The sea and the forest were seen as the two food baskets of the traditional Māori economy.
In the forest, birds were important as a supply of protein. Before the arrival of Europeans, New Zealand had no land mammals to use for meat except the introduced kurī (dog) and kiore (rat).
For many tribes, the main fowling season in autumn was a vital part of life. A variety of birds were taken – kererū (New Zealand pigeons), kākā (parrots) and tūī were particularly important. They were often preserved in their own fat. Feathers of different birds were also used for adornment and making cloaks.
Like Māori, early European settlers often relied on native birds as a source of food. However, later there were clashes over the way Māori and Pākehā viewed hunting. Māori saw birds as part of their food supply, while Europeans wanted to hunt them as sport. Between the 1860s and 1890s, various laws were passed to control the hunting of native birds. From 1864, hunting seasons were set in certain areas for kererū and native ducks.
In 1865, a law was passed against using snares and traps to catch native birds – shooting was the only approved form of hunting. This restricted traditional Māori fowling methods. The law was repealed in 1866, but reinstated in 1907.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the kererū hunting season became an issue between European hunters and Māori. Hunters wanted the season open in early autumn when the kererū was still reasonably agile, making it more suitable as a game bird. Māori hunted the bird for food, not sport, so they wanted it to be fatter. They preferred late autumn and winter for the open season.
In 1907, preserving native birds after the hunting season was banned. This was to stop large numbers of kererū being stored and sold by hunters. However, Māori preserved kererū in the birds’ own fat for personal use. This was recognised in a 1910 amendment which gave Māori the right to hold potted birds.
From the 1890s both the hunting lobby and Māori began to clash with the conservation lobby. Native bird populations were declining, and closed seasons (a time when hunting was not allowed) were brought in to protect the birds. Māori argued that the decline was not due to hunting, but to the clearance of vast tracts of native forest, which destroyed the birds’ habitats. This argument was ignored, and legislation in 1922 put a complete ban on hunting most native birds.
At the end of the 20th century, Far North kaumātua (elder) Sir Graham Latimer caused a public outcry when he publicly admitted to providing a kūkupa (as kererū are known in the north) for community leader Dame Whina Cooper on her deathbed. However, in the 2000s, a number of tribal groups have come out against this practice and taken part in kererū protection programmes. For instance, Kevin Prime of the Ngāti Hine tribe put a rāhui (prohibition) on taking kererū and was involved in a project to restore the native forest and reduce predators.
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 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.
Snaring with a looped rope was a common method of catching birds.
In the tākiri method, a single snare is put on a perch. Birds are caught by the feet in the snare when the fowler pulls an attached cord with a quick tug (tākiri). There are three snares used in this method: the mutu, tumu and pewa.
The mutu snare (called tumu or pewa in some areas) was used both on the ground and up in trees. The mutu was made from a single piece of wood, L- or T-shaped, with a horizontal perch and a vertical upright. The mutu was often carved and weathered. A looped snare was draped over the mutu. It was lifted to the tree on a rod and hooked over another rod attached to a branch. When a bird landed on the perch, the looped snare was tugged, trapping the bird against the upright. The fowler then unhooked the mutu, keeping the cord tight, brought the bird down and killed it. The snare was rearranged and the mutu put back up.
The mutu was used in miro, hīnau, maire, kahikatea, tawai, rātā and rimu trees. The word for a tree in which it was used extensively is tūtū.
Early European explorers, and later settlers, survived by eating native birds – often caught using indigenous methods. Their opinion of kiwi meat varied. Explorer Ernest Dieffenbach said it was quite tasty. On the other hand, the trader Joel Polack thought that the ‘flesh is worthless and tough’. 1 Ethnographer Elsdon Best took the middle ground. He said that the kiwi was not tough, tasted fine, but was nowhere near as good as the kererū and tūī.
Used by the Ngāti Raukawa tribe, a tumu was a different type of snaring perch, placed on small trees or shrubs. It was not man-made like the mutu – rather, it was a small branch that divided into two branchlets. These were tied together at the end. The branch was left growing on the tree, or cut and reattached to another tree, and a snare-loop was laid on it. A cord tied to this loop led to a shelter where the fowler was hidden. When a bird landed, the fowler pulled the loop, similar to the mutu. The cord had a peg at one end, which was stuck in the ground, tethering the bird. Once most of the snares were full, the fowler would emerge, take the birds, and reset the snares.
