage, banded or rayed with grey, and with contrasting patches of dark feathers on the head and neck. Huia-ariki were thought to have been a form of albinism or old age. Several true albino huia were also recorded.
Although hunting put some pressure on huia populations, it was habitat loss, starting in pre-European times and continuing in the last century, which was the crucial factor in the huia’s extinction. Habitat destruction deprives any bird species of its natural food sources and nesting places, and, once displaced, the bird has to try to live in a new environment with new competitors and predators that evolution has not prepared it for.
Huia were particularly vulnerable. Specialised for cooperative feeding and life in mature rainforest, they appear to have been unable to adapt to life in second-growth regenerating forests.
While it is true that the mountainous part of their former range was not cleared, lowland areas which offered refuge during cold weather were ruthlessly burned and cleared for cultivation. Later, the introduction of European mammalian predators such as rats and stoats, and possibly new diseases, completed the suite of factors that would eliminate the huia for all time.
A particularly tragic part in the huia’s downfall was played by the naturalists of the day. Having identified the bird as an avian wonder of the world, they set about harvesting them in large numbers for overseas museums and collectors. Where the men of science led, unscrupulous traders followed. Pairs were stuffed and sold as drawing room curios, and Pākehā men soon copied Māori custom by wearing huia feathers in their hatbands, even before the Duke of York’s visit. Huia plumes were reduced from sacred treasure to fashion accessory.
Here is Buller, describing a typical expedition in which a Māori guide has whistled to attract the birds: “In a few seconds, without sound or warning of any kind, a huia came bounding along, almost tumbling, through the close foliage of the pukapuka, and presented himself to view at such close range that it was impossible to fire. This gave me an opportunity of watching this beautiful bird and marking his noble bearing, if I may so express it, before I shot him.”
Charles Heaphy, fellow naturalist and colonial explorer, writes in a similar vein: “On our way homeward [from Palliser Bay] the natives suddenly stopped; they heard in the distance the peculiar cry of the huia. Imitating this, and adding a peculiar croak of their own, which they said was very attractive, our guides soon brought two birds—a male and a female—within shooting distance. We abstained from firing for a moment, admiring the elegant movements of these birds as they leaped from tree to tree, peering inquisitively at us, and gradually coming nearer. We now fired with light charges, and brought each a bird down.”
Pretty soon, it was open season on huia. Between 1891 and the early 1900s, the Austrian taxidermist Andreas Reischek took 212 pairs as specimens for the Natural History Museum in Vienna, where they are still held today. Buller records that in a single one-month period prior to 1883, a Māori hunting party of 11 men bagged 646 skins between Manawatu and Akitio.
Buller’s own labours led to the collection of 18 in the Rimutakas in 1883, a feat he repeated several times during that year: “A pair of huias, without uttering a sound, appeared in a tree overhead, and as they were caressing each other with their beautiful bills, a charge of No.6 [shot] brought both to the ground together. The incident was rather touching, and I felt almost glad that the shot was not mine, although by no means loth to appropriate the two fine specimens.”
Still collecting in 1892, Buller reported a decline in numbers that had already been noticed by Māori: “To show how much scarcer this bird is than it was formerly, I may mention that in 1892, accompanied by Mr Morgan Carkeek, I made an expedition into the wooded ranges at the back of the Waikanae . . . During the whole expedition we only saw a single Huia—which I shot—a male bird, which visited our camp in the early morning. Mr Carkeek assures me that when exploring and surveying these ranges only five or six years before the Huia was comparatively plentiful.”
Buller’s attitude, though typical of the times, seems incomprehensible today. At the same time that he was lamenting the increasing scarcity of the huia, he was shooting the few remaining birds for his collections.
Even so, the huia was not lost without a fight, and credit for this must go in large part to Māori, particularly Ngāti Huia. This group, whose main presence is in the Levin and Otaki area, are the largest hapu within Ngāti Raukawa, and trace their whakapapa from a famous ancestral chief named Huia.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Ngāti Huia began to seek protection for the huia. At the same time, other chiefs from the Manawatu and Wairarapa area, concerned at declining numbers, had placed a tapu on the entire Tararua Range, forbidding any more to be killed.
