Maori Myth, Legend and Lore

For many a century the pre-contact Maori developed a sophisticated structure of beliefs and customs about the birds of this land, this Aotearoa, this New Zealand. The basic myths and traditions came with the immigrants from legendary Hawaiki, the original homelands in the Pacific. Changes the Maori made here to these legends were to give them relevance, to make them understandable in the new found natural world. This is shown in the stories of Maui, the man-god hero who is known to islanders throughout the Eastern Pacific. When Maui sought to slay the goddess of death, Hinenuitepo, its was the small local birds such as the fantail, the robin and the whitehead that he took along for company.

Larger birds like the harrier (kahu) and morepork (ruru) had other tasks in the Maori world, they acted as messengers to the gods in the heavens, winging their ways there along spiritual paths. They were the mediums used by tohunga experts to communicate with the gods. Tohunga also applied their skills to practical methods of bird catching. They read the signs of the sky, of the foliage, of the bird life. They oversaw the manufacture and storage of traps, lines and ladders used in hunting in the forests of Tane. They knew that Tane was the power and origin of all tree, bird and even human life. They recited the proper chants to him and other gods so that birds would be plentiful and the hunting successful.

–  from Maori Bird Lore, Murdoch Riley,
     Viking Sevenseas NZ Ltd, 2001.

Te Hokioi

This bird, the Hokioi, was seen by our ancestors. We (of the present day) have not seen it – that bird has disappeared now-a-days. The statement of our ancestor was that it was a powerful bird, a very powerful bird. It was a very large hawk. Its resting place was on the top of mountains; it did not rest on the plains. On the days in which it was on the wing our ancestors saw it; it was not seen every day as its abiding place was on the mountains. Its colour was red and black and white. It was a bird of (black) feathers, tinged with yellow and green; it had a bunch of red feathers on top of its head. It was a large bird, as large as a Moa. Its rival was the hawk. The hawk said it could reach the heavens; the hokioi said it could reach the heavens; there was contention between them. The hokioi said to the hawk, “what shall be your sign?” The hawk replied, “kei” (the peculiar cry of the hawk). Then the hawk asked, “what is to be your sign?” The hokioi replied, “hokioi-hokioi-hu-u.” These were there words. They then flew and approached the heavens. The winds and the clouds came. The hawk called out “kei” and descended, it could go no further on account of the winds and the clouds, but the hokioi disappeared into the heavens.

“Kei” is the cry of the hawk. “Hokioi-hokioi” is the cry of the hokioi. “Hu-u” is the noise caused by the wings of the hokioi. It was recognized by the noise of its wings when it descends to earth.

The bird was also depicted in rock drawings.

Pouakai, the Haast eagle

Although there were no mammalian predators in New Zealand before the advent of Homo sapiens, there were avian predators, some of which were quite extraordinary and would be considered mythical if we did not have the remains to prove their existence. One of these was the Haast eagle, the largest, most powerful, eagle the world has known, the females weighing as much as 13 kilograms and with wings spanning almost three metres. As herbivores, such as the Moa, evolved large body size, the eagle did too, allowing it to exploit a food source reserved in other lands for the great cats. Indeed the Haast eagle had talons comparable to a tiger’s and was capable of killing a human.

The first discovered bones of this species were found in 1871 during excavation of Moa bones at Glenmark swamp in Canterbury. They were described in 1872 by Dr Julius von Haast, first director of the Canterbury Museum, who named the bird after George Moore, owner of Glenmark Station on which so many sub fossil bird bones were found.

Haast described two species of eagle, one on the basis of small bones which are now believed to represent the male. Only three complete skeletons have been found: two found late last century are in the Otago Museum in New Zealand and the Natural History Museum in London: the third, found in a cave near Nelson in 1989, is held by the National Museum in Wellington.

The bones of this giant eagle are nowhere common but have been found widely in the South Island and southern half of the North Island, usually along with Moa bones in swamps and caves. However, Trevor Worthy asserts that the eagle has never been found in the North island and that all records are based on misidentifications.

The youngest eagle bones found may be only 500 years old indicating that eagles and humans co-existed. Charlie Douglas in the bird section of his book describes shooting something in the late 1800s that was probably two eagles.

Research by Dr. Richard Holdaway on the skeletal remains of the birds suggests that the New Zealand eagle was a forest eagle that could not soar but probably hunted like other forest eagles by perching high on a branch until a suitable prey came within range and then diving on it at speeds of up to 80 kilometers an hour. The impact, which could knock even the largest Moa off its feet, was cushioned by powerful legs. The brutal talons were then used to crush and pierce the neck and skull of the immobilised prey. The eagle and its mate could remain near the kill for several days. Like all eagles the Haast also ate carrion and preyed on trapped animals when these were available.

With a life span approaching 20 years, the eagles occupied, in pairs, territories up to several hundred square kilometers. They were found mainly in the drier eastern forest during the Holocene but were more widespread in the scattered forest and scrublands of the late Otiran Glaciations 20,000 – 14,000 years ago.

The Maori seemed to have called the bird Te Pouakai or Te Hokioi. Murdoch Riley in his book on Maori bird lore says that most authorities favour Te Hokioi. Other authorities say that the bird was a very large hawk that lived on the tops of mountains, another that it stayed always in the sky and was a descendant of the star Rehua. It was regarded as the ancestor of ceremonial kites, which generally took the form of birds. Elsdon Best records that it was a legendary bird, reputed to carry off and devour men, women and children. The birds were also depicted in rock drawings.

The Haast eagle succumbed to the environmental damage resulting from Polynesian colonisation. It became extinct probably several hundred years ago, along with the Moa, its main food source. Trevor Worthy says that Maori did kill them as their bones have been found in middens and fashioned into tools.


