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Forest Lore of the Maori

The Ruru or Morepork:

The Ruru or Morepork:

The ruru, owl, morepork (Ninox novae zealandiae) was certainly eaten occasionally by the Maori, though not often included by them in any list of food-supplies. They would be available only occasionally, and in small numbers. The Whanganui folk informed me that, in former times, their forebears would sometimes procure a number of these owls and preserve them as huahua. Such birds would not be mixed with other species, but preserved in a separate vessel. Any person presenting such a vessel of potted moreporks to an assembly of guests would, at the same time, chant a song that commenced with the words: He ruru taku nei-(My gift is one of owls). East Coast natives teil us that ruru is a general term including both sexes; that peho is a name for the female bird, while koukou and popoia are those of the male bird. The male has a deeper-toned note than the female, which has a rather shrill cry (Ka tanohu te reo, he toa tena reo; ka tiere te reo, he uwha tena). Kou-ruru appears in Maori myths as, apparently, the personified form of the ruru.

These owls were knocked over with a throwing stick, or taken by means of a tari, a slip noose arranged on the end of a stick, the manipulator of which would hold forth a branchlet with one hand, and shake it, at which unwonted sight the owl would stare intently; whereupon, with the snare-set stick in his other hand the operator would slip the noose over the bird's head. (Tetahi manu he ruru, he mea mau e te tangata te rau rakau ki tetahi ringa, ko te mahanga ki tetahi ringa. Ka rurutia te rau rakau, he mea kia titiro ai te ruru ki reira, katahi ka potae atu ai i te mahanga, a ka mau te ruru, ka rekareka te tangata ki tana kai.)

The name of koukou was assigned to this bird because the Maori renders its ordinary cry as Kou! Kou! A kind of screech occasionally heard is given as E . . . . e . . et; another cry as Whe! Whe! Whe!, and yet another as Peho! Peho!

The owl makes several appearances in Maori myth. When Rongo and his younger brothers constructed a sacred house of learning in this world, they named it Wharekura after a famed edifice that existed in Rangi-tamaku, the second of the twelve heavens, counting upward. We are told that, when the house of Rongo was completed an important ceremony was performed thereat, during which it was necessary to bury at the base of the rear pillar of the building something that would serve as a whatu, a form of talisman, and the choice made in that case fell upon Koururu, the offspring of Te Arawaru, that is to say upon Ruru, the Owl. This, we are gravely told, is the reason why the eyes of figures carved in human form page 333by the Maori folk glare so persistently, and why the images do not possess the powers of speech. So spake the Kahungunu folk, and Hori Whiu of Kaikohe has informed us that the spectacular exhibition known as pukana, the ability to glare wildly, as when performing a posture-dance, originated with Koukou the Owl, who glared in such a manner when Tirairaka the Fantail annoyed him. When the Maori folk came hither from far Hawaiki they became familiar with the glaring eyes of the owl and the energetic, ceaseless flitting of the fantail, and so they evolved the arts of pukana and of haka or posture-dances.

When Ruaumoko, the being who causes earthquakes, heard of the beauty of Te Hinutohu, sister of Tangaroa, she of whom it was said when she laughed: Me te pohoi toroa tera, puaho ana (Like unto the white down of the albatross-so intensely white), he ascended to this world in search of her, and we are told that he assumed the form of Ruru the Owl when he did so. He approached and entered the house of Te Hinutohu under cover of darkness, hence, presumably, his selection of a night-roaming bird as an ariā, or borrowed form. That house was Hui-te-ananui, some of the carved wooden figures of which, those inside the house, possessed the power of speech, though the outside ones did not. We have already seen in these veracious chronicles how it was that Popoia the Owl came to leave the underworld along with Pekapeka the Bat, and how both came to reside in this world; but ever they shun the glaring light of Taiao, and move abroad under the cover of darkness.

The cry of the owl was often looked upon as ominous of evil fortune. To hear such at or near the junction of two tracks was a sign that enemies were at hand, and when an owl was heard to cry: Kou! Koul Whero! Whero! Whero! then the case was urgent; death was near, and reaching for the sons of man. Sometimes all the people of a hamlet, on hearing such a cry, would leave their huts and pass the night in the forest. Such beliefs concerning the cries of owls are common throughout Polynesia, and indeed are known in all quarters of the earth. At Tonga the meaning of such cries seems to differ according to the time of day or night they are heard. To hear one late at night is a token that some disaster is at hand; to hear it in the afternoon teils the village that the population will ere long be increased by one.

Populār belief seems to credit the owl and the kaka with only few cries, but by paying some attention to the matter, one comes to know that each of these species has quite a number of differing cries. Dr. Hoeusler wrote as follows after hearing two ruru owls discussing page 334some matter in a bush gully: "The variety of the sounds they made were very surprising. At times we seemed to hear two people talking in moderately loud tones. This seemed to be followed by an angry argument. The voices then became as soft as the voices of human beings in a sick room." I have myself had similar experiences to the above, and Colenso describes one that he had somewhere in the Wairarapa district.