Māori often named birds after their call, their plumage or their behaviour.
In one of the many stories about the demigod Māui, the hihi refused to fetch water for him after he had captured the sun and slowed it down. Māui threw the bird into the fire, burning its feathers. Hihi means rays of the sun, and the bird’s name refers to the male’s yellow breast plumage – a reminder of sun and fire.
Hōkioi (Haast’s eagle)
The giant Haast’s eagle is extinct, and known only through oral tradition. The hōkioi was seldom seen, and its cry was considered a bad omen. The bird’s name sounds like its call: ‘Hōkioi, hōkioi, hu!’ In the south, it was known as Te Pouākai.
Kākā means parrot, and riki means little. The saying ‘He kākāriki kai ata’ (a kākāriki eating in the morning) refers to a person who acts like the kākāriki, eating greedily in the morning before working.
The name of this mountain parrot sounds like its call – ‘keee aaa’. Although its meat was tough and lean, it was included in the Māori diet. The Waitaha tribe believed that kea, along with the kāhu (harrier) and ruru (morepork), were kaitiaki (guardians) of their people.
This duck’s name means ‘snuffle’. It refers to their method of feeding as they up-end in shallow water.
The pāpango’s name refers to its dark plumage – as does another of its names, matapōuri (dark face).
Hoiho, pokotiwha and kororā (penguins)
The name of the hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin) comes from its call. The pokotiwha (Fiordland crested penguin) is named for its yellow crest and eyebrow stripes (poko means head, tiwha means gleaming). The name of the kororā (little penguin) is probably a rendition of one of its calls.
The pīhoihoi was believed to be noisy; hoihoi means ‘Be quiet’. Another of its names, whioi, means whistler.
What’s in a name?
The male kiwi’s cry was said to be ‘koire’ or ‘hoire’, and the female’s was ‘poāi’. The shrill whistle of the male calling its mate sounded like ‘kiwi’ – so this may be the origin of its name. Others believe that the kiwi’s name is adapted from kivi, the bristle-thighed curlew, which early Māori settlers may have remembered from their Polynesian homeland.
Pītoitoi or karuwai (robin)
The robin’s call sounded like pi-toi-toi-toi. It was also known as karuwai (water eye) because of its watery eyes. The bird’s call was thought to bring good or bad news, depending on the time and place.
The takahē was believed to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1948. It was known as a solitary bird – hence its other name, moho (hermit). The takahē’s night cry was described by Māori as sounding like two pieces of pounamu (greenstone) struck together.
Tētē whero (brown teal)
‘Tētē’ is the Māori rendition of the ducks’ quacking. Whero (red) refers to their reddish-brown plumage.
The name tīeke sounds like the birds’ call when disturbed. Another name, tīeke rere, comes from their cry when alarmed.
Tītiti pounamu (rifleman)
Tītiti refers to the bird’s high-pitched call, while pounamu (greenstone) probably describes the male’s bright green feathers. Because tītiti pounamu often lived in beech forest, they were also known as momo-tawai (the beech-tree species).
Whio (blue duck)
Whio live in turbulent white-water rivers and remote high-country waterways. They are named for the male’s call – whio means whistle in Māori.