“We will now consider one of the more important game-birds of Aotea(roa). As most of these were snared in one or more ways we will commence by dealing with the one that was not snared in any ordinary way, but had to be speared, struck down, or gripped by the feet or wings. The fowler had no gentle creature such as the pigeon to deal with when he went forth to take the Kaka, but a turbulent rover of the woods, who, with rending beak, would quickly sever the tahei form of snare such as were set on trees for taking pigeons, tui, and some other species. Our Maori fowler quotes an old saying to shew that what the barracouta is at sea so is the Kaka on land: He kaka kai uta, he manga te moana, the one rends the net of the fisherman, as the other rends the wood, and, if necessary, snares.

“Our fowler did recognise, however, that he had, in the Kaka, one of the two most important game birds of Maoriland, the other being the pigeon, and so we find another old saying that runs: He tutu kaka ki uta, he toka koura ki te moana, parrot-snaring tree on land, a crayfish rock at sea. Herein a tree much frequented by these parrots, and on which they were taken in large numbers, is compared as a food provider to a sea-standing rock frequented by crayfish, another important food provider.

“The Kaka is a restless bird, and when camped in the bush one hears their cries throughout the night. Ere any sign of dawn is noted the brown parrot is awake and awaiting it, its harsh cry rings out, and the sojourners within the realm of Tane say: Kua tangi to kaka, the kaka has cried, and know that Hine-ata, the Morning Maid, is at hand.

“Occasionally an albino parrot is seen, and this is called tuauru by the Waiapu folk, who informed me that such birds make better decoys than do those of ordinary plumage, they attract their fellows better, possibly on account of their abnormal appearance. Also albinos are said to be very good flock leaders. In some cases, we are told, a kaka kuru, a red parrot, is seen acting as flock leader. This name is applied to a bird of exceptional plumage, one having a large proportion of bright red feathers, in place of sombre brown. Such rare birds as the korako and kuru are often alluded to as ariki, which implied leadership. The leader of the flock is seen to hover about and the Maori says that it seems to watch the flock and keep it in order and within certain bounds, to prevent straggling. It is also said to call or guide the flock from one feeding ground to another and keeps flying around the flock at such a time.

“The Kaka finds its food in many places; it is not only much given to seeking and eating wood grubs, but is also a berry and honey-eater; berries of the hinau, miro, tawari, Gaulttheria, and many other species are sought by it. It is not so much given to the eating of tawa berries as is the pigeon, but the berries of the tawari (Ixerba), which it does eat, do not seem to be appreciated by any other birds. Our parrot is said to crush miro berries just before they get ripe in order to get at the kernels; also it eats the blossoms of Nothopanax, and seems to gnaw off, but rejects its bark.

“Like the pigeon, the Kaka eats when berries are scarce, certain leaves, etc., to serve as a substitute for better food. In its search for the huhu grub the parrot cuts into wood with its powerful beak much as if it were a chisel. Both the Kaka and the Tui gathered on the rata (Metrosideros) when in bloom, in order to feed on the nectar or honey contained in the blossoms, but the pigeon did not join the feast. The parrot also frequents the blossom of the flax (Phormium) and those of the kowhai. Like many other trees the rata blossoms most profusely about every third year, and in such years the offspring of Tumataika and of Parauri fairly swarmed round the tree heads. In a like manner, when a particularly fine crop of berries was produced by any trees, Podocarpus for example, then the Kaka and other birds would be much in evidence.

“These parrots prefer not to construct a nest, but to seek a convenient hollow in a tree, wherein the nest consists of nothing more than the debris that has collected at the bottom of the hollow; in some cases the actual nest is considerably below the level entrance to the hollow trunk. The Maori tell us that these nests were used year after year by the birds, and in some at least seem to believe that the same pair of parrots would utilise the same hole for years in succession. When young birds were taken from such a nest to add to the local food supply it was considered quite necessary to take to the tree some ashes from the fire at which the young birds had been cooked, and cast them into the rifled nest, this to prevent the parents birds abandoning the nest. In some districts at least it was usual to leave one of the young in the nest, “to take care of the nest”.

“The spear was used in taking the Kaka principally when these birds were fat, for the reason that, when in condition, they did not readily respond to decoys. Thus, when these birds were feeding on berries of the tawari (Ixerba) they became very fat, and spearing was the only method employed in taking them on trees of that species. They were also speared on the rata, hinau, kowhai, kahika, miro, maire and some other trees. The fattening of the kaka on honey of the rata blossoms was much appreciated by the Maori for other birds are in poor condition in mid-summer.

“Decoy birds were much used by our Maori fowler when taking the Kaka. The Maori tells us that captured female parrots become tamer sooner than the male bird, but are not always satisfactory as decoys, sometimes shewing timidity. These captive birds were often given names, in some cases that of an ancestor of the owner. It may be said that the captive birds were not always well treated. All fowlers seem to have had the same ways of irritating a decoy and so causing it to screech out in a discordant manner, and that was by pulling the string attached to its leg, or by teasing it with a stick, whereupon the parrots would be attracted to the noise and then killed”.


As reported in the Transactions of the NZ Institute, 1889, “the Korotangi” is the name given to a stone bird said by the Maori(s) to have been brought from Hawaiki by them in their canoe Tainui. The bird measures 10.25 inches (26.5 cms) from point of beak to tip of tail. The right half of the tail is broken. It is carved out of a very dark green serpentine. The bird carved in a bold and careful way and in a natural position, seems to represent, at first glance, a species of Prion, the beak being so very much depressed; but on closer examination it will be seen that it does not possess the united nasal tubes placed on the top of the bill, but has the nostrils lateral near the base of the beak, as in ducks.

“The Maori(s) assert that they brought the Korotangi with from Haiwaiki, and that it came in the canoe called Tainui which first landed on the east coast; but it was dragged over the Tamaki portage into Manukau, thence navigated to Aotea, on the west coast, between Raglan and Kawhia.

“It is a curious fact that the Korotangi was found in a rua, or hole, in which was growing a large kahikatoe tree (manuka), very old. The tree had been blown down, and the bird was found in the roots by a Maori. ... an old chieftainess saw it, and on hearing where it was discovered she bowed herself and then sang the song relating to it. This song is known in all parts of the country. The knowledge of it having been found caused much excitement amongst the natives. Tawhiao, the Maori King, came to see it, and Rewi took it away with him, and rose several times through the night to tangi, or cry, over it.

