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  • The association of birds as the children of Tāne Mahuta reflects their importance in Māori cosmology and their integral role in the natural world. They were and still are considered guardians of the forests and play a significant role in the ecosystem. Our tūpuna were keen observers and drew explanations, informing them of the world they inhabited from careful and considered observations. This knowledge was often woven into myths, legends and spiritual beliefs, emphasising the importance of birds beyond ecological considerations.

    Rights: Andy king50, CC BY-SA 3.0

    Te wao nui a Tāne – the great forest of Tāne

    Native forest is said to be the domain of Tāne Mahuta, a Māori god or deity.

    After the separation of the celestial parents of the world, Ranginui and Papatūānuku, Tane Māhuta clothed his mother in vast green forests and bushland. He then sent his children to inhabit the land now created.


    The natural behaviour and attributes of manu are attributed to humans – favourably or unfavourably – by way of whakataukī, metaphors and pūrākau. We can only assume these have been attributed after spending a great deal of time observing these birds in their natural habitats.

    Homai te kāeaea kia toro-māhangatia. Ko te kāhu te whakaora – waiho kia rere ana!

    The kārearea must be snared. Let the kāhu be saved – let it fly on!

    This whakataukī was said as a warning to ensure you identify your enemies and allies. The kāhu displays the attributes of nobility – like a chief – whereas the kārearea displays the attributes of boldness, assertiveness and treachery.

    Ka mārō te kakī o te kawau.

    The neck of the shag is stretched out.

    This whakataukī describes the neck of the kawau, which it stretches and stiffens, before taking flight. A column of men advancing in a haka line is called kawau mārō.

    These whakataukī, along with many more metaphors and sayings, identify unique features and behaviours of birdlife. These sayings and references about birds to humans support the notion of a connection between mankind and nature.

    Messengers from the heavens

    In pre-colonial times, birds were highly revered as messengers between te ao wairua (the spiritual world) and te ao kikokiko (the natural world). The innate abilities these animals possess to navigate vast distances during migration as well as learned, inherited behaviours and knowledge could well be the reason.

    As they flew over lands and seas, birds had a view of the world, which in time past was not easily attainable for mankind. What they were able to learn from having access to such a view would have been enviable to our tūpuna. From magnetoreception to celestial navigation, the ability to use weather patterns and geographical cues and knowledge passed through generations, which aided their journeys, it is no wonder birds fascinated observers centuries ago and continue to do so for modern-day scientists!

    Rights: Dr Phil Battley

    Godwits – designed to fly

    As with other flying birds, godwits have many physical features that work together to enable them to fly. They need lightweight, streamlined, rigid structures for flight.


    In te ao Māori, the concept of kaitiakitanga refers to guardianship or stewardship, where humans are seen as caretakers of the environment, responsible for protecting and preserving it for future generations. Birds play a significant role in this concept as they are often regarded as taonga and symbols of the natural world’s health and balance. Therefore, respecting birds as kaitiaki involves not only environmental conservation efforts but also cultural preservation and respect for indigenous knowledge and traditions regarding these winged creatures.

    Birds have incredible navigational abilities that aid them when migrating and in the search for food. Humans were often beneficiaries of these abilities during traditional wayfinding and voyaging across oceans and seas. When these birds were sighted, it was an indication that land was close by. Seabirds such as the toroa, ōi and tītī venture offshore in search of food and return to their land nests to care for their young. These patterns aided those on the seas.

    Seabirds contribute to the health of the land and the water. As marine birds feed offshore, they consume many marine organisms and on return deposit guano (bird droppings) in the water and on land. These nutrient-rich deposits support the growth of marine plants and algae while also supporting plant growth in coastal areas.

    While the diets of seabirds and landbirds differ for obvious reasons, each have significant roles to play in the balance of the ecological health and balance of the planet. Landbirds assist plant growth by way of pollination and seed dispersal. The guano from marine birds was termed white gold as guano is rich on nitrogen and phosphorous, two elements that help feed the base of the food chain. While we cannot be sure of the deciding factor in determining which birds were land or sea, pūrākau tell of a great battle that took place, which would explain why seabirds eat only from the sea.

    Ake Ake – forever and ever

    Ki te kāhore he whakakitenga ka ngaro te iwi.

    Without foresight or vision the people will be lost.

    Kīngi Tāwhiao Te Wherowhero

    Lorraine Dixon and John Te Maru (Ngāti Hauā) developed the Ake Ake model to examine the health of the awa o Waikato. This model is a pictorial mapping exercise where pictures and imagery are used to help whānau, hapū and iwi map out cultural indicators. Using this exercise, we can encourage and support students as they examine more closely what is happening in the world around them, whether that is in their own backyard, their kura or marae. Ake Ake – meaning forever and ever – measures the changes observed over time by whānau living in their environment and how change can affect the way they interact with their environment.

    The Ake Ake model and other activities are in the slideshow below. Try them in your classroom!

    Rights: Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research and The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    We can be scientists! – Slideshow

    Find out how we can work as scientists to learn more about the birds in our rohe – and how we can make them count!

    Please check the notes that accompany the slides. They contain activity instructions, prompting questions and teaching suggestions.

    Use the slideshow menu for further options, including view full screen, and go here for the download option.

    Te Tatauranga o ngā Manu Māra o Aotearoa

    This article is part of a suite of resources for kaiako and tauira to immerse themselves in learning, understanding and acknowledging the birdlife in our environment. Other resources include:

    Related content

    The slideshow includes the Titiro whakamuri Haere whakamua questionnaire. This is a Word document so you can edit it to include pātai that have come from wānanga in class.

    Explore science concepts that underpin knowledge and understanding about birds and their structure, function and adaptions.

    Find out in this article how birds are able to fly.

    Read more about the decline of birds and pollination in Aotearoa today.

    Find out how navigators used diurnal birds to aid them locating land.

    See this example of how the Ake Ake model was used by iwi on the Waikato River.

    Useful links

    Watch He Paki Taonga i a Māui: Ko te Pakanga a ngā Manu | Battle of the Birds – a video from Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. It tells of the battle between seabirds and landbirds for tasty kai.

    Use this link to find out more in-depth details about birds as tohu and whakataukī.

    This news article reports on recent research linking the health of seabirds to climate change.


    Riley, M. (2001). Māori bird lore: An introduction. Viking Sevenseas.


    This resource has been produced in collaboration with Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research and the New Zealand Garden Bird Survey.

    Rights: Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research

    Manaaki Whenua and New Zealand Garden Bird Survey

    Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research is a Crown research institute. Its core purpose is to drive innovation in the management of terrestrial biodiversity and land resources. One of the national projects it runs is the annual survey of garden birds Te Tatauranga o ngā Manu Māra o Aotearoa | New Zealand Garden Bird Survey. The data collected from citizen scientists helps researchers and practitioners understand how birds are coping with environmental challenges.

      Published 17 June 2024 Referencing Hub articles
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