The huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) was a majestic bird with vibrant orange wattles, shiny black feathers and white-tipped tail feathers. Unfortunately, this bird is extinct, with the last recorded sighting in December 1907.
The 2023 Bird of the Year competition celebrated 100 years of Forest & Bird by asking people to vote for Bird of the Century – and the huia was our pick. The pūteketeke Australasian crested grebe won, thanks to a global campaign by British-American comedian John Oliver.
The huia's name comes from its cry – no recordings exist but you can hear a human tracker’s imitation of its call below.
A privileged place in te ao Māori
While huia vanished from our forests more than a century ago, the bird’s importance in te ao Māori is preserved in many whakataukī and pūrākau.
“Huia e huia, tangata kotahi,” states one proverb: “Huia, your destiny is to bring people together.”
“He huia tangata tahi,” says another: “The only person synonymous with the huia is the chief.” Wearing the feathers or other parts of the huia was reserved for leaders and people of great mana.
Whare would display carved waka huia (treasure boxes) hanging from the ceiling in which tapu belongings – such as huia feathers – were kept. A rāhui (ban) prohibited the hunting of huia during the spring and summer. Sometimes the birds were caged and raised as pets.
One bird, two beaks
One distinct feature of the huia was its beak. The female had a long thin beak that bent downwards, and the male had a short stubby beak.
In one pūrākau, a chief noticed that his favourite female huia’s precious tail feathers were becoming bent or ruffled while she nested on her eggs. He gave the female her distinctive beak to smooth her feathers while brooding.
The first Pākehā naturalists to see huia roaming the forest floor thought the male and female were two distinct species. The birds not only had different beaks but used them differently. The male huia would peck holes in rotted logs and prise them open. The female’s long beak could probe deep within to catch insects.
The scientific term for differences between the sexes of a species (particularly those unrelated to reproduction) is sexual dimorphism. The males and females of many species display differences in size, shape, colouring or behaviour, but the degree of difference between the male and female huia beaks is unmatched in any known bird.
Hunted to extinction
In 1901, the Duke of York, heir to the British throne, was gifted a huia feather while visiting New Zealand. Pākehā in Aotearoa had already adopted the wearing of huia feathers as an aesthetic flourish, and the international demand for the feathers after the Duke’s visit was growing. Huia feathers had long indicated mana – now they carried a price tag.
Collectors and museums drove a steep demand for taxidermied huia pairs. Sir Walter Buller, the ornithologist whose writings on the huia informed generations of later naturalists, wasn’t alone in studying the birds even while hunting them enthusiastically.
A huia … presented himself to view at such close range that it was impossible to fire. This gave me an opportunity of watching this beautiful bird and marking his noble bearing, if I may so express it, before I shot him.Sir Walter Buller, A History of the Birds of New Zealand
In 1892, Buller visited an area in the North Island where huia had been plentiful less than a decade earlier.
“During the whole expedition,” he wrote, “we only saw a single huia – which I shot.”
Nature of science
The history of the huia is connected with that of naturalism. The ornithologists who first documented the huia also displayed practices very different from those we would associate with contemporary scientists.
Living mainly on the forest floor left huia vulnerable to introduced predators like rats, dogs and wild cats. With much of their habitat destroyed for cultivation and the former prohibition on year-round hunting disregarded, the huia had nowhere to hide.
The age of extinction
In nature, extinction happens. As well as a natural background rate of extinction, there have been five or six “great extinctions” in the Earth’s prehistory. The difference in our time is that many species are extinct or threatened not by natural causes but because of human activity.
Kua ngaro i te ngaro o te moa.
Lost as the moa was lost.
The current era is often referred to as the Anthropocene, reflecting the impact human civilisation is having upon the planet. In this time, the rate at which species become extinct may be increasing by up to 1,000%.
Some estimates suggest as much as one in every eight species worldwide may become extinct due to climate change and human activity. This would make the Anthropocene the most lethal period for life on Earth since the meteor impact that killed the dinosaurs.
Voting for life
Reducing the rate of extinctions means facing up to our responsibility. We’re voting for the huia not only on behalf of all the other vanished species but for the sake of living animals threatened by extinction in the Anthropocene.
In New Zealand, 82% of bird species are at some risk of extinction. The presence of extinct birds in the running for Bird of the Century is a chance to think about what a competition like this means – to start kōrero about how we relate to the world around us and the impact of our actions. Let’s plan actions to turn this statistic around – to protect and nurture rather than destroy.
In a first, Forest & Bird ran a Bird of the Century 2023 competition instead of its usual Bird of the Year. It included five extinct species. Read why this is considered important in Call of the huia: how NZ’s bird of the century contest helps us express ‘ecological grief’.
Find out more about extinction and how scientists work to preserve endangered species:
The OECD commissioned the 2023 report Agency in the Anthropocene. This easy-to-read report, co-authored by Dr Chris Eames at the University of Waikato, explains the competencies youth need to address local and global challenges in this Anthropocene epoch of human influences on the planet.
See the New Zealand Birds Online webpage on the huia for more.
Huia, the sacred bird – this New Zealand Geographic article has more information about the huia.
Read about the global success of the 2023 Bird of the Year campaign due to comedian John Oliver's support for the pūteketeke in this Guardian news story.