Huia (Heterolocha acutirostris) is a species belonging to the endemic family of wattle birds, which also includes the saddleback (Philesturnus carunculatus) and the kokako, or New Zealand “crow” (Callaeas cinerea). All three species are characterised by the possession of fleshy wattles at the base of the bill and all three have proved to be extremely sensitive to the changes that have occurred in their environments since European settlement. The numbers and range of the once widely spread saddleback and kokako have become severely reduced, but the huia, whose original distribution was limited to the eastern part of the southern half of the North Island, is believed to have been extinct since the first decade of the present century. Hunting by European and Maori has been blamed for this extinction, but it is probable that destruction or modification of the forests in which the huia lived has played at least an equally important part in its disappearance.
The most remarkable feature of the huia was the great difference between the sexes in the size and shape of the bill. That of the female was long, slender, and strongly curved into a sickle shape; that of the male was stouter, not so strongly curved, and only about two-thirds the length of the female's. The more powerful organ of the male permitted it to obtain insect larvae in soft or decaying wood in a manner similar to a woodpecker's, whereas the probe-like nature of the female's bill enabled her to reach larvae in holes and crevices. Spiders and fruits were also eaten.
In size huias were about as big as Australian magpies, and their plumage was wholly greenish black, except for a broad white band across the tip of the tail; the bill was ivory white, the wattles orange, and the legs and feet bluish-grey. Flight was weak, the birds progressing best by rapid and powerful bounds. Their calls have been described as a soft whistle, a low chirping, and a loud shrill whistle of alarm, from which the species gets its Maori name. Little is known of nesting habits. Two to four dark-spotted stone-grey eggs were laid in a large nest built fairly close to the ground.
Perhaps because of the unique differences between the bills of the two sexes, or because they were never abundant, huias were important to the Maori – their feathers (especially those of the tail) being used as adornments by chiefs. Beautifully carved boxes, waka-huia, were made and used solely for the storage of feathers.
by Gordon Roy Williams, B.SC.(HONS.)(SYDNEY), Lecturer in Agricultural Zoology, Lincoln Agricultural College.