In a country known globally for its unique bird diversity and the tragic loss of its birdlife following human arrival, no species resonates more in the stories of the formation of our nation than the huia.
North Island residents
The Huia Heterolocha acutirostris - a large glossy black bird with orange wattles, an ivory coloured bill and long tail feathers tipped with a striking broad band of white - was a member of an endemic New Zealand bird family (the wattlebirds), which also contained the saddleback and kokako. The species was restricted to the North Island but was widespread in the old growth forest that covered much of the island at the time of the arrival by Polynesian voyagers between 1200 and 1300 AD.
A symbol of a rangatira (leader)
For Māori the huia was revered as a symbol of nobility, leadership and hierarchy. The white-tipped tail feathers were worn as head adornments to signify chiefs and people of great mana (authority and power).
The huia was exchanged as a gift of friendship around the country, often in waka huia (carved treasure boxes to house huia). The important status of the huia, as a symbol of esteem, was witnessed and soon adopted by European settlers. Dried heads and beaks were fashioned into gold-capped pendants and the signature feathers were worn to beautify Victorian dress.
Recognising the increased desire and impact on huia populations, iwi implemented rāhui (hunting restrictions) to conserve huia, particularly during the spring and summer breeding season. As a result huia remained relatively numerous across a retracted range in the lower and central North Island; however the population slowly declined bringing about their ultimate extinction.
A scientific marvel
European scientists of the day quickly realised that the huia was something special. Operating similarly to a woodpecker in the New Zealand forest, birds exhibited such a remarkable difference in bill shape between the sexes that two species were initially named. Male huia had a short robust bill and muscular skull structure suited to ripping open rotting wood; female birds had long, thin, curved bills that were suited to extracting the grubs and invertebrates.
Huia remain the world's greatest example of extreme dimorphism in bill morphology in birds, an adaptation that likely allowed them to exploit a greater range of foraging habitats and to minimise competition between the sexes.
The impact of colonisation
However change was coming to the world of the huia. The years between the first published account of huia in 1835 and the end the 19th century saw rapid loss of the old growth lowland forest critical to huia survival. Pastoral areas increased from 1.5 million acres to 5 million acres between the mid 1880s to early 1900s.
Equally damaging was the impact of naturalists with collectors rushing to add large numbers of birds to overseas collections. Andreas Reischeck, an Austrian taxidermist who worked briefly for Auckland Museum, collected 212 pairs of huia for the Vienna Natural History Museum and Walter Buller recorded a hunting party collecting 646 birds between Manawatu and Akitio in 1883. The colonial view of the day was that inferior native species, including tangata whenua, needed to be adequately documented before their inevitable decline in the face of competition from superior European stock.
Naturally an unscrupulous trade began of stuffed birds, feathers and gold jewellery incorporating huia bills. The bird was widely represented in art and featured on postage stamps. Pākeha men began copying the Māori tradition by wearing huia feathers in their hatbands. This trend was cemented when in 1901 the Duke of York, heir to the British throne, was gifted a huia feather that he wore in his hat.
Protection comes too late
By the late 1800s Māori and European naturalists were concerned at the rapid decline in huia numbers and sought protection for the birds. However among the many negative impacts of colonisation on Māori society was a decline in chiefly authority regarding rāhui and government departments were also slow to respond to concerns that the huia could disappear.
In 1892 the Animals Protection Act (1880) was amended to give huia nationwide protection. Recommendations were also made to transfer birds to bird sanctuaries such as Kapiti Island and Little Barrier Island. Sadly, despite a number of birds being captured for the purpose, these translocations were never made.
The last confirmed sighting of huia was made on 28 December 1907; however credible reports of birds were made in the 1920s and even the 1960s in Te Urewera National Park.
Whereas loss of habitat and hunting pressure likely drove the huia towards its end, it is most likely the species was finished off by a furry plague. Sweeping off ships in the form of stoats, weasels, ferrets, cats and rats, these predator populations were widely established in the North Island by the late 1800s.
A story of our land
The story of the huia weaves the strands of biology, history, conservation, arts and culture that were embedded in the framework of a fledgling New Zealand.
Today the huia still inspires artists, historians and conservationists, reminding us of Aotearoa's beauty and fragility and of the importance of understanding the past to move forward into the future.
Cite this article
The Huia. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 13 July 2015. Updated: 12 November 2019.