In traditional Māori thought, many birds were seen as chiefly. The feathers of certain birds were used as adornment for high-born people – particularly plumes worn in the hair. Chiefs wore the kahu huruhuru (feather cloak), made from the feathers of the most beautiful birds.
The huia, extinct since the early 20th century, had black tail feathers with white tips, which high-ranking people wore in their hair. The group of 12 feathers from a huia’s tail, usually still joined at the base, was called a mareko, and was worn by high chiefs going into battle. Huia feathers were kept in a carved wooden chest called a waka huia.
The male huia had a straight beak, while the female’s was curved. One story explains its origin. A chief found a female huia in a trap, and plucked two tail feathers as plumes. He enchanted the bird so she would return when he needed more plumes. One time she arrived with feathers ruffled from sitting on her nest. Annoyed, the chief gave her a long, curved beak so she could reach her tail feathers and lift them out of the way.
The kākā, a cheeky parrot, had red feathers under its wings. Māori associated the colour red with high rank, and only high-status people wore cloaks made with kākā feathers. Kākā were kept as pets, and were often used as decoys when fowling. The kākā has a loud, harsh call, so Māori describe talkative people as big-mouthed kākā (he kākā waha nui) or kākā heads (he pane kākā).
The kākāpō, a flightless nocturnal parrot, was used for food, and its beautiful yellow-green and brown feathers were used to make cloaks for high-born people. Kākāpō also made good pets.
The kererū’s colourful feathers were used to make cloaks. Their tail feathers adorned tahā huahua and pātua – containers for holding preserved birds.
In one tradition, the kererū’s feathers were originally white. The legendary trickster Māui wanted to find out where his mother, Taranga, went during the day. He hid her skirt to delay her, but she left anyway. Māui changed into a white kererū to follow her, still holding the skirt, which became the bird’s beautiful multicoloured plumage. The kererū was also a valued food source.
The kiwi was known as ‘te manu huna a Tāne’, the hidden bird of Tāne (god of the forest), because it came out mostly at night and was seldom seen. Kiwi meat was considered fit for chiefs. Their feathers were woven into rare, beautiful cloaks called kahu kiwi, which were considered taonga (treasures). The cloaks are used on special ceremonial occasions, such as the tangi (funeral) in August 2006 of the Māori queen, Te Arikinui Dame Atairangikaahu.
The regal-looking kōtuku appears in a well-known whakataukī (saying), ‘He kōtuku rerenga tahi’ (a white heron of a single flight). This can refer to a distinguished visitor who visits only rarely. Long plumes from the kōtuku’s broad wings, called piki kōtuku, were prized as head ornaments by people of high rank.
Tākapu were valued for their white down and plumes. The plumes were used as hair adornments, and the soft belly feathers were made into pōhoi – feather balls worn in the ear by men and women of rank.
Māori associate tara with high status because of the birds’ beauty and grace. A group of chiefs might be honoured or praised as ‘he tāhuna ā-tara’ – a sand bank of terns.
The tail feathers of the huia, the dorsal plumes of the kōtuku, and a full headdress of albatross feathers were all known as ‘te rau o Tītapu’ (the feathers of Tītapu). Tītapu was said to be an island in Cook Strait that was visited by albatrosses, but has since sunk beneath the sea.
The toroa’s prized white feathers were worn on important occasions by leading men. Toroa feathers used as plumes are known as raukura or kaiwharawhara. Soft feathers from the belly were made into pōhoi toroa – feather ball earrings.
Tūī imitate the songs of other birds, and can also imitate people. The birds were sometimes tamed and taught to speak. They were taught mihi (greetings) which they would recite when visitors arrived, as well as prayers and proverbs. They were often trained to sound like the loud and deep voice of a chief. A tūī that spoke like this was called a manu rangatira – a chiefly bird. Sometimes a tūī was named after a tribe’s famous ancestor, and kept by the chief.
Some birds were linked with death and grieving.
In Māori tradition, spirits leave this world at Te Rēinga in the far north. Departing spirits are compared to the migratory kūaka in the saying ‘me he kāhui kūaka’ (like a flock of godwits).
To some tribes, the mātātā is tapu (sacred). When a chief died and was buried, men would catch a mātātā from a swamp. The bird was used in a ceremony to help lead the dead man’s spirit to the legendary Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki.
A heavy rain cape made from undressed flax has been appreciatively described as a mātātā’s house, because it resembles the bird’s snug nest.
The male matuku has a loud booming cry to ward off other males in the breeding season. It was thought the matuku boomed from loneliness and sorrow, and that hearing its call could help people express grief. A lament sung by a grieving person describes the singer as a matuku:
Kei te matuku, e hū ana i te repo, i!
A bittern booming in the marsh!
The moho pererū’s call sometimes sounds like laughter. In one story, the legendary demigod Māui tried to overcome death by passing through the body of the sleeping goddess of death, Hine-nui-te-pō. His attempt to enter her was halted by the moho pererū, which laughed and woke the goddess. This is recalled in an old lament:
Ehara i te taru te mate.