“We now give the song relating to the Korotangi in Maori, and a translation by C.O. Davis.”

Note: In 1995 the korotangi was returned to the Tainui people as part of the government settlement of their claims under the treaty of Waitangi.

Kurangaituku and Riroriro, the grey warbler

In the early mist of a spring morning at the beginning of the bird snaring season, Kurangaituku. a giant mist fairy, ‘like a tree in height,’ went out to spear pigeon and Kaka, for, like mortal men, she too lived on the birds of the forest. But she had no need to set snares or wield the thirty-foot-long tahere, for she depended upon the length and sharpness of her fingernails.

Now Hatupatu, a chief of rank, was also out spearing birds in the early morning and he saw the bronze-green gleam of a Kereru shining from a tufted totara tree. At the same time the giant mist fairy noticed the pigeon from the other side of the tree and she sent her long fingernails through the trunk to spear her prey upon them. It was then that Hatupatu saw their sharp points coming through the rough totara wood and closing upon the gentle pigeon which was not afraid of man – not half so much afraid as he himself of the great white giantess.

Easily Kurangaituku captured the frightened chief, for she had never in all her bird taking expeditions observed the face of man; and she took him through deep ways of the forest to her secluded home, which was ringing with the calls and cries of many birds she kept as pets to charm away her loneliness. Thus the great chief Hatupatu became the mokai of the mist fairy and was forced to live with the birds, her other pets; but he soon grew weary with longing to escape and return to his own people, and the wild free life of a brave man, unafraid of war. Yet he was afraid of his immortal captor and knew he must get free by strategy.

One day Kurangaituku asked him what kind of food he would like to eat, for she was kind to her pets and fed them well. “Birds,” he replied, “but only those that live in the forests of the sixth range of hills.” Now the sixth range lay afar off, its edges violet-blue in the deep of noon and sometimes blotted out with rain; even the trees which covered it lay in a haze of mist of smoky smear against the horizon – so far away were its bird-haunted hunting grounds. But he said this knowing that it would take his captor a long time to go there and back, and he needed hours in which to escape.

Now Kurangaituku would have done anything for her favourite mokai, so she set off at once, striding from range to range with the ease of an immortal, while Hatupatu began filling up holes and crannies in the house with knotted flax so that none of the birds might escape to fly after their owner and tell her of his going. But he had forgotten to block up one little hole; and as Hatupatu crept stealthily out, shutting all the birds in behind him, the tiny Riroriro saw the chink of light coming through the neglected hole, and in a moment squeezed her little body through, for excepting Titipounamu, the rifleman, Riroriro is the smallest among all the children of Tane.

Flying fast over hill and gully on her lilting evening flight, the grey messenger, like the shadow of a leaf, perched herself near the great stalking form of her mistress and sang excitedly: “Kurangai-tuku-e-ka riro a tana hanga! Riro! Riro! Riro!”

Returning at once, she was just in time to see Hatutapu disappearing behind a rock but she followed swiftly after him over the open ground of the pumice lands of Rotorua, and on and on they went, the man every now and then pausing to hide himself in the ground. At last he went into a lair he knew of near the boiling springs of Whakarewarewa, and the towering Kurangaituku stood poised for a moment on the edge until with a crash she fell in and was drowned in the scalding water.

Thus Hatupatu escaped, but still over hill and valley up long aisles of forest, and over the open manuka scrub where swings her cosy nest, the grey warbler is ever telling the mountain mist that her property is escaped and gone, gone, gone – “Riro – Riro – Riro.”

The Maori Kite, Te Manu Tukutuku or Manu Aute

“Of all the games in vogue amongst the Maori(s)”, says Archdeacon Walsh in the Transactions of the NZ Institute, 1912, “that of kite-flying was one of the most popular.”

“It may seem strange that neither in the writings of Captain Cook nor in those of any of his companions do we find any mention of the kite. The same absence of mention of the kite is noticeable in Crozet, the historian of the ill-fated Marion expedition, which took place in 1772. Crozet was a very accurate observer, and his account of the Maori and their customs is one of the most exact and graphic that we possess. But it must be remembered that his visit was confined to a very small part of the country – a hilly, forest covered, and sparsely populated region on the coast of the Bay of Islands where kite-flying would scarcely have been practised.

“According to the universal Polynesian tradition, Maui, the hero-god, was himself a kite-flyer, and wherever his adventurous descendants have settled they have brought the practice with them; while in most places they have introduced the material of which tradition states his kite was originally made – viz., the aute or paper-mulberry, which gives the New Zealand kite its generic name – the term manuaute meaning “the bird (made of) the aute.”

“This plant, a small tree, with rough trilobed leaves, known to botanists as the Broussonetia papyrifera, is common to most of the Pacific Islands, where to this day its bark is used for the manufacture of tapa, or Native cloth. Together with the kumara or sweet potato, the hua or calabash, the ti pore or Cordyline terminalis, and probably the karaka or native laurel, it was introduced into New Zealand by the Maori(s) in some of their earlier migrations. Though specimens of the tree, as well as of the cloth which was made from it, were seen by Cook and others of the early navigators, it never seems to have been very abundant. Being a tropical plant, it would no doubt need a good deal of care in cultivation; and as soon as the Maori(s) were able to obtain a supply of cotton and linen cloth it was neglected, and became the prey of wandering cattle, and gradually died out.

“It is probable that the first kites made in New Zealand were constructed on the Polynesian model, in which the aute was used in the form of tapa, or paper cloth, stretched on a frame; but the difficulty of obtaining a sufficient quantity of the bark, and perhaps the unsuitability of the climate for the manufacture of tapa, necessitated the adoption of another material, especially for the larger kites, and a substitute was found in the leaves of the raupo (a kind of giant sedge – Typha latifolia), a coarse tussock-grass named upoko tangata, or in the flower stems of the kakaho (Arundo conspicua). Even after the plant had become scarce the connection with the aute was kept up, the heads of the kites being sometimes made of that material while the body and wings were of commoner stuff.

