Whakataukī (sayings) and metaphors often compared people’s behaviour – favourably or unfavourably – with that of birds. Birds also make many appearances in stories – notably those about Māui, the demigod trickster.
Kāhu (harrier) and kārearea (falcon)
The kāhu was believed to be noble like a chief, while the kārearea (falcon) was seen as bold, assertive and treacherous. A saying suggests that people should take care to identify their allies and their enemies:
Homai te kāeaea kia toro-māhangatia
Ko te kāhu te whakaora – waiho kia rere ana!
The kārearea must be snared
And the kāhu saved – let it fly on!
The term kawau mārō means a column of men who advance to face their enemy and perform a haka (war dance). It comes from the saying ‘Ka mārō te kakī o te kawau’ (the neck of the shag is stiffened), referring to the way a kawau stretches its neck before flying.
Kōkako are well known for their beautiful song. In one story, Māui asked the different birds for water. The kōkako agreed, and filled its ears with water. Māui rewarded the bird by stretching its legs so it could move with swift hops. The ‘water’ can be seen in the kōkako’s blue wattles.
Koreke (New Zealand quail)
The koreke was extinct by about 1875. When disturbed in their tussock habitat, quail fly up quickly with a whirring of feathers. Māori likened this to a sudden encounter with an enemy. The koreke’s frightened response is described in the saying:
Whiti koreke, ka kitea koe!
Haere whakaparirau i a koe, haere whakamanu.
The koreke springs up – you’re found!
Go get yourself wings, go turn into a bird.
Great singers and orators were praised by being compared to the korimako, a beautiful singer.
He rite ki te kōpara e kō nei i te ata.
Just like a korimako singing at dawn.
Home and away
The saying ‘He kūkū ki te kāinga, he kākā ki te haere’ (a pigeon at home, a parrot abroad) refers to someone who takes little care of their personal appearance at home, but dresses up when they go out. It can also mean a person who keeps quiet at home but talks a lot when they’re out.
Māori admired kōtare for being like a watchful sentry. The bird perches motionless, then attacks its prey in a sudden blur. The word kōtare sometimes referred to the elevated platform in a pā, used to watch for enemies.
The moa, a large flightless bird, became extinct centuries ago. Knowledge of moa was passed down through stories, songs and whakataukī (sayings). One saying, lamenting the death of many people, is ‘Kua ngaro i te ngaro o te moa’ (we are lost, lost like the moa).
Pārera (grey duck)
The way the pārera feeds is compared to a greedy person’s behaviour, in the saying ‘He pārera apu kai’ (the duck is a gross feeder).
Poaka (pied stilt)
Hauraki legend compared Pāoa, an important chief, to the poaka because his dignified bearing and long strides were like the bird’s.
Ka kohure a Pāoa, me te turuturu-pourewa te ahua e haere atu ana.
Pāoa was taller than any of them, walking along like a poaka.
Pūkeko (swamp hen)
Pūkeko were known for their bold scheming and determination – they raided gardens for kūmara (sweet potato) and taro. A stubborn, annoying person was compared to the bird, and was said to have pūkeko ears (taringa pākura).
One tradition explains the origin of the pūkeko’s red bill. When Tāwhaki, a handsome high chief, lay dead and bleeding, his blood marked the pūkeko’s bill.
Weka are inquisitive birds, a trait which makes them easy to catch. A saying about weka questions whether a person will make the same mistake twice:
Makere te weka i te māhanga e hoki anō?
Will a weka that has escaped the snare return?