The pewa was used in a similar way to the mutu and tumu. Rather than a single upright perch, it had an upright with a perch lashed to it horizontally and a strut bracing the upright and perch. A lure of ripe berries or nectar-bearing flowers was often tied to the perch to attract birds, and moss or lichen was attached to disguise it.
In the tāhei method the snare was unattended. A row of snares tied with slipknots were attached to a cord, or a rod secured horizontally between branches. The snares were set close to a straight branch or perch. The birds would sit on the branch or perch and be caught by their necks. As they struggled, the slipknot would tighten and catch them.
A tree on which these snares were set was called a rākau tāhei, rākau taeke or taumatua. When the snares were set near water, the water was known as wai tāhei or wai taheke.
Snares were visited once or twice a day. The fowler would gather the caught birds and reset the snares. These unattended snares did not work for kākā, which would rip them apart with their beaks.
The short spears known as maiere were 3 to 4 metres long. They were used to take birds on shrubs and small trees. Long spears – 6 to 11 metres – were called tao kaihua, taoroa or just tao. They were used on big trees with outspread branches. Because they were so long, they were not carried, but were dragged along by the front end.
Bird spears were made from tawa wood, kāpara (heartwood of rimu or kahikatea), or occasionally aka (stems of climbing plants). They had a barbed point (tara), sometimes detachable. Tara were made from bone (often human), from hardwood or hard parts of tree-fern trunks, or even from stingray spine or pounamu (greenstone). A tree on which the spear was used was known as a kaihua or rākau wero. Kākā were speared on rātā, kōwhai and tāwari trees.
A legend tells how the demigod trickster Māui was bird-spearing with his brothers. But every time they speared a bird, it escaped, as there was no barb on the spear. Māui told his mother, Taranga, how hopeless the expedition had been, so she advised him to fashion a point with barbs. He did and was able to spear birds successfully. This explains the origin of the tara kāniwha (barbed point).
The tari method involved a noose tied with a slip knot on a rod. Fowlers needed to get close enough to slip the noose over the bird’s head. They would entice the bird with a small branch or a decoy bird, or by mimicking the bird’s call. To catch a weka, the fowler would rustle a branch in one hand. This brought the bird close enough to put the noose over its head.
In the hauhau method, the fowler set up a pae kōkō (tūī perch), a 2.5-metre-long rod lashed on a slant to two saplings. The fowler hid in a shelter, such as a whare rau ponga (tree-fern frond hut). Birds were often attracted with a decoy, or by imitating their call. The fowler would hold the rod against the perch. When a bird landed, it was hit with a mighty blow, using the hauhau manu (bird-striker) – a thick, round rod, about 1.5 metres long. The tūī, hihi (stitchbird), kōpara (bellbird), tīeke (saddleback), kōkako (crow), and tātaihore (whitehead) were caught in this way.
Sometimes, the perch was set up near the water. When thirsty birds landed on it, the fowler hit them. Another structure consisted of two vertical poles, with a horizontal pole lashed between them about 1.5 metres above the ground.
This method was used on frosty winter nights, from midnight to just before dawn. During the day, fowlers would locate tūī nests and mark the trails using light-coloured rangiora leaves. They could find their way at night, seeing the leaves by the light of a torch. Then they would climb the trees and grab (hopu) the bird (kōkō). The Ngāti Porou tribe called this method rutu (dash down), as the fowler would knock the branch. The birds were often so cold that they simply fell to the ground.
Māori also used a number of traps. The puaka was a spring snare (tāwhiti) inside an enclosure. The bird would walk over the snare, release the spring and be caught. The korapa, a small U-shaped net, was a trap for karuwai (robins). Bait was scattered close by, and the trap was pulled down on a karuwai when it arrived.
Fowlers often attracted birds by imitating their cries. To lure the kiwi, the fowler put a finger in his mouth and mimicked its call. A leaf used when imitating a call was called a pepe. A flax leaf was used to call weka, while tūī were lured with a leaf from the manono or the patate. The Ngāti Porou tribe used pāpā, whangewhange or māhoe leaves. Fowlers put a leaf (doubled or flat) between their lips and made a chirping sound by breathing in.
