From the 17 or so known types of Māori kite, only three types have survived. In all, seven original kites still exist and are held in museums in London, Hawaii, Auckland and Wellington.
Kites in bird form
The manu kākā was designed to resemble the kākā (brown parrot). The manu totoriwai represented the robin – its unusual construction required considerable skill and was only undertaken by men, usually of high rank. Elders were said to be the only ones who knew the spell that made it fly well.
One of the largest kites, an example of the manu kāhu (harrier-hawk kite), was documented by the artist Charles Barraud about 1850. It was 1.5 metres high with a wingspan of 3.6 metres. A mask bearing a moko (tattoo) was attached.
The manu aute was a generic bird-like kite, with a frame of mānuka covered with bark cloth made of aute (paper mulberry). This type was described by the 19th-centruy Ngāti Porou leader Tuta Nihoniho as having a head but no legs. However, a variation with a convex form, a head, long wings and legs, was known as a peru.
The birdman kite resembled a human, with the addition of extended wings. The mask of one held in the Auckland War Memorial Museum had teeth, a moko, and hair made of hawk feathers. This type looks similar to the manu kāhu and the peru. According to Tuta Nihoniho it was the usual tribal kite of Ngāti Porou.
The manu pātiki, built to resemble a flounder, had two forms; one diamond-shaped, the other oval.
The large manu whara was tapu, and made by priests for divination. Flying it required the strength of several men. Made from tree roots, raupō and toetoe, the sticks of the frame projected upwards and could injure or kill people if it landed abruptly.
The rākau-he-whaka-maro was made by people of the Ngāi Tahu tribe. The frame was made of two sticks bound in a T-shape. It was flown on a long line mainly by young men, with women and elders sometimes participating. This type was used in kite-flying competitions.
The triangular manu taratahi was named after the projecting plume at one end.
The horewai was a wingless, rectangular kite.
The manu paititi was a common children’s kite, which was easy to make. However, no description of it survives.
The ūpoko tangata was a basic rectangular kite with two short wing-like extensions, from which a series of rush stems extended. The frame was made of rush stems and covered with leaves of the ūpoko tangata (cutty grass) plant.
In the 1970s interest in Māori kites was rekindled. A number were made from traditional materials. Kites made by Dante Bonica and Bob Maysmor are displayed in museums in Hamilton, Rotorua and Tokyo.
A number of contemporary New Zealand artists have been inspired by traditional kite forms. Examples include Simon Lardelli's sculpture ‘Ruakapanga’ (1999) and Carrie Snowden's ‘Kahurangi o Te Maia’ (1998). Paintings include John Bevan Ford's ‘Taniko – B14’ (1998–99) and John Baxter's series showing kites near Whitirēia, Kapiti and Pukerua Bay. In a 1990 artwork, Robert Pouwhare of Ngāi Tūhoe depicted the kite Te Kaea, which had divined the plight of Māori lands. A waiata (song) was composed by Mark Dashper to accompany the flying of Māori kites.