“All the larger kites consisted of a light frame of twigs or reeds to which were sewn the raupo, upoko tangata, or whatever other material might be used to hold the wind. Even when the aute was used it was employed – at least in later times – in the form of strips of the inner bark; in any case, there is no record of its use in the form of tapa for this purpose in New Zealand.

“The maori kite was known under several names, and probably each name described some special variety, differing from others in size, shape, or material of which it was made. Thus there is the manu or bird, the kaahu or hawk, the paakau or wing, and the manuwhara or kite of the canoe sail. Still, the term manuaute seems to have been retained as a general name, and might be used loosely for any variety.

“It appears to have been customary both in New Zealand and throughout Polynesia for the kite-flyer to chant a kind of song as the kite went up. These songs were a variety of karakia called turu manu, or kite charm, and were believed to make the kite fly properly. A number of these have been preserved. They are often full of poetic fancy; but the archaic language in which they are composed, while denoting their great antiquity, makes them extremely difficult of translation.

“...probably the finest account of the kites and kite-flying is given by Te Rangi in the manuscript held in the Auckland Public Library. He commences with a description of the manuaute, which he says was a comparatively unimportant kite, but was nevertheless a very good flier, requiring from 150 to 200 yards of string of dressed flax, muka, for one of moderate size, and from 300 to 700 yards for a larger one.

“But this was apparently only a toy compared with the manukaahu and the manuwhara of which he waxes picturesque. Unfortunately he does not give dimensions, but they must have been immense machines, even allowing for exaggeration in the statement it took “from five to ten men, to twenty to thirty men” to send them up, and, including the men holding the line it took no less than seventy men to manipulate a kite.

“But the Maori kite was not always a mere plaything. It often had a religious significance. Maui compelled the winds with his kite, and in the hands of a powerful tohunga the manuaute could do wonderful things. As an instrument of divination it could tell whether it would be wise for a war-party to attack a fortfied position, as a means of seeking land for settlement and for communication between tribes.”

Miromiro, the tomtit

The Miromiro, while tiny in size, played an important role in old Maori rituals, from birth to death. Like the bat, fantail and morepork, appearance of this bird unexpectedly inside a house was regarded as an aitua, omen of misfortune. It was a medium to the gods. The verb “miro” or “mimiro”, perhaps gives a key to the import of the bird’s name, for it means “to twist or twirl rapidly”, “to move quickly”. Its sharp sight in seeking out insects and grubs is recalled in the saying about an observant person, he karu miromiro,a tomtit’s eye. It can spot an insect 10 metres away.

The bird was nicknamed torotoro, or scout by Maori for its habit of appearing from nowhere in the forest. It was the first to settle on the water troughs with snares attached to them, a scout for the pigeons coming to drink. Then there was its habit of scratching the ground over which an enemy had walked. This was a telltale sign to the warrior looking for footprints of his foe.

In the battle between the land and sea birds in ancient times the Miromiro had a special job too, as torotoro for the land birds, to keep watch on the movements of the enemy. It was considered best suited because of its keen and quick vision, its ability to move rapidly but secretly.

In the legend of Maui (Maui-Potiki) who followed his mother Taranga to the underworld, the Matata, Bay of Plenty, version of the myth says that Maui showed himself to the people of the underworld as Miromiro, not as a pigeon. He perched on the crescent-shaped end of a ko, or digging stick, and sang a planting song mentioning his own name and those of his brothers and sisters.

Ever after that event the crescent-shaped part of the ko has been called a whakataumiromiro, and the Miromiro known as “one of Maui’s birds”. Indeed it accompanied Maui to his fatal meeting with the death-dealing Hinenuitepo. Thereafter, Maui manifested himself to man in the form of the Miromiro. It’s voice was Maui’s voice. His spirit lived on in the bird even though his bodily form may have perished.

There is no doubt also that “the Miromiro is the lovebird”, He manu aroha te miromiro, as the old saying goes, for it was the go-between when a husband wanted to get an errant wife back. The Miromiro was selected because it was believed that it had influence, was related to Maui, therefore his mana, since it had alighted, as Maui, on a ko in the Underworld.

Selected too for the whiteness of its breast (in the North Island male), signifying the world of life and light, as opposed to that of death and darkness. For the same reason the snow-white heron was much esteemed, the albatross for its white cluster of feathers, the Huia for its long white-tipped feathers. The spotless white feathers of the pigeon on the other hand were disdained, because the flesh of the bird was eaten.

To cast an atahu, or love charm, a husband would consult the tohunga and the Miromiro was the medium and the messenger. However far away the woman might be, the Miromiro would fly to her and settle on her head. The charm would begin to work and she would be unable to resist its power, being gently propelled back to him.

Erring husbands were also called by this device.

The Ancient Moa Hunters at Waingongoro

The date of the extinction of the Moa has always been a favourite theme for discussion among scientists in New Zealand, some contending that it had long ceased to exist before the advent of Maori to these shores, others arguing that it lived contemporaneously with this race down to very recent times.

The former hypothesis has for its champion and principal exponent Mr Colenso, of Napier, who states that his belief is based on the fact that there is nothing in the proverbs or stories of the Maori to show that they knew anything of this gigantic wingless bird. It seems, indeed, strange to me that an authority on Maori manners, language and mythology of such eminence as Colenso should never have gleaned anything about the Moa from the natives he met. This is so contrary to my own experience that I cannot refrain from narrating an incident that came under my observation during the native war on the West Coast.

It was some time in 1866, during a visit Sir George Grey, at that time Governor, paid to the West Coast, that I, with Kawaua Paipai and other natives from Wanganui, accompanied Sir George to the mouth of the Waingongoro River, where were the redoubts held by the Imperial troops. Here Sir George met Wiremu Hukanui, a chief of the Ngatiruanui, and supposed to be neutral; he was also a relative of Paipai.

