In traditional Māori thought, many birds were seen as chiefly. The feathers of certain birds were used as adornment for high-born people – particularly plumes worn in the hair. Chiefs wore the kahu huruhuru (feather cloak), made from the feathers of the most beautiful birds.
The huia, extinct since the early 20th century, had black tail feathers with white tips, which high-ranking people wore in their hair. The group of 12 feathers from a huia’s tail, usually still joined at the base, was called a mareko, and was worn by high chiefs going into battle. Huia feathers were kept in a carved wooden chest called a waka huia.
The male huia had a straight beak, while the female’s was curved. One story explains its origin. A chief found a female huia in a trap, and plucked two tail feathers as plumes. He enchanted the bird so she would return when he needed more plumes. One time she arrived with feathers ruffled from sitting on her nest. Annoyed, the chief gave her a long, curved beak so she could reach her tail feathers and lift them out of the way.
The kākā, a cheeky parrot, had red feathers under its wings. Māori associated the colour red with high rank, and only high-status people wore cloaks made with kākā feathers. Kākā were kept as pets, and were often used as decoys when fowling. The kākā has a loud, harsh call, so Māori describe talkative people as big-mouthed kākā (he kākā waha nui) or kākā heads (he pane kākā).
The kākāpō, a flightless nocturnal parrot, was used for food, and its beautiful yellow-green and brown feathers were used to make cloaks for high-born people. Kākāpō also made good pets.
Kererū (wood pigeon)
The kererū’s colourful feathers were used to make cloaks. Their tail feathers adorned tahā huahua and pātua – containers for holding preserved birds.
In one tradition, the kererū’s feathers were originally white. The legendary trickster Māui wanted to find out where his mother, Taranga, went during the day. He hid her skirt to delay her, but she left anyway. Māui changed into a white kererū to follow her, still holding the skirt, which became the bird’s beautiful multicoloured plumage. The kererū was also a valued food source.
The kiwi was known as ‘te manu huna a Tāne’, the hidden bird of Tāne (god of the forest), because it came out mostly at night and was seldom seen. Kiwi meat was considered fit for chiefs. Their feathers were woven into rare, beautiful cloaks called kahu kiwi, which were considered taonga (treasures). The cloaks are used on special ceremonial occasions, such as the tangi (funeral) in August 2006 of the Māori queen, Te Arikinui Dame Atairangikaahu.
Kōtuku (white heron)
The regal-looking kōtuku appears in a well-known whakataukī (saying), ‘He kōtuku rerenga tahi’ (a white heron of a single flight). This can refer to a distinguished visitor who visits only rarely. Long plumes from the kōtuku’s broad wings, called piki kōtuku, were prized as head ornaments by people of high rank.
Tākapu were valued for their white down and plumes. The plumes were used as hair adornments, and the soft belly feathers were made into pōhoi – feather balls worn in the ear by men and women of rank.
Māori associate tara with high status because of the birds’ beauty and grace. A group of chiefs might be honoured or praised as ‘he tāhuna ā-tara’ – a sand bank of terns.
The tail feathers of the huia, the dorsal plumes of the kōtuku, and a full headdress of albatross feathers were all known as ‘te rau o Tītapu’ (the feathers of Tītapu). Tītapu was said to be an island in Cook Strait that was visited by albatrosses, but has since sunk beneath the sea.
The toroa’s prized white feathers were worn on important occasions by leading men. Toroa feathers used as plumes are known as raukura or kaiwharawhara. Soft feathers from the belly were made into pōhoi toroa – feather ball earrings.
Tūī imitate the songs of other birds, and can also imitate people. The birds were sometimes tamed and taught to speak. They were taught mihi (greetings) which they would recite when visitors arrived, as well as prayers and proverbs. They were often trained to sound like the loud and deep voice of a chief. A tūī that spoke like this was called a manu rangatira – a chiefly bird. Sometimes a tūī was named after a tribe’s famous ancestor, and kept by the chief.