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  • 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.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Huia – Bird of the Century

    Our pick for Bird of the Century is the majestic huia.

    Select here to view video transcript and copyright information.

    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.

    Rights: Human imitation of huia bird calls by the late Henare Hāmana. Courtesy of the McPherson Natural History Unit Sound Archive.

    Simulated huia call

    Listen to Hēnare Hāmana, a tracker, recreate huia bird calls from 1949.

    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.

    Rights: Public domain

    Hinepare (Ngāti Kahungunu) with huia feathers in her hair

    Hinepare, a woman of the Ngāti Kahungunu tribe, c. 1890, by Gottfried Lindauer. The huia feathers proudly displayed in her hair indicate a person 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.

    Rights: Public Domain

    Waka huia

    A waka huia (treasure box) made of wood and inlaid with pāua shell. The carver was Patoromu Tamatea of Ngāti Tamateautahi. Waka huia would often have huia feathers stored in them to keep them safe.

    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.

    Rights: Public domain

    Beak differences in a male and female huia

    The male and female huia had a distinct difference in their beak morphology. The female had a longer curved beak and the male a shorter beak as shown in this illustration.

    Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris): male and female by Johannes Keulemans, from the book A History of the Birds of New Zealand by Sir Walter Buller.

    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.

    Rights: Whites Aviation Ltd, Alexander Turnbull Library

    Duke and Duchess of York with huia feathers

    The Duke and Duchess of York on a visit to New Zealand in 1901. Both wear huia feathers in their hats, gifted to them during the visit.

    Duke and Duchess of York with huia feathers in their hats after a reception. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-25130-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22713169

    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
    Rights: Public domain

    Sir Walter Buller, a naturalist

    Sir Walter Lawry Buller (1838–1906) was a New Zealand naturalist who wrote the classic study in ornithology A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

    Portrait of Sir Walter Buller, circa 1903, London, by Ethel Mortlock. Purchased 1967 from Wellington City Council Picture Purchase Fund. Te Papa (1967-0028-1).

    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.

    Rights: Public domain

    Huia birds in a tree, including a female albino bird

    This painting of three magnificent huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) is by Johannes Keulemans. The black male and female are joined by a rare huia-ariki or albino huia.

    Three huia (Heteralocha acutirostris), circa 1900, London, by Johannes Keulemans. Purchased 1993 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (1993-0029-6).

    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.

    Related content

    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:

    Useful links

    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.

    In May 2024 one huia feather was sold for $46,521 – becoming the most expensive feather ever to be sold at auction in the world – an honor tainted by the fact that it was the greed for huia feathers which was a factor in their extinction.

      Published 24 October 2023, Updated 21 May 2024 Referencing Hub articles
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