After the talk was over Wiremu left, when a discussion arose about the Moa, and Kawaua Paipai stated that in his youth he had joined in hunting the Moa on the Waimate Plains, which are close by. On being questioned, he gave a description of how they used to hunt and destroy this grand old bird, which was as follows: “The young men,” he went on to say, “stationed themselves in various parts of the plains, and when a Moa was started it was pursued by one of these parties with wild shouts, and sticks, and stones, until they were tired, when another detachment would take up the running, and so on, until the Moa was exhausted, when a chief would administer the coup de grace.” Paipai said that great efforts were made to drive it into the high fern, the more easily to tire it out. “I”, continued the old warrior, “was a youngster at that time, and often used to join in the chase.”

I forget now whether it was Sir George or one of the officers who expressed doubts as to the absolute correctness of what Paipai stated, thinking he was simply relating what he had heard, which doubt raised the old man’s ire. He got up, and, casting his eye around as if seeking aid to his memory, said, “What I have told is true; and we used to bring them here to our fishing village, and cook them in large ovens made expressly for them. Let some men bring spades, and I will show them where to uncover the ovens.” Some six or seven fatique-men were assembled, and Paipai pointed out where they were to clear away the sand. After shovelling away some 6ft. square of sand, 3ft. in depth, a stone about the size of a 32lb. shot was turned up, blackened and burnt by fire, and then a number of other stones that had evidently been used for cooking, until a Maori oven some 5ft. in diameter was uncovered, containing over and under the blackened stones heaps of broken and partly charred Moa bones – portions of skulls, and huge thigh-bones, which latter Paipai said had been broken, so that the oil, or fat, could be sucked out of them. The ring bones of the throat, or gullet, over an inch in diameter, were there in plenty – like curtain rings. I threaded a number on a flax stick. More ovens were uncovered, and Sir George obtained some good specimens. I think Dr. Spencer, now in Napier, got a number, as did many others.

Paipai described the plumage, which he said was of a brown colour, and unlike that of the kiwi, the feathers being larger and coarser, and more like those of the emu. He said the moa fought fiercely when brought to bay, and that it struck out with its feet, but was easily killed with clubs.

Kawaua Paipai died some four or five years ago. He must have been over ninety, at least, and by what he said he was about sixteen years old when these birds were killed and eaten; so that would bring the time to near the beginning of this century.

Monck’s cave

Major Mair, in an interesting paper on the disappearance of the Moa in Volume 22, Transactions of the NZ Institute, makes the statement that he is a supporter of the belief that Maori never had any personal knowledge of the Moa (based on the lack of reference to Moa in the oral tradtions of North Island Maori). The following short argument... may be found not to be too trivial to be considered and refuted, if found wanting, by Major Mair.

Last year I had the satisfaction of making a very complete exploration of a recently discovered cave on the property of Mr Monck, near Sumner. The facts are these: the cave has been closed since before the advent of Europeans to Canterbury. The condition of the cave on entry gave all the appearance of having been untouched since the last dwellers in it left it. Its entrance was covered over by a very extensive land-slip, which evidently fell during their absence, as no human bones were discovered in it. Quarrying operations have been carried on amid the material of this landslip between twenty and thirty years. These operations, on reaching last year the live rock of the hills, disclosed an aperature through which a lad squeezed himself into the cave. On its floor were found implements in wood and in greenstone, half-burned pieces of timber, and fire-making apparatus, so lying as to give the impression that when its occupiers left they intended to return. The greenstone objects were beautifully made, while the implements of wood, such as the canoe bailer and the fragment of the paddle handle, exhibit ornamentation charateristic of Maori. On the floor of the cave were found also numerous largish fragments of Moa bones, partly burned and partly broken, scattered round the last fireplace, or found on the floor of the inner caves. In the kitchen midden in front of the cave were found many fish hooks and barbed spear tips made of bone from the same birds. On the surface were picked up several bones of more than one individual species of swan. Just below the surface of an untouched midden I myself picked out pieces of Moa egg shell, each with its internal epidermis perfectly preserved. The question before stands thus: the moa egg shells, being among the refuse of the feasts of the quite recent occupants of the cave, are the remains, it is legitimate to argue, of eggs they had eaten.

In the other Sumner caves the remains of Moa eggs were abundant in the kitchen middens and were found in such positions as to suggest that they had been used for food. The black swan was introduced into New Zealand from Australia a number of years after the settlement of Canterbury. The bones of the swans found in the Sumner cave were also left there by the feasters who ate the Moa eggs, and they too were therefore contemperaneous with the Moa. The figure of a dog carved out of wood was also found in the cave. The Maori dog must therefore have been contemperaneous with the Moa.

Pipiwharauroa, the shining cuckoo

Maori welcomed the ’wharauroa as a harbinger. Ka tangi te wharauroa, ko nga karere a Mahuru, says the proverb; “If the shining cuckoo cries it is the messenger of Spring”.

On first hearing the welcome cry, the children greeted the bird with the following song: –

E manu tena koe. Kua tae tenei ki te mahanatanga. Kua puawai nga rakau katoa.
Kua pa te kakara ki te ihu o te tangata. Kua puta ano koe ki runga, tioro ai.
Tioro it te whitu, tioro i te waru.
Me tioro haere ano ke koe tenei kupu e whai ake nei, te marae o tama ma, o hine ma:

Kui Kui Kui, whiti whit ora.

O bird, greeting to you. The warm season appears and all trees have blossomed.
The frangrance reaches the nostrils of man. You again appear trilling on high.
Trilling in the seventh(month), trilling in the eighth(month).
Trill you ever forth as you fly the following message to the homes of lads and lasses:

Kui Kui Kui, whiti whit ora.

It was known as the “bird of Hawaiki” and it has been thought possible that the migratory flight of the cuckoo encouraged Maori to come to New Zealand.