In September 1891, events took a new turn. At a hui held at Raukawa marae in Otaki, Ngāti Huia welcomed the New Zealand governor of the day, the Earl of Onslow, to induct his newborn son into their tribe.
Governor William Onslow’s son had been born in Government House in 1890, and was the first viceregal child born in the country. Soon after the birth, it was suggested that Queen Victoria be approached to become the boy’s godmother, and that the boy take a Māori name. After negotiations, both were agreed and arranged.
Ngarongo Iwikatea Nicholson, a kaumatua of the tribe, explains: “The name Huia was chosen and the boy was christened Victor Alexander Herbert Huia Onslow in 1891. Later that year, he was brought to Otaki marae for a Māori initiation ceremony to induct him as a member of the tribe.
“It was at this hui that Ngāti Huia kaumatua Henare Roera Te Ahukaramu, invoking the spirits of the ancestors and speaking in Māori, called on the governor to give the huia legal protection. ‘There, yonder, is the snow-clad Ruahine Range, the home of our favourite bird. We ask you, O Governor, to restrain the Pākehās from shooting it, that when your boy grows up he may see the beautiful bird that bears his name’.”
Governor Onslow replied with a line from a waiata: “E hoa ma, puritia mai taku huia.” (“Friends, take care of my huia, my treasure.”). The Ngāti Huia chief, Tamihana Te Hoia, then pressed noses with the child, and various gifts of flax weaving and wood and greenstone carving were given.
The New Zealand press linked the naming of the governor’s son to the plea to protect the huia, while in England it was reported as an exotic tale of Empire: “The fair child of a noble English house taking his place at the head of a dusky tribe, amid curious native customs,” according to historian Ross Galbreath. Unimpressed by the huia, the London Daily Telegraph described it as “a sombre and rather lugubrious-looking bird . . . altogether unsuitable as an ornament for a lady’s bonnet”.
Imperial arrogance aside, Governor Onslow and the new Liberal government heeded the call from Ngāti Huia, and in February 1892 the Wild Birds Protection Act was extended to include the huia, and a recommendation made to set up island sanctuaries for endangered native birds.
Unfortunately for the huia, the move was too little, too late, and the new bird sanctuaries set up on Kapiti Island and Little Barrier were never stocked with huia.
More significantly, vast tracts of forest continued to be destroyed, wiping out the huia’s final strongholds. This was a bitter irony, which did not go unremarked on. Wrote Buller, “The Māoris, with their usual directness, struck the nail on the head when they said to the Government: ‘You have prohibited the killing of the Huia, under a heavy penalty, and yet you allow the forests, whence it gets its subsistence, to be destroyed! Where is the consistency of that?'”
Apart from the inclusion of the huia in the Act, little action was taken to protect the species. Only one live pair were captured for stocking an island sanctuary in January 1893, but they never reached the safety of Kapiti Island. In a bizarre twist, the paradoxical Buller, who had been trying to send a live pair to Lord Rothschild in England for three years, seized the opportunity, bent the law and gained permission from the Colonial Secretary to take the pair back to England with him later that year.
The law was broken as well as bent. Two dealers, Travers and Jacobs, were fined five pounds each in 1896 for shooting seven huia—not much of a deterrent, considering that each bird was worth more than five pounds. Shooting season notices ceased listing the huia as a protected species after 1901, and a last-ditch attempt to reinforce government protection failed in 1903 when the Solicitor-General ruled that while the birds were protected under law, their feathers were not, thus condoning the illegal trade.
By then, Buller had already voiced his Darwinian view that the indigenous flora, fauna and people of New Zealand were doomed to be displaced by what he saw as the “fitter” European colonists, along with the species they brought with them. In his view, the Māori were “dying out and nothing can save them. Our plain duty as good compassionate colonists, is to smooth down their dying pillow.”
