Story: Ngā manu – birds

Page 2. Birds associated with death

All images & media in this story

Some birds were linked with death and grieving.

Kūaka (godwit)

In Māori tradition, spirits leave this world at Te Rēinga in the far north. Departing spirits are compared to the migratory kūaka in the saying ‘me he kāhui kūaka’ (like a flock of godwits).

Mātātā (fernbird)

To some tribes, the mātātā is tapu (sacred). When a chief died and was buried, men would catch a mātātā from a swamp. The bird was used in a ceremony to help lead the dead man’s spirit to the legendary Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki.

A heavy rain cape made from undressed flax has been appreciatively described as a mātātā’s house, because it resembles the bird’s snug nest.

Matuku (bittern)

The male matuku has a loud booming cry to ward off other males in the breeding season. It was thought the matuku boomed from loneliness and sorrow, and that hearing its call could help people express grief. A lament sung by a grieving person describes the singer as a matuku:

Kei te matuku, e hū ana i te repo, i!
A bittern booming in the marsh!

Moho pererū (banded rail)

The moho pererū’s call sometimes sounds like laughter. In one story, the legendary demigod Māui tried to overcome death by passing through the body of the sleeping goddess of death, Hine-nui-te-pō. His attempt to enter her was halted by the moho pererū, which laughed and woke the goddess. This is recalled in an old lament:

Ehara i te taru te mate.
Kua mate mai i mua, i a Māui –
Nā te pātātai i kata, ka motu ki roto rā …
Death is no light matter.
There was death in the past, with Māui –
When the pātātai (moho pererū) laughed, Māui was cut off within …

Tīwaiwaka (fantail)

The fantail has 20 or 30 different Māori names. As well as tīwaiwaka, it is commonly called pīwakawaka, tīwakawaka or tīrairaka. In one tradition, it was the fantail that caused Māui’s death, so it is a harbinger of death when seen inside in a house. A fidgety person is described as a fantail’s tail, because of the bird’s restless movements.

How to cite this page:

Kelly Keane-Tuala, 'Ngā manu – birds - Birds associated with death', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Kelly Keane-Tuala, published 24 Sep 2007, reviewed & revised 17 Feb 2015