One of the favourite landing places is said by Maori to be the Manganui Bluff, 25 miles south of Hokianga, towards the extreme north of the North Island, where the birds may be seen in numbers after their arrival, generally in a state of exhaustion. The bird is said to carry in its claws a small pebble, usually white, which it licks during flight when thirsty.

As to the mystery of how the cuckoo places its egg in the nest of its host, “the Maori has frequently seen the ’wharauroa at this work. For about eight months in the year the Maori roamed the bush weekly and even daily – for bird, berry and root foods. He saw the ’wharauroa select its nest and proceed, sometimes, to toss out the true eggs, with its bill. It sometimes crushed them in doing so, and sometimes ate them. It laid its own egg either on a stump, the barrel of a prone tree, or on the leafy ground. It then took the egg, at times in its bill and at times in its claws, – and put it into the nest. It worked silently and quickly, and sometimes remained concealed in the vicinity as if to see what the riroriro might do with its egg.”

* * *

Walking my dog along the river every morning, I listen for the call of Pipiwharauroa, the shining cuckoo, and am greatly disappointed if it doesn’t occur. Their voice starts like someone whistling for their dog and then tails off into a series of downward notes like a long sigh. Trying to follow the call to identify the bird can be a frustrating experience as it is very deceptive. The bird can be quite close without one knowing as the call starts off quietly as if a long way away, so they are difficult to actually sight.

However, I have been lucky in that they usually frequent the kowhai trees in the garden here and so I have often watched them meticulously searching through the tree at my kitchen window for the larvae of the kowhai moth. They are, I think, instrumental in keeping the kowhai trees around here very healthy. But this year I have only seen them twice which makes me fear their numbers are decreasing but hopefully I have just not been so observant. The bird is about the size of a sparrow and is wonderfully marked with an iridescent greenish blue coat above a striped off-white body. Their diet consists almost entirely of insects and their larvae and includes the hairy caterpillar of the magpie moth which is avoided by all other birds.

Last year I had the privilege of watching Riroriro, the grey warbler, feeding a fledgling shining cuckoo which was crying incessantly in one of the kanuka trees behind the hay barn. And later while walking along the road I found a pair feeding two birds. Luckily for them the coprosmas which hang over the road were infested with one of the shield beetles, otherwise I could not imagine how they could have fed such squawking monsters. My impression is, however, that the grey warbler, far from thinking rearing this bird to be a burden, seems quite proud of its prodigous adopted offspring for I have watched a pair of grey warblers following around a fully fledged young cuckoo, watching over it while it looked for food in the kowhai trees.

Like other cuckoos, the shining cuckoo neither builds its nest nor rears its young. It leaves this job to the grey warbler who manages to rear one clutch of its own before the cuckoo arrives here around September from the Solomon Islands and the Bismarck Archipelago.

This last spring I thought they were late arriving here and got quite panicky when I heard about the forest fires in South East Asia. I thought that they may have got caught up in all that terrible smog but an e-mail to Kevin Smith of Forest and Bird reassured me, although he thinks the logging in the Solomons will inevitably have an effect upon their numbers.

There is probably no doubt that the scarcity of insects in the winter has been behind the evolutionary drive for the shining cuckoo to migrate. They leave around February or March and follow a route north which is not clear. They may follow a different route from their spring migration. On leaving their winter quarters many, if not most, birds, make their way down the eastern Australian coast before flying across the Tasman to New Zealand. Immature birds may travel the same route in reverse while adults may make a more direct flight of over 3000 km over the Pacific Ocean when trade winds could give some assistance. They have been recorded on Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands during the migration seasons.

If the cuckoo’s migration path is a bit of a mystery, how it’s egg gets into the grey warbler’s nest is another. The grey warblers build a covered, hanging nest with a small circular entrance which is just too small for the cuckoo to enter without damaging the nest. However, in the September, 1991, Nortornis, the official publication of the New Zealand Ornithological Society, there is a photo of a cuckoo carrying an egg in its beak. In my view, this seems the most likely way in which the egg is placed in the warbler’s nest.

Maori tradition believed the shining cuckoo wintered in Hawaiki, which indicates that they were well aware of the bird’s migratory habits. However, it was probably from observing the long tailed cuckoo, Koekoea, which winters chiefly in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Cook, Society and Tuamotu groups, which lead the voyaging ancestors of Maori to believe that there was land to the south.

European tradition regarding cuckoos is quite different as is revealed by a song of Shakespeare’s: “The cuckoo then, on every tree, mocks married men; for thus sings he, cuckoo!”

Piwakawaka, the fantail

Apart from hiwaiwaka, tirairaka and tiwakawaka, there are sixteen other dialectal Maori names for the fantail, many of which denote the restlessness of this little bird.

Tiwakawaka is also the name of a grandson of the demi-god and folk hero Maui (Maui-potiki). He was one of the first maori settlers to arrive in the Bay of Plenty more than 1000 years ago, well before the main migrations. This was the time of the explorer Kupe and his grandson Nukutawhiti. Tiwakawaka was captain of Te Aratauwhaiti canoe and is said to have been one of Kupe’s people who stayed on when Kupe returned to eastern Polynesia.

When Nukutawhiti returned in Kupe’s canoe to New Zealand it was Tiwakawaka who came down to the beach to challenge him, no doubt boldly like the fantail. Kupe had seen the fantail, tiwakawaka, on his exploratory trip and noted that it carried its tail feathers erect and could spread them out like a fan. Its challenging behaviour reminded Kupe that he was entering the domain of Tane, god of the forest, and perhaps reminded him also of the mythical battle between the sea and land birds.

Taiaha weapon in hand, the fantail and its companion the owl, who was armed with a pouwhenua, advanced towards the forces of the sea birds. Fantail got into a towering passion and danced and glared and performed all manner of gesticulations. Indeed it is said that the war dance, the haka, owes something to this dance of the tiwakawaka in mythological times, or at least the single action in it of jumping from side to side while brandishing a weapon.

