In the Whanganui Regional Museum collection is a rare and precious recording of a huia call, a bird that was last seen alive in the early 1900s. The recording is actually a man whistling, imitating the hauntingly beautiful sounds made by the bird. It forms part of a significant collection of huia-related taonga, including taxidermied specimens, huia beak jewellery and feathers, paintings and photographs of people wearing huia feathers in their hair and a wide variety of artefacts depicting huia.
The huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) was endemic to New Zealand and lived in forested mountain ranges of the central and lower North Island. The last official sighting of a huia was made in 1907, though some birds may have survived until the 1920s or even later. Everything we know about this precious species is pieced together from observations made a long time ago and from preserved specimens held in museums.
Unlike other birds, male and female huia had very different shaped beaks that they used for feeding co-operatively. The male used his dagger-like beak to make holes in rotten tree trunks while the female used her long slender curved beak to extract the tasty grubs and insects from inside the trees. The impressively long, curved beak of the female was especially popular for making jewellery, such as brooches, in colonial New Zealand when brooches were a fashionable adornment item.
Huia were very important to Māori, demonstrated by the widespread use of huia feathers worn in the hair to signify high social status. Huia feathers were stored in waka huia, intricately carved lidded boxes that could be suspended from the rafters of a whare (house) to keep the precious contents safe. Portraits in the Lindauer Gallery in the Museum show men and women wearing up to four huia feathers in their hair.
By the 1880s, huia were already becoming rare. There were plans to transfer pairs of huia to Kāpiti and Little Barrier Island reserves to keep them safe but they did not come to fruition. If huia were alive today, we would be putting the same tremendous efforts into saving them as we do for the kākāpō, hihi, takahē and other extremely endangered species.
In Victorian times, public attitudes were very different and the increasing rarity of the birds made them even more strongly sought after. During just one month in 1863, Walter Buller recorded the collection of 646 huia from the Manawatū area. Between 1877 and 1889, Andreas Reishek, an Austrian naturalist, collected 212 pairs, which he sold overseas. Museums were especially keen to have a pair of these rare birds because the difference between the male and female beaks was so pronounced. Thousands of huia were exported, some for museum displays. Others were sold for their tail-feathers alone, which became a popular fashion item after a the Duke of York and Cornwall, later King George V, wore one in his hatband during a visit to New Zealand in 1901.
The collection of taxidermied huia and related artefacts in our Museum is a sad reminder of what we have lost.
Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum.