Story: Ngā manu – birds

Page 3. Tohu – signs and predictions

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The behaviour of some birds was believed to foretell the future. Their call, or arrival, was thought to bring good or bad luck.

Kāreke (marsh crake)

Māori believed that kāreke could foretell the future. If someone heard the kāreke cry to their left, bad luck lay ahead; if they heard the cry on the right, it brought good luck.

Karoro (black-backed gull)

Gulls evoke sun, sea and surf for both Māori and Europeans. It was thought to be a bad omen to see karoro inland. A person habitually living by the sea was called a ‘karoro that drinks the tide’. Gulls were sometimes kept as pets – they kept garden pests under control.

Love medicine

The kōmiromiro (tomtit) was sometimes used as a go-between for estranged husbands and wives. The abandoned partner would consult a priest for an ātahu (love charm). It was believed that the bird would fly to the missing wife or husband and land on their head. Unable to resist the spell, they would return home. The kārearea (falcon) was also used to bring back a straying partner by dropping a feather on their head.

Kōmiromiro (tomtit)

Kōmiromiro were seen as bearers of good news. People believed they had special powers, and saw them as tapu (sacred). An observant person was said to have ‘he kanohi kōmiromiro’, the eye of a tomtit, referring to the careful way the bird looked for small insects.

Piopio (New Zealand thrush)

Now extinct, the piopio was also known as tiutiu kata (laughing tiutiu) because its call sounded like ominous laughter. Hearing or seeing the bird was considered bad luck, and it was called a manu aituā – a bird of ill omen.

Pōpokotea (whitehead)

Like kōmiromiro, whiteheads were thought to have a positive influence on people’s wellbeing. In the Whanganui district they were believed to be the spirits of the dead. In other regions, they showed that spirits would soon arrive.

Ruru (morepork)

The ruru, New Zealand’s native owl, has large, staring eyes and a mournful cry, echoed by its name. Ruru provide a rich source of symbolism for Māori. Their haunting cry and watchful nature are linked with tapu (spiritual restriction), guardianship, forewarning, grief and awareness.

Tarāpunga (red-billed and black-billed gull)

Tarāpunga are firmly entrenched in Māori lore. They were made tapu (sacred) after their loud cries alerted the Te Arawa tribes to Ngāpuhi invaders paddling to Mokoia Island, and prevented a surprise attack.

Turiwhatu (dotterel)

The turiwhatu appears in a number of songs. Poets predicting a cataclysmic disaster claim that no-one will survive but the little turiwhatu.

Whēkau (laughing owl)

The whēkau, now extinct, had a call that was thought to warn of bad fortune. Its name means entrails, because it ate the entrails of the kiore (native rat) and small birds.

How to cite this page:

Kelly Keane-Tuala, 'Ngā manu – birds - Tohu – signs and predictions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

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