It is, however, in the stories of Maui that the tiwakawaka plays its most important role in Maori mythology. From its refusal to tell Maui where his ancentress Mahuika kept fire hidden, it got its very appearance. In retaliation Maui took the bird and squeezed it so hard that its eyes nearly popped out, hence their prominence now. This also explains why its tail projects so far behind its body and why it flies so erratically.

Let it now be said that the fantail got its revenge in full on Maui for his rough treatment by not obeying his instructions when it accompanied him on his last and greatest exploit to the realms of Hinenuitepo.

In those far off days Hinenuitepo, goddess of night, goddess of death, lived, as she does today, in the underworld of spirits. As mother of mankind she has decreed from the troublesome earliest days of creation that man should live one cycle of life, then die. Maui wanted to give mankind everlasting life. He sought to kill Hinenuitepo and by doing so abolish death forever.

When Maui asked his father what Hinenuitepo looked like, he replied: “you will see that her body is like that of a human being, but is of gigantic size, with thighs as red as the setting sun. You will see eyes of greenstone, flashing like the opening and shutting of the horizon in summer lightening. You will see teeth as sharp as flaked obsidian and a mouth like that of a barracouta, and hair like a tangled mass of sea kelp”.

Maui chose several bird companions besides the fantail to accompany him on his great quest. Because he had the ability to change into many life forms, he was able to travel with these birds to the underworld as a sparrow hawk.

Maui’s objective was to enter the womb of Hinenuitepo when she was sleeping and by passing through her vital organs to her mouth, to destroy death. He said to his companions, “My command is that when I enter the womb of Hinenuitepo, you must on no account laugh.”

So Maui, having taken on the form of the noke worm, then entered the womb but as he disappeared within, Tatahore, the whitehead, burst out laughing whilst the fantail rushed out and began dancing about with delight. And then was roused Hinenuitepo who closed her legs and strangled Maui and killed him.

Ohiwa Harbour, eastern Bay of Plenty, 2001.

Tarapunga of Mokoia Island

A winged habitant of the Rotorua country familiar to those who have done much fishing and camping round the lakes is the little sober plumaged gull that the Maori call the Tarapunga. Really a sea-bird, it found these lakes and the fishes thereof so much to its liking when it first made its way there from the Bay of Plenty coast – which is only thirty five miles away – that it became a permanent settler. It has breeding places on the pumice cliffs which shine as white as chalk on the eastern and north-eastern shores of Lake Rotorua. As night comes down, you will see it making homeward for its cliff nest, and often through the dark you may hear, particularly if you are in camp on the eastern side of the lake or on Mokoia Island, the thin, sharp cry of some belated gull, suggesting, say, a peevish ghost that has come home too late and found itself locked out.

Mokoia is a favourite haunt of the little birds. There is a low, sandy point which runs out to the eastward of Paepaerau beach, on the flat where the islanders have their whares and cultivations. On this point we used to see flocks of Tarapunga waiting patiently until the coming Marangai, the nor’-east breeze, should bring the shoals of whitebait, plentiful in the lake at certain seasons, close to shore. Presently there would be excitement and terror amongst the silvery Inanga, and jubilation amongst the well dined Tarapaunga.

But the most interesting thing about the lake gull is the fact of the Maori tapu that protects it from Arawa guns. No Maori would shoot Tarapunga. Human souls inhabit those birds, say the Arawa. The spirits of the dead enter into the Tarapunga; the leaders of the flocks are tribal chieftains of ancient days. So say the elders, just as old sailors say that when a bo’s’n dies, if he has been a good bo’s’n, he becomes an albatross and lives forever on the ocean wave.

And touching the origin of the tapu, here is the story, as narrated by an old Kuia at Mokoia Island, of Hongi’s invasion of the Rotorua District and how Ngapuhi with their guns camped on the Ohau beach until the war canoes had been brought up from the coast, and how they made their descent on Mokoia Island, where all the Arawa had assembled for safety: –

“It was in the days of Hongi Hika Kai-tangata, the Man-eater of the North, that these little birds of ours became for ever sacred to us.

“It was very early one misty morning,” the Kuia continued, “that they delivered their attack on this island. Our sentries did not see them at first, so that the enemy’s canoes were close up before the alarm was given. And the first our warriors knew of the Ngapuhi’s coming was the sight of a flock of Tarapunga suddenly flying up in alarm from the sandy point out yonder. The strange canoes appearing out of the fog startled the birds, and up they flew, screaming a warning to us that our foes were upon us. Our people at once knew that the Ngapuhi had alarmed the birds and they rushed to the beach to resist the invaders. And the birds circled overhead, tangi-ing with shrill voices, as they watched the defeat of their people the Arawa.

“Yes, we fell, and many scores of our dead were cooked in the ovens on this very flat and were eaten by the black-tatooed men of the north. My father fell there, and my uncles. My mother saved her life and my own – I was then but a little child. She ran with me on her back into the crowded meeting house, where the chieftainess Te Ao-Kapurangi saved so many of our tribe from slaughter.

“And afterwards, when peace came again, we remembered those Tarapunga birds, how they tried to save us that red morning on Mokoia here. Our priests karakia’d to them, recited their charms of propitiation and thanksgiving, and they declared that the birds should be tapu, for they acted as if they were human beings. We think that the spirits of our dead, those who died at the mouths of Hongi’s guns, and those who have since died in battle, enter into the bodies of those birds.

“And that is why we revere the Tarapunga today, and will suffer none, whether Pakeha or Maori, to injure them.”

Tieke, the saddleback

The saddleback takes its English name from the band of colour running across the adult bird’s back. According to Maori tradition the saddle marking was caused by the man-god Maui, Maui-potiki. This happened shortly after he and his brothers had snared the sun as it emerged from its cave. Maui beat the sun so mercilessly as it lay imprisoned close to the ground that it was greatly enfeebled. When the sun could take no more and pleaded for mercy, Maui released it, its energy all gone, so that it was able only slowly and wearily to make its way across the sky. Thus to this day we have longer daylight hours.

