Story: Ngā manu – birds

Birds had a vital place in traditional Māori life, providing food, and feathers for adornment and cloaks. Their habits were closely observed, and were a rich source of metaphor and poetry. Birds’ behaviour was used to predict the weather, and sometimes the future.

Full story by Kelly Keane
Main image: Ruru (morepork)

The Short Story

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Birds were important in traditional Māori life. They were used for food, and people wore their feathers. Birds’ behaviour was used to predict the weather or the future.

Status symbols

Some birds were compared to chiefs, or provided feathers for important people to wear.

  • The huia’s white-tipped black feathers were worn by people of high rank, and were kept in a special carved box called a waka huia.
  • Kiwi meat was eaten by chiefs. Kahu kiwi (cloaks) were made from kiwi feathers.
  • Tūī can imitate other birds and people. They were sometimes taught to talk, and kept by chiefs.
  • Kākā had red feathers under their wings. These were made into cloaks for important people.

Seeing the future

People believed that some birds brought good or bad luck, or signalled what would happen in the future.

  • The kāreke (marsh crake) had a call that was good luck if you heard it on the right. It was bad luck to hear the kāreke call on your left.
  • If a tīwaiwaka (fantail) came into a house, people believed someone would die.
  • The kōmiromiro (tomtit) was thought to bring good news.

Predicting the weather

Māori watched birds carefully. They thought that some birds’ actions predicted the weather.

  • If the kārearea (falcon) screamed on a sunny day, people believed the next day would be rainy. If it screamed on a rainy day, the next day would be fine.
  • The pīpīwharauroa (shining cuckoo) arrived in New Zealand at the start of spring. When people heard it call, they knew it was time to plant crops.

Sayings about birds

Sayings compared people to different types of birds.

  • The kāhu (hawk) was seen as noble, like a chief.
  • The korimako (bellbird) sings beautifully. Great singers and speakers were compared to it.
  • The pārera (grey duck) is a big eater. Greedy people were said to be like the pārera.

Names

Māori often named birds after their calls, their feathers, or the way they acted.

  • The kea’s name comes from its call: ‘keee aaa’.
  • The kuruwhengu’s name means ‘snuffle’, because of the way it feeds, upside down in shallow water.
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How to cite this page:

Kelly Keane. 'Ngā manu – birds', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 4-Dec-12
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/nga-manu-birds