He seems to have applied the same flawed logic to the huia and other rare birds. His belief that conservation was destined to fail helps explain how he could back the Governor’s moves to protect the huia and establish island sanctuaries while at the same time continuing to take rare bird specimens “in the interests of science.” That, and simple greed: collecting for museums was a lucrative business.
The last huia seen alive were two males and a female on December 28, 1907. A few stragglers may have survived beyond this date, with unconfirmed sightings of large black birds with orange wattles and white-tipped tail feathers persisting into the 1920s. Subsequent sightings include a report of huia calls in the Urewera as recently as 1977, but while some have been tempted to wonder if there could be a last secret coterie of huia left in some remote mountain sanctuary, given the extent of exploration and the loss of habitat, this remains, sadly, nothing more than wishful thinking.
It seems more fruitful to ask what we have learned from the loss of the huia. Certainly, progress has been made. New Zealand’s remaining native birds are protected under law by the Department of Conservation/Te Papa Atawhai. The country is also part of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which bans all such trade.
A growing fleet of island ‘arks’ offer sanctuary to threatened species, while on the mainland, attempts to restore habitat and control predators are helping give endangered species such as the kiwi and kōkakō a fighting chance.
Kapiti Island, a few kilometres off the Kapiti Coast, is living proof of what can be done to turn the clock back. Kapiti lost around 75 per cent of its forest cover by the turn of the century, and further damage was done with the introduction of farm stock, possums and other mammals. Now, with most of the feral animals removed or eradicated, the island is covered with a thick mantle of regenerating forest, and has the highest density of native birds anywhere in or around the North Island.
The huia’s extinction marked a turning point in European attitudes to native species. It was not long before early conservation groups such as the Forestry League and the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society were set up, and these have now been supplemented by others as New Zealanders seek to express their growing environmental awareness. Never again would rampantly imperialist views such as Buller’s go unchallenged.
Just as many areas of native forest are now recovering, attitudes to huia as a sacred taonga are being revived, too. At the foot of the Tararuas in Levin, Ngarongo Iwikatea Nicholson speaks of how his tribe is keeping the spirit of the huia alive.
His memories go back a long way. He remembers the 24 tail feathers his grandmother kept stored away when he was a young boy. “By the time I was born, huia feathers were very rare. When I was nine or ten I wanted to go to a school fancy dress party dressed as a Māori chief, and I asked my grandmother if I could wear her huia feathers. It was then that I learned they were not for everyday use,” he says with a wry smile.
Nor has the ability to imitate the huia been lost. Pursing his lips, he gives the call—four short notes: huu-i, hu-u-i, hui, huia, emphasising the last one.
And it’s not only elders that revere the bird. Te Waari Carkeek, the great-grandson of Buller’s guide on trips to the Tararuas, represents a younger generation.
“I am the first one in my family for many years to wear a huia feather. I wore this one at the opening of Katihiku marae in Otaki earlier this year,” he says, lifting up the single feather.
“In our whānau we are trying to reconnect with the taonga of our people. The huia feather, the patu and tiki are all taonga that represent our ancestors. It will not be possible to have a full renaissance of Māori culture until we begin to use these taonga ceremonially again. We have to display them as a reclaiming of Māori culture. That can be quite scary for some people to accept.
“I wore the huia feather to remind people that it was a symbol of rangatiratanga and mana. When I pulled it out in front of everyone it was literally like knocking them down with a feather—a huia feather,” he laughs. “He kōtare huia, the single huia plume, is a real tangible taonga to our family. Wearing this plume at the hui took it from being a legend and put it in the real world.”
Te Waari hands the feather to me, its neat white tip and symmetrical filaments seeming somehow mythic.
I hold the quill up to the light. The black feather still has its characteristic purple-blue iridescent lustre. I see what he means. It is a more tangible link with the past than any bookish record—and a momentary reminder of the beauty of this illustrious bird.
The restoration of Kapiti Island and the resurgence of bird life there is mirrored by a recovery of spirit here across the water in Otaki. And, unlike the feather the Duke of York wore in his hatband, Te Waari is well aware of the significance of wearing his feather. A huia feather that symbolises a revival of tino rangatiratanga. A phoenix for Aotearoa.