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Exhibition features the beautiful huia


The Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust is fortunate to hold in its collection three items which are closely associated to both William Colenso and the now extinct huia bird. The first is a letter written by Colenso to John Burtton of Kumeroa, near Woodville, dated 17 July 1886.  In the letter Colenso sincerely thanks him for his “kind note” which was hand-delivered to him by Burtton’s daughter. Within the folds of Burtton’s letter was carefully wrapped “a deformed huia’s bill”, which Colenso enthused was a “natural curiosity” further stating that he was “eager and would have much pleasure” in showing the beak at the next meeting of the Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute.

The second item is a booklet titled “A Description of the curiously-formed Bill of a Huia, (Heteralocha acutirostris), an endemic New Zealand Bird” written by William Colenso and published, along with a sketch of the curiosity in the “Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand”, Volume 19, 1886. When the booklet and letter (minus bill) were donated in 1962, enclosed within the folds of paper was a lone huia tail feather glistening iridescent blue-black and tipped with distinctive white.

Within days of receiving the letter and deformed beak Colenso had written an essay about the unusual find, and on 9 August 1886 read it (along with three other scientific papers) to an avid audience at the monthly meeting of the Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute. He aptly described the deformed female huia’s upper mandible as resembling a “gigantic corkscrew” which measured approximately 15 centimetres – three longer than usual. Near the end of the meeting Colenso was thanked for the rendition of his “valuable papers” as well as being warmly congratulated for recently receiving science’s ultimate honour – that of Fellow of the Royal Society conferred by Britain’s Royal Society.

Of all bird species in the world, the huia had one of the most pronounced distinct difference in bill shape. The female’s bill was long, thin and elegantly arched downward while the male’s was short and stout. This enabled each to assist the other in search for food. Particular delicacies were the fat juicy huhu grub and weta which they extracted from logs and trees. The male huia with his shorter bill would perforate the hard outer trunk, followed by the female who would insert her long curved bill into the hole made by her mate, thereby extracting the larva, which both shared.

Of all Tane’s (the God of Forest and Birds) children, the huia was the most sacred bird to Māori. Their tail feathers (each bird had twelve) were an extremely revered taonga and when worn, symbolised leadership and mana. In pre-European times, only rangatira /chiefs of noble rank and their whānau wore the distinguished tail feathers in their hair.

The Bush Advocate reported on 10 June 1890 that at a large hui in Wanganui, Kāwana Pitiroi Paipai, (Ngāti Ruaka hapū of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi) a prominent rangatira was sitting to “receive company”. For the occasion, Paipai wore a magnificent korowai / cloak, made entirely of the green and gold feathers of the kerēru fastened at his shoulders with a shark’s tooth and his “cloud of iron-grey hair” was surmounted by the “precious white-tipped plumes of the sacred huia, the sign of chieftainship”. In his lap lay a magnificent pounamu mere.

Examples of wear proliferated in print. On 18 December 1845 Colenso recorded in his diary while visiting Parangarahu near Wellington that the huia was “so highly prized by Māori all over the Island for their handsome skins which they hang in their ears.” Other uses encountered was the wearing a tuft of huia feathers as a mau taringa / earring or as a headdress composed of huia skins.

An unusual use of the huia feather was reported by the Hawke’s Bay Herald on 21 June 1882 when Rēnata Kawepō entertained a large hui of both Māori and Pākehā at Omahu to celebrate the marriage of his adopted son, Wiremu te Muhanga Paratene (William Broughton) to Atiria Te Hauwaho. After the service it was noted that the wedding cake was “profusely ornamented with huia feathers”.

Pākehā quickly copied the Māori tradition of wearing huia feathers but alongside incorporated their bills into jewellery. At the last session of Parliament on 11 September 1882, the Hawke’s Bay Herald reported that a large number of Members of Parliament were wearing huia feathers in their hats. John Sheeham, Minister of Māori Affairs from 1877–1879 conceived the idea that the wearing of the feather would appropriately mark the “closing days of the session” so he procured a “quantity of huia feathers and distributed them amongst members for that purpose”.

And as late as 1901 (by which time the huia was almost extinct), Woodville jeweller S Boustein, had designed a gold-mounted engraved brooch with a miniature gold snake wound between the two portions of the female huia beak, as well as a gold-mounted huia bill pendant fastened to a watch chain. Both items were displayed in his shop window for the public to admire and contemplate purchasing.

As demand for feathers, skins, bills and taxidermy specimens grew the huias population plummeted causing some Māori and Pākehā to become concerned. During Colenso’s 1845 journey to Parangarahu he noted that a group of Māori had “living specimens of the elegant and rare bird the huia”. On 24 July 1874, Heta Matau from Pōrangahau wrote a letter to the Hawke’s Bay Times stating that local Māori had established a rāhui / protection order against the killing of the huia and furthermore it had been in place for the last four years but was seemingly disregarded.  

Taylor White from Wimbleton was also anxious about the fate of the huia. In a letter published 4 April 1890 by the Hawke’s Bay Herald he stated “formerly there were numbers of a rare bird, the huia, here” and their birdsong “used to be sounding on all sides”. He feared the huias extinction “unless a haven or refuge is provided for them in Government Reserves”.  Sadly, it was too late for the huia – official record considered the bird extinct by 1907. The last officially confirmed sighting was on 28 December 1907 when three huia were reportedly seen in the Tararua Ranges. 

Currently at MTG Hawke’s Bay we are extremely privileged to have on display the exhibition Tāku Huia Kaimanawa by artist Fiona Pardington, featuring five large-scale photographs of the Museums Trust taxidermied huia and feathers – one of which is the Colenso feather featured above. We warmly invite you to visit, pause in front of the images and take time to contemplate, appreciate and be enveloped by the pure beauty of the now extinct huia.

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today newspaper on 5 August 2023 and written by Gail Pope, Social History Curator at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

Image: Letter written by William Colenso to John Burtton along with huia feather.

7 August 2023

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