Legend of Birds
National Film Unit, 1962
In the legends of the Māori, Tāne, child of earth and heaven, became the father of the rivers and the gentle noise of air bore him a family which was the multitude of trees, and the legend tells how Tāne searched until he found two sisters: she who chuckles in the brooks and she who wanders in the heavens, and from them came other children; the little birds of old New Zealand.
To these islands full of birdsong came the mighty Māori people, made their homes to sound of birdsong, wove their birds into their folktales, carved their artifacts from branches now only seen in our museums.
Sometimes the hunter used a bird spear, at other times a clever snare. When a bird has eaten berries, he grows very slow and thirsty. So, a water trough was put there and the snares lay all around it. All the birds that he had captured were partly cooked and put in bird fat. Safe inside a gourd, he kept them for the hungry days of winter.
Māori cloaks used many feathers, like the warm brown of the kiwi, colour from the kākā parrot, finer feathers from the tūī, and the feathers from the pigeons made them cloaks of vivid patterns.
But the rarest of the feathers plucked out from the tails of huia were the badge of tribal chieftains, kept in boxes: waka huia. Many birds he used as decoy, many pets he kept on purchase which he spent much time in carving for his forest friend to rest on.
Yet the strongest link with birds is in the legends told about them. The Māori feared the night black forest, and the little owl called ruru was thought to be in the power of witches. Yet he could drive off evil spirits, so the Māori gave their carvings glaring eyes as bright as ruru, so their homes would be protected.
Dawn comes, old ruru sleeps. Then the small birds of the forest would wake the warrior with a chorus and he would hear the little robin sing from the highest forest branches.
Pītoitoi, the Māori called him. You'll often find him on the forest floor. Friendly, cheeky, hopping, pecking, head cocked sideways, almost mocking, and today he's found a nest of ants with tasty larvae. When he's eaten, he'll hide the rest in bark and crevice for the time when food is scarcer. Māori legends says the white speck just above his beak was put there for bad manners shown to Maui, the greatest hero of the legends. He builds his nest in four days only and when he finds a mate to share it, he'll stay with her for a lifetime.
Tāne's children aren't all cheeky, bold and mocking like the robin, for the smallest child of Tāne is the shy and gentle fairy: the rifleman, a forest phantom. His nest is hidden in a tree and the entrance to his home is scarcely wider than a finger.
New Zealand was a land of birds and in this island paradise, there were no animals to harm them.
Love's messenger, the bright-eyed tomtit, can look into the hearts of lovers and they call her miromiro. The female is a mottled brown, but the male is black and glossy and they're nearly always seen together. Although the male is main provider, both take part in feeding young ones and the mother's task is breaking up the food. She's careful that she doesn't choke them.
This is a hard time for the mother for the chicks are always hungry and many days she will go hungry herself to keep her children happy. Science talks of natural instinct, but Māori spoke of it as love, the love of a mother for her children.
Legend says a mighty battle once took place inside the forest when the sea birds came to steal the fish and eels from forest lakes. Hearing of the fierce invaders, all the land birds gathered forces and who should challenge the invaders but the fantail, pīwakawaka, with the flicking of his tail. The movements of the flashing fantail could be seen in Māori war dance. When you see his white tail flicker, think of the taiaha twisting in the hands of Māori chieftains when they challenged hostile tribesmen. This flicking, agile tail helps manoeuvre him in flying, catching insects on the wing.
His favorite food is moth, puriri, and he feeds them to his fledgling.The twittering laughter of the fantail awoke the terrible queen of darkness when mighty Maui was about to kill her. She quickly crushed the mighty hero and so the queen of darkness still descends upon the forest every evening.
Sweet the singing of the bellbird. When they were named, Māori children used to eat a meal of bellbird, so their voices would be tuneful.
The sweet-singing and sweet-eating bellbird feeds on nectar from the flowers. Legend says the trees will die if birds are driven from the forest. This is true because the blossoms fertilise themselves from pollen which is shaken from their feathers. Those who live beside the forest love the sound of bellbirds singing, so they put out pots of honey and the flicking tongues of bellbirds lick the nectar, storing it to feed their young ones.
The secret language of the forests spreads the news of gifts from humans.
The bellbird lives quite happily with his neighbour called the tūī, but tūī are the clever mimic and may copy any bird cry.
