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Forest Lore of the Maori

Kākāpō (Strigops habroptilus):

Kākāpō (Strigops habroptilus):

This bird is also known as tarapo and tarepo; it was taken by the aid of dogs, by spring-snare, by means of the whakawiri, and, we are sometimes told, simply knocked over with sticks, or even caught page 171by hand. It is interesting to observe the evidence as to the disappearance of this bird from certain districts of the North Island prior to the settlement of such districts by Europeans. Taylor teils us in his New Zealand and its Inhabitants (1870) that it was rare in the North Island at that time, sixty years ago. He also states that he had seen only two caught. White remarked that, in his young days, old natives had assured him that the kakapo had formerly been numerous, but that it had decreased in numbers prior to the arrival of Europeans. Angas, who roamed the North Island in the 'forties, stated that the kakapo was nearly if not quite extinct, and that natives blamed the introduced dogs and cats for its disappearance. Hochstetter of 1859 told us that the kakapo comes out at night to pick berries of the tutu shrub and to grub fern roots, and adds that the bird has been totally exterminated in the North Island. In former times it was chased with dogs and caught in snares. Dieffenbach, in the early 'forties was told that the bird had not been seen (in the North Island) for many years; only the oldest natives had seen it.

According to the evidence of natives it would appear that the kakapo survived in the Kaimanawa ranges for some time after it had apparently disappeared elsewhere in the North Island. S. Percy Smith stated that, to his knowledge, a kakapo was caught in the Kaimanawa in 1895 by Te Kepa Puawheawhe, and that Hiha of Moawhango told him that he had taken numbers of the birds in those forest ranges in his young days, say about 1840. Old natives of Wairarapa have told me in past years that, prior to the arrival of Europeans, the kakapo was regularly hunted on the forest-covered flanks and outliers of the Aorangi range, east of Wairarapa lake. In support of this statement it can be added that bones of the birds have been found in caves in that district, also, in several traditions of inter-clan hostilities in those parts in olden days, kakapo are mentioned as being taken. It is also clear that these birds were formerly taken in the forests of the Tararua range; we have been assured by natives that they were so taken toward the headwaters of the Ohau, Waikawa, and Otaki rivers. The natives who gave this information were members of tribes that migrated hither from the north in the 'twenties and 'thirties of last century, so that, seemingly, the kakapo was living in that region when the migrants came south. Sixty years ago local natives of those parts were heard speculating on the cause of the disappearance of the kakapo in the days of their fathers. Waiapu natives told me that these birds were known in that district in olden times; traditions of the Rotorua district claim them as formerly known page 172there. Bones of the kakapo have been found near Frankton and elsewhere.

Buller stated in a paper published in vol. 10 of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute (1877) that the kakapo abounded in the Urewera district "until within the last few years," and that the saying Kapuru a Putaihinu relates to the former abundance of the bird, but adds that this saying is 'used to denote the rumbling of distant thunder.' The old folk of that district told me that the kakapo was formerly found and taken at Parahaki on the head of the Waiau river, on the Whakatangata range (Heruiwi No. 4 Block), at Ngatapa and Manuoha in the wild bush land between Waikare-iti and Maungapohatu, not the Ngatapa on the Okahuatiu block inland of Pātutahi. At Manuoha is a lagoon or lakelet where the white heron used to breed. But all the old men of the district agreed that the kakapo had disappeared from the district long before the middle 'seventies; men born in the 'thirties and 'forties had never seen it; it passed away as did the hakoke or rock-owl, before the European invasion of the Bay of Plenty district. The Norway rat that preceded that invasion may or may not have had some effect on the disappearance of the species. Major Mair stated that, in 1894, the kakapo was still to be found at the head of the Whanganui river.

The Tuhoe or Urewera natives told me that at Ngatapa, in former times, long rows of holes of the kakapo were seen by fowlers. Also that each flock of these gregarious birds had its leader, a small bird, and called the tiaka by the Maori. At night the birds would leave their holes and proceed to their feeding-grounds, and, after a period of feeding, they would proceed to their playground, termed by the Maori whawharua, where each bird had its own pokorua, small pit or hole. Here the tiaka acted as a guard or sentry; it kept walking round the outer edge of the playground, and the other birds commenced a strange kind of Performance, each beating its wings on the ground and making a hole therein with its beak, at the same time uttering deep-toned cries. As dawn approached the leader of the flock led it back to the common home, generally situated at some steep or rough place.