Kua mate mai i mua, i a Māui –
Nā te pātātai i kata, ka motu ki roto rā …
Death is no light matter.
There was death in the past, with Māui –
When the pātātai (moho pererū) laughed, Māui was cut off within …
The fantail has 20 or 30 different Māori names. As well as tīwaiwaka, it is commonly called pīwakawaka, tīwakawaka or tīrairaka. In one tradition, it was the fantail that caused Māui’s death, so it is a harbinger of death when seen inside in a house. A fidgety person is described as a fantail’s tail, because of the bird’s restless movements.
The behaviour of some birds was believed to foretell the future. Their call, or arrival, was thought to bring good or bad luck.
Māori believed that kāreke could foretell the future. If someone heard the kāreke cry to their left, bad luck lay ahead; if they heard the cry on the right, it brought good luck.
Gulls evoke sun, sea and surf for both Māori and Europeans. It was thought to be a bad omen to see karoro inland. A person habitually living by the sea was called a ‘karoro that drinks the tide’. Gulls were sometimes kept as pets – they kept garden pests under control.
The kōmiromiro (tomtit) was sometimes used as a go-between for estranged husbands and wives. The abandoned partner would consult a priest for an ātahu (love charm). It was believed that the bird would fly to the missing wife or husband and land on their head. Unable to resist the spell, they would return home. The kārearea (falcon) was also used to bring back a straying partner by dropping a feather on their head.
Kōmiromiro were seen as bearers of good news. People believed they had special powers, and saw them as tapu (sacred). An observant person was said to have ‘he kanohi kōmiromiro’, the eye of a tomtit, referring to the careful way the bird looked for small insects.
Now extinct, the piopio was also known as tiutiu kata (laughing tiutiu) because its call sounded like ominous laughter. Hearing or seeing the bird was considered bad luck, and it was called a manu aituā – a bird of ill omen.
Like kōmiromiro, whiteheads were thought to have a positive influence on people’s wellbeing. In the Whanganui district they were believed to be the spirits of the dead. In other regions, they showed that spirits would soon arrive.
The ruru, New Zealand’s native owl, has large, staring eyes and a mournful cry, echoed by its name. Ruru provide a rich source of symbolism for Māori. Their haunting cry and watchful nature are linked with tapu (spiritual restriction), guardianship, forewarning, grief and awareness.
Tarāpunga are firmly entrenched in Māori lore. They were made tapu (sacred) after their loud cries alerted the Te Arawa tribes to Ngāpuhi invaders paddling to Mokoia Island, and prevented a surprise attack.
The turiwhatu appears in a number of songs. Poets predicting a cataclysmic disaster claim that no-one will survive but the little turiwhatu.
The whēkau, now extinct, had a call that was thought to warn of bad fortune. Its name means entrails, because it ate the entrails of the kiore (native rat) and small birds.
Māori observed birds carefully, and their actions were often believed to predict the weather.
Māori saw hurupounamu as tapu (sacred), and believed that if one was killed, snow would fall.
The kārearea’s cry was believed to foretell the weather, as in the saying:
Ka tangi te kārewarewa ki waenga o te rangi pai, ka ua āpōpō.
Ka tangi ki waenga o te rangi ua, ka paki āpōpō.
When a kārearea screams in fine weather, next day there’ll be rain.
When it screams in the rain, next day will be fine.
The calls of the migratory pīpīwharauroa and koekoeā heralded the arrival of spring. These birds laid a single egg in another bird’s nest. The intruder’s egg hatched first, and the chick pushed the other eggs out of the nest so it was the only mouth for the parent birds to feed. A lazy, irresponsible parent was said to be like the pīpīwharauroa or the koekoeā (‘ka rite koe ki te koekoeā’).
The position of the riroriro’s nest was believed to indicate the prevailing wind, as the nest’s entrance faced away from the wind.
The riroriro’s song signalled the time to plant crops. The bird is also mentioned in a saying about a lazy person who doesn’t help plant the seeds, but turns up later to eat the harvest:
I whea koe i te tangihanga o te riroriro, ka mahi kai māu?
Where were you when the riroriro was singing, that you didn’t work to get yourself food?
When the tōrea cried ‘keria, keria’ (dig, dig), it was seen as a sign of an approaching storm – in other words, dig for shellfish before the storm comes. After a storm, the bird is said to call ‘tōkia, tōkia’, meaning that calm has settled and all is well.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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 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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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’ 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 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 live in turbulent white-water rivers and remote high-country waterways. They are named for the male’s call – whio means whistle in Māori.
Orbell, Margaret. Birds of Aotearoa: a natural and cultural history. Auckland: Reed, 2003.
Riley, Murdoch. Maori bird lore: an introduction. Paraparaumu: Viking Sevenseas, 2001.