European trader Joel Polack told of seeing a fowler catch a kererū by using a leaf to imitate its call. The bird heard the call and came to the fowler, who lulled it to sleep and then caught it. Polack’s description has been derided by a number of writers, but no doubt call-leaves were very effective. In the 1800s, Major J. L. C. Richardson saw his Māori guide pluck a leaf after hearing a bird twitter. The guide imitated the bird, and eventually one flew close enough for him to grab it.
When hunting with dogs, fowlers often lured ground birds such as weka and kiwi by imitating their calls. The fowler would then release the dog, which seized the bird. The dog was controlled by a rod attached to its collar. Rattles were also attached to its neck, so it could be followed when released.
Taki means to entice. In this method, a pet kākā (parrot) was used as a decoy to attract other kākā. A fowler would lash a pole to two trees, about 2–3 metres high. Another pole (also called a taki) was placed on an angle against the first. It was secured by tying the upper end, or grounding the lower end.
The decoy parrot was tied to the base of the taki. It was trained to scratch around and screech to attract other birds. The fowler would hide near the pole, behind a screen of tree-fern fronds. When a wild kākā got close it was hit with a stick, caught with a noose or grabbed.
The waka manu, also known as a waka kererū, was a wooden trough filled with water and left in a tree or on its trunk. When the birds became used to the trough, snares were set. Waka manu were often used in miro trees, as birds feeding on miro berries got thirsty. They would drink from the trough and become caught in the nooses. The troughs were often quite long – around 1.5 metres.
In Māori tradition, the health and vitality of the birds and trees in the forest is the result of the forest’s mauri (life force). Mauri could be represented by a talisman, also called a mauri. This was usually a stone that was hidden in the forest. It was seen as a place for the atua (gods and spiritual beings) that protected the forest. The tohunga (priest) who placed the mauri often released a lizard at that spot to guard the mauri.
Generally, ceremonies relating to the forest were carried out at the site of the mauri. If the trees or birds became less fruitful, a charm (whakaara) was said to reawaken the mauri. In the ceremony of uruuru whenua, a small branch was placed near the mauri, to placate the spirits or gods. The first bird caught in the fowling season was offered to the forest mauri.
Sometimes a tohunga would carry out a ceremony to make a particular tree attractive to birds, so they could be caught. He would say a karakia (prayer) over a bird caught in the tree, to make the tree tapu (sacred). The tohunga would hide the bird, or part of it, which now represented the life force of the tree.
Like all activities in Māori society, fowling was affected by tapu (spiritual restrictions). A tapu on a waterway could prevent any use of it – drinking, bathing, fishing or using a canoe. A forest, or part of a forest, might be under a tapu which stopped anyone going into it. However, tapu might simply prevent birds being caught. At the whare mātā (place where fowling and fishing equipment was made), women and cooked food were not permitted. If tapu was breached in any way, the gods would be offended and their help withdrawn.
The fowling season was opened with the ahi taitai ceremony. The first birds caught were offered to the gods. They were cooked in the ceremonial oven, and lifted the tapu from the forest and the whare mātā.
Tamarau Waiari, a leader and priest of the Tūhoe tribe, explained how the first birds they caught were ceremonially cooked and eaten. ‘Women and food were prohibited from the whare mata [the house where bird snares were made] until the rau huka ceremony was performed, freeing the hut and people from restriction. The readied snares would be taken and set on various trees. When the first birds were caught, they were cooked in the rau huka oven and eaten by the priest, thereby freeing all people from restriction.’ 1
Rāhui was a form of tapu. A rāhui could prohibit taking birds, for instance from a tree, a grove or an entire forest. It could also refer to particular birds – for example ducks in moulting season. A rāhui was often indicated by a post (pou rāhui), sometimes painted red. Clothing, a lock of hair, or a fern might be tied to a stake to signal a rāhui. In other cases, a chief would note that an area had been placed under a rāhui, and word of mouth would let people know the place was tapu (forbidden).
Unlucky signs were known as pūhore. Certain words were banned when fowling. The remedy for pūhore was to set a post (tuāpā), sometimes painted red, in the ground. It was not tapu. Fowlers going out would take a small branch, touch their spear or basket of snares with it, then toss it down at the base of the post. They would then say a karakia (charm).
Best, Elsdon. Forest lore of the Maori: with methods of snaring, trapping, and preserving birds and rats, uses of berries, roots, fern-root, and forest products, with mythological notes on origins, karakia used, etc. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2005 (originally published 1942).
Riley, Murdoch. Maori bird lore: an introduction. Paraparaumu: Viking Sevenseas, 2001.