"He has a tūī`s throat", the Māori used to say to praise a speaker.
With a noisy and erratic flight, the tūī goes to gather honey from the native kōwhai branches.
Kererū, the slow wood pigeon, was the shape that mighty Maui took to show himself to Māori, but when the pigeon wasn't Maui in disguise, they caught him very easily with hand or trap or bird spear. Kererū, the pigeon, gorges buds and berries from the tree tops, for there will come a time in winter when the berries fall and wither, and the Māori hunter knew that berries make the pigeon thirsty; that's why his water trough could snare so many birds.
The flightless weka is impudent, as bold as brass; a forest outlaw. Shiny objects or food left lying disappear when he's out prowling. The hen is sometimes bigamous, having two males to find her food and quite a lawless family.
Only weka, quite unflustered, would return for one with mustard.
The kiwi is a bird quite different, quite peculiar to New Zealand; he's become the nation's emblem. Tail-less, flightless, quite a freak, and his nostrils are found at the tip of his beak.
The kiwi, though no bigger than a hen, lays an egg that's quite enormous. Some believe he represents a very early phase in bird life. He feeds on worms and grubs and insects. The nickname "kiwi" is applied to all New Zealanders, but very few have ever seen him, for like the owl he lives by night and isn't very happy in the light.
Takahē is still another curious bird of old New Zealand. Few have seen him too, yet this isn't so surprising when you realise there are only a few hundred of them still surviving. He was thought to be extinct until a scientist came across him in the snow grass of Fiordland. Like the kiwi, he is also flightless.
Grass is the main food of the takahē, and his beak as sharp as scissors cuts the grass into small pieces.
Hear that song?
The sweet grey warbler tells the Māori: "time for planting", and the Māori, crops all gathered, calls out to a lazy gardener:
"Were you there when the riroriro sang?
Where were you when the riroriro sang?".
[grey warbler sings]
Riroriro, called grey warbler, is house-proud, neat, and always working. She weaves her feathers, moss, and lichens, binds them all with spiders webbing. When the great chief Hatupatu was captured by the great mist fairy and sought escape beyond the forest, the alarm was sounded by the warbler.
Riroriro builds a roof top to her pear-shaped, hanging nest. When the time comes, she'll coax her young ones from the nest and then return to her sweet, flowing song.
The underwing feathers of the kākā were used for cloaks, but the Māori knew the kākā as a chatterbox and jester, as a child of Tumataika, one of many forest spirits. Always eating, always talking, he sometimes holds a filibuster, and the kākā from the forest fly to listen to his squawking.
Squawks about his indigestion, population and congestion, politics the current question, talks about his operation, kākā can become a nation, protests against nosy parkers, New Zealand only for the kākā, stop the noise from Māori haka.
Who'll do something for the kākā? Kākā of the world unite.
"Like the kākā in the forest, so at home the women gossip", so runs the proverb, but it's doubtful if the Māori ever said it when a wife was close to hear it.
High in mountains lives the kea, close relation of the kākā, and a powerful soaring parrot. He makes his home on mountain crags or deep rock crevice, and his natural food are insects, roots and worms, and shoots and larvae.
Though a comic like the kākā, the kea is as nosy as the wicker. He's ingenious, full of mischief, many campers find him almost human in his antics.
The feathers underneath his wings were greatly valued by the Māori.
"Once a lifetime", say the Māori, "One would see the rare white heron, kōtuku, sacred of the forest. To this one and only birthplace on the river Waitangitaona, from all corners of New Zealand comes the kōtuku to nest here, remembering her childhood.
When a Māori chief had died, the rare white heron flew his spirit from the house of death and darkness to the afterworld awaiting.
When the Māori chief had died, his spirit quietly joined the heron. "Take his spirit, white-winged heron", and the Māori funeral chant ends, "ko to kōtuku to tapui, e Tama e". "Now my son, the great white heron is thy sole companion", and the white wings took his spirit. So, the Māori, so close to bird life, travelled with him to the spirit land of Te Reinga.
Long the days of old time Māori, long the days of dark green forests. Only forest patches linger, yet the birds the Māori hunted, loved and tamed, and praised in stories, linger in the hearts of Māori, linger in the forest branches.
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