Decimating Birds: Episode IV Courting Extinction

29 December 2006

4) Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris)


Dead Huia photgraph by John Thomas Pusateri Jr. 2005

The last confirmed sighting of a wild Huia was on a remote New Zealand mountain very nearly 100 years ago, in 1907. All that remains today of this marvellous wattlebird (family Callaeidae) are preserved specimens scattered in museums across the world.

And then there’s the Hamana recording. Made in the 1954(?), some half-a-century after the official extinction date, this is surely one of the most haunting onomatopoems in the world. David Hindley apparently used the Hamana recording as the basis for an appropriately rare recording, Homage to the Huia (1992).

Proverbial fashion victims, the Huia died for their beauty, or at least for the faddish appeal of their bold two-tone tail feathers. Huia feathers were honored as taonga and as such ownership of them was controlled by strict social code.

The abrupt re-arrival of terrestrial mammals, in dugout canoes, dealt a jarring blow to the unique avifauna of New Zealand. Some, like the Moas, were actively hunted to extinction by humans while many more probably succumbed to the onslaught of imported mammalian commensals (rats et al.). By the time William Swainson arrived in New Zealand only three species of wattlebirds occupied New Zealand, the Tieke, the Kokako and the Huia.

Yet, despite the Maori’s less than perfect species conservation record, it seems that Huia populations were stable before European contact, perhaps protected by this rigid social contract of Tapu and Taonga.  Hunters were still able to slaughter them in the hundreds at the end of the 19th century.

Like other wattlebirds, Huia sported colorful fleshy protuberances from their chin. However, Huia are best remembered for their unique form of sexual dimorphism, manifested not in size or plumage but in beak, the male’s thick and scimitar-like, the female’s a slender tapering bow.

The story goes that the male and female worked a cooperative grub-mining operation, the male breaking off large pieces of infested bark, and the female probing burrows and crevices the male could not reach. Although such behavioral partitioning of foraging activity is not uncommon in birds (especially during nesting), such extreme morphological differentiation is unknown in any living species.

Maori legend gave a different explanation for the shape of the female’s beak:

‘Long, long ago, some time after the great canoe migration to Aotea-roa (New Zealand), there was a high-ranking chief who was in the habit of going up into the mountains to set snares for birds. One day when he went to gather in his catch he was surprised to see a strange bird held in one of his snares. Of course, the stranger was the huia.

‘The chief was full of admiration for the beautiful bird he had captured and he plucked two feathers from its tail and wore them in his hair. Perhaps this was the first occasion the huia feathers were worn as a head decoration.

‘Before liberating the huia, the chief bestowed upon it a magic spell and mana (power) with the command that the bird was to appear before him when it was wanted. ‘Now it happened that on one occasion when the chief requested the bird to appear, it was nesting time for the huia and its tail feathers were ruffled and in a bad state. The chief was very angry and asked the bird why its tail feathers were in such a bad condition. The bird told him that it was through sitting on its nest.

‘The chief then said: “I will provide you with a means that will enable you to keep your tail feathers in good order when I next call on you.” He took hold of the huia, which was a female, and bent its beak into a circular shape. He then commanded the huia that every time it sat on its nest, it was to pick up its tail feathers with its circular beak and lift them clear of the nest.’ (Saunders 1968)

Indeed, it was those beautiful tail-feathers that rushed the rare Huia to extinction at the turn of Century 20. Duke of Yorkie, later King George V, went to New Zealand in 1901 riding on steamer(?) he stuck a feather in his cap and sealed the Huia’s fate. The market forces of international fashion swamped the Tapu restraints and within a decade the Huia was gone.

It’s been a good year for fossils, but a bad year for extinction. We seem to have lost the Ivory-Billed again. I continue to mourn the apparent loss of the Baiji, although I anxiously await Darren Naish to reveal some evidence of their cryptic persistence.

Being lately separated from my own mate1, it strikes me that the most tragic moment of extinction isn’t the last breath of the last individual, but his doomed cries as he wanders the forest calling to a mate who isn’t there2.

So here again is the Hamana recording.

UPDATE JUNE 23 2010:

Huia related links, like the birds themselves, have a nasty habit of going extinct. The copies of the Hamana recording that were available online in 2006, have since disappeared. However a video version is available here, for the time being at least.

1– Note the uptick in blog activity, which should cease tomorrow.
2– No. I suppose it is actually that fateful intangible moment where the reproductive capacity of the breeding population ceases to match mortality.

2 Responses to “Decimating Birds: Episode IV Courting Extinction”

  1. Neil Says:

    wow, no one is gutsy enough to comment (even to point out the rampant grammatical errors?)?

  2. […] Posts Decimating Birds: Episode IV Courting ExtinctionWWTD (what would Tufte do?)Chutes and ChutesEnigmatic Triassic Hellasaur Thursday: Part the, um […]

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