Story: Te tāhere manu – bird catching

New Zealand’s forests provided Māori with food in the form of birds – kererū, kākā, tūī and others. Birds were cooked in a hāngī, or preserved in fat, and their feathers became cloaks or hair ornaments. The bird-catching season was a central part of tribal life, and there were ceremonies to ensure the hunting went well.

Story by Basil Keane
Main image: Catching a weka

Story summary

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Finding food

The sea and the forest were the main places where Māori got their food. Birds were needed for protein, as New Zealand had no native land mammals to use for meat. For many tribes, the bird-catching season was a vital part of life. Many different birds were caught, especially kererū (New Zealand pigeons), kākā and tūī.


The first Europeans to arrive in New Zealand often ate native birds. Later, Māori and European views on catching birds became very different. Māori hunted birds for food, but some Europeans wanted to hunt them as a sport. Laws were made to control how native birds were hunted.


In the late 19th century, native bird numbers were dropping. To protect the birds, hunting seasons were cut to just a few months each year. From the 1890s, hunting of kererū was sometimes banned completely for a whole year.

Māori argued that the loss of birds was not because of hunting: it was because huge areas of forest were being cleared and the birds were losing their habitats.

In 1922, hunting most native birds was banned. Today, some tribes have conservation projects to save the birds.

Hunting season

The main season for catching birds was from May to July (autumn–winter). Some birds were also caught in summer.

Catching birds

Birds were caught by:

  • snaring, using a rope with a loop that caught the bird by its feet or neck
  • spearing
  • hitting them with a rod when they landed on a perch
  • taking them from their nests at night
  • traps
  • dogs.

Luring birds

Māori had several ways of luring birds so they could catch them.

  • They imitated bird calls, sometimes by blowing through a leaf.
  • A pet kākā was tied to a pole to attract other parrots.
  • A water trough was put in a tree. When the birds came to drink, they were caught.

Using birds

If birds were to be eaten straight away, they were usually cooked in a hāngī (earth oven). Otherwise, they were cooked on a spit over a fire, then preserved in their own fat. This was done at Matariki – the Māori New Year, usually around June. The feathers were used to make cloaks, or were worn in people’s hair.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Te tāhere manu – bird catching', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 24 September 2007