The heat of the sun and his exertions made Maui very thirsty so he asked Tieke, the saddleback to bring him some cold water but the bird pretended not to hear and took no notice. This irritated Maui so much that he seized it and in doing so singed its feathers with the heat of his hand. The markings on his back are a permanent reminded of how it incurred his displeasure. Maui then threw the bird away from him into the water that he had been unable to reach.

This is the reason that the Tieke became known to Maori as water bird. It was mentioned in invocations recited when rain was needed, when calling on Rangi, the sky father, to give assistance through his many offspring who control the weather.

Ngatoroirangi, the great ancestor and priestly tohunga of the Te Arawa tribe, owned two pet saddlebacks. They were renowned for their supernatural powers and wisdom and were claimed to be able to predict in their cries and manner of flight a change in the weather and which way the wind would blow. Therefore they had proved most helpful as pilots on the journey out from the Pacific with Te Arawa canoe.

The female sacred bird was named Mumuhau, the male bird Takareto. They stayed with Ngatoroirangi on Cuvier, Repanga, Island, and the saying is – Kei Repanga nga manu mohoi, ko Mumuhau, ko Takareto – At Repanga are the wise birds, Mumuhau and Takareto. Put another way – Manu mohoi kei Repanga – or to use an equivalent English expression: old birds are not caught with chaff.

They, or at least this bird species, continue to serve Maori at Cuvier Island as reliable barometers. The peculiar note of one is an unfailing sign of good weather, whilst the shrill cry of the other is a no less certain warning of storm.

According to Buller, the Tieke was not wilfully killed by Maori, it being regarded with a degree of superstitious reverence and as a bird of omen. It was supposed to keep guard over ancient treasures, while a war party hearing the call of the bird on the right considered it an omen of victory but on the left it presaged defeat.

Tui’s welcome speech

Ko Tu Koe?
Ko Rongo koe?
Ko te manuwhiri.
Nau mai!
Moemoetia mai te kuri.
Haere mai te manuwhiri!
No runga te manuwhiri?
No raro te manuwhiri?
No te ti?
No te ta?
No waka i-o-i?
Tupu wananga!
Ki Hawaiki!
E roro!
Ki-tahi! Ka tu ke! He!
Ko wai-wai?
Ka kore-kore te toki!
Te Whare-pa-tahi!
Te Whare-pa-rua!
Te huia te rangiora.
E roro ki waho.
Ko Tu koe?
Ko Rongo koe?
Ko tenei te manuwhiri!
Nau mai!
Kahore te kai i te kainga.
E Rongo!
E Rongo!
E Rongo! Maru! Awa!
He aha te tai?
Ka timu te tai.
Nga tai o te tu!
Ko waka rara.
No tau na.
Ma nga wai
E tari taua.
E tai.
Homai te wai.
Ka hi te kai.
Ka whakarere te kai.
E kai!
Ari nui!
Ari roa!
Ari manawa-nawa!
E Titi-rau-ma-ewa!
E to kai moana!
E roro ki waho!
Art thou Tu?
Art thou Rongo?
It is the guest.
Sleep with the dog.
Welcome to the guest!
From the south is the guest?
From the north is the guest?
From somewhere?
From anywhere?
Perhaps he has come by canoe?
Ah! They speak now in oracles!
About Hawaiki!
What wonderful lore and knowledge!
An apt proverb! It stands apart! O joy!
Who can he be who is speaking?
Speak on!
What a tongue to be sure!
Te Whare-pa-tahi!
A second Te Whare-pa-tahi!
A recital of the divine history of man.
Impart thy lore to me.
Art thou Tu?
Art thou Rongo?
This is the guest!
There is no food in the village.
E Rongo!
E Rongo!
E Rongo! Maru! Awa!
How fareth the tide?
The tide is ebbing.
Tides which provide abundance of food! Yonder are the canoes.
Which secure food during the year round.
The waters
Bear us two along.
O tide.
Give us of your waters.
We fish the foods.
Abundantly, even to wasting it.
Eat of it then!
It is plenteous!
It is lasting!
It causes anxiety.
Thanks to the female sea diety!
Thanks for thy sea-foods!
Impart thy lore to me!

The Song of the Tui

This little song, the Maori idea of the duet of a pair of tui, the male and female birds, was recited by Mere Ngamai o Te Wharepouri, the venerable lady of Ngati-Awa, who gave me (Sir Maui Pomare), much other poetic lore of her people.

The two birds, said she, are sitting on a bough of a tree, the tane and the wahine, and this is their musical dialogue. The tane says to his bird wife:

“Te tu e hu,
Te tu e hu,
Te to karekare
Te memeke tetere ma-maku
Riri hengihengi.”

(These words describe the gentle, soothing sound of the birds as they flit on softly winnowing wings to and fro, and their movements in shaking their plumage free of moisture in the foliage.)

The male bird nods his head repeatedly as he utters these words and shakes his white throat-tassel.

The female bird says:

“Ko wai, ko wai tenei?
Ko au, ko au;
Tui pai, huruhuru maeneene.
Ko terepu, terewai.

(Who, who is this? ‘Tis I, the pretty tui, with soft, smooth plumage.’ The words in the last two lines are onomatopoetic, descriptive of the musical call and the deep-throated gurgling sound often uttered by the tui.)

The pair flap their wings and they rise and fly away to the fork of a tree nearby, where the keikei plant grows in great bunches, with ripe tirori fruit (patangatanga), usually called the tawhara, which is the name of the flower.

The female bird utters these words:

“E toro
E toro
Ki te pakihaka tirori
Ma taua.”

(“Reach out, stretch out and break off the sweet fruit of the keikei for us two.”)

The birds feast on the tirori fruit, and then the tane utters this in a flute-like note, prolonged to a whistle:

“Hu-hu-e! whio-o, whio-o!”