It is evident that Mr. R. Henry, late of Resolution Island, knew the whawharua of the kakapo, for he reported having found many 'scratching-holes' of that bird on ridges near the island. He states that a hill top near Cascade sound "was nearly covered with pathways and scratching holes. The ground all around looked as if there had been an attempt to clear it of ferns and sticks, and every root was bitten and peeled as if they had tried to remove it." Mr. Henry came page 173to the conclusion that the place was a playground, in which according to Maori evidence, he may have been right. In another place he found a continuation of such holes on a narrow ridge-top, each hole (pokorua) being about 18 in. wide and 3 in. deep, while all were connected by a well-beaten path. The wing-threshing described by natives reminds one of the antics of domestic fowls when indulging in a dust bath.

The Maori says that, when approaching a whawharua with a view to the taking of birds, it was necessary that fowlers avoid the side from which the wind was blowing, or the birds would take the alarm and escape. When the birds assembled and commenced their 'dance,' each one elevating its wings preparatory to striking the ground with them, then the fowlers closed in, for when the performance had commenced it was possible to take the birds by hand, though it was necessary to take the leader first, after which the rest of the flock might easily be caught. If the leader escaped then none of the others would be taken, at least I was so assured. Apart from this simple mode of taking our night parrot, it was also lured by the fowler and taken with the help of dogs to which rattles were attached.

The implement termed by the Tuhoe tribe a whakawiri, and used in taking young kaka from a deep nest hole, is mentioned by Dr. Haast as having been used by South Island natives in taking the kakapo: "The kakapo lives in holes burrowed in the ground, where it remains during the day, coming out in the night; it feeds on berries and roots. Although able to fly, it rarely or never takes to the wing, as the natives assured me, who in former years often hunted it. For this purpose they generally went to the plains when the berries of the tutu were ripe, which are a favourite food of that bird, selecting fine moonlight nights. They ran them down partly with dogs, or even killed them with long sticks upon the tutu bushes. Another mode was, when they had found out their holes, to introduce a long stick into them, to which they had fastened several strong flax snares; feeling the bird with the end of it, they began to twist the stick, so as to bring some part of the bird into the snares, and thus drag it out." The flax snares mentioned were probably merely loops, not running nooses, as in the case of the North Island implement, of which more anon.

A form of trap known as puaka was used in taking flightless birds; it consisted of a square enclosure on each side of which was fixed the spring snare known as a tawhiti, the loop of which was so arranged in a small entrance passage that any creature attempting to pass through was caught and firmly held by the force of the spring. It page 174was usual to place some kind of bait within the enclosure. The pākaka, mentioned by Williams as 'a-small enclosure for a trap' at which spring-snares were set, was evidently the puaka under another name. We hear of weka being taken by means of a tupaki, but this is but another name for the tawhiti spring-trap or snare. Williams states that tupaki=hupaki, but gives hupaki as 'a net for catching ground-birds, with a loop of supplejack operated by a string.' This 'loop' of supplejack and its Operation call for some further explanation; quite possibly it was a korapa trap, in manipulating which a small hoop (not a loop) was used. Again, Williams, in his Maori Dictionary, gives karau as 'a trap made of loops of harakeke, to catch birds that burrow in the ground' (harakeke= flax, Phormium, strips of green leaf used). If these were piain loops, not snares, running loops, then the so-called trap was simply a whakawiri; if snares they would probably be connected with whana, bent spring sticks. The whitiwhiti form of trap, used in taking robins, was a small enclosure in which openings were left for snares.

The range of a colony or community of kakapo, the land over which the birds roamed when feeding, was called the whakarua of the flock, the whawharua or recreation ground covering but a small area. The Matatua folk maintained that kakapo collected berries of the hinau and tawa, also the roots of the common bracken-fern, and placed them in pools of water in order to preserve them for future use; these were consumed when food-supplies became scarce. The kakapo was one of the birds that were preserved in fat in former times, being cooked and placed in gourd vessels, into which the melted fat was poured until the birds were covered