The main bird-taking season ran from May to July (autumn–winter). From March, fowlers would look at the birds’ food supply in the forest to estimate their likely success in the coming season. As early as April, fowlers would catch weka in the South Island.
In the middle of the season, kākā were fat and seeking food on the ground, and were often caught by hand. Tūī are fat from May to August, and are called kōkō at that time. By late winter (July and August), kererū would be feeding on kōwhai and be unpalatable.
In the South Island, kererū, kākā, kōkō (tūī) and korimako (bellbirds) were all caught in autumn. In the early 2000s, tītī (muttonbirds) were still being taken in autumn from the 36 Tītī Islands off Stewart Island.
Kererū were caught in summer (December–February) as they ate the ripe berries of the tawa tree. In January, kākā and tūī feed on the nectar of rātā blossoms. In summer, and also in early winter, kākā were caught using the mutu snare (a perch with a looped rope snare). At this time, other birds are in poor condition.
The New Zealand emu
The kiwi’s skin was used to make a cloak known as the kahu kiwi. Its feathers looked like emu feathers, leading some early explorers to state wrongly that emus lived in New Zealand. In 1820, one traveller said, ‘The emu is found in New Zealand, though we were never fortunate enough to meet with one.’ 1 Another traveller in the 1830s claimed that you could come across an emu in the South Island.
Birds were usually cooked in a hāngī (earth oven) if they were to be eaten immediately. Otherwise, they were preserved in their own fat. In mid-winter, when Matariki (the Pleiades) appeared in the sky, signalling the Māori New Year, it was time to cook and preserve birds – a process known as ahi mātiti. This is described in the saying ‘Matariki, kua maoka te hinu’ (at Matariki birds are preserved).
The process of preserving birds in their own fat was called tutu. First, they were plucked and cleaned. Larger ones were boned with a shell, a sharp stone flake or even a kākā’s sharp, strong beak. Then each bird was put on a spit, and they were cooked together over a fire. The dripping fat was collected in a wooden trough. Later, the cooked birds were potted in tahā (calabashes), pōhā (seaweed containers), or pātua (bark containers). The fat was reheated with hot stones and poured into the containers to cover the birds.
The feathers of birds such as the kiwi and kākāpō were used for making dress capes. The white-tipped black feathers of huia and the white plumes of kōtuku were also used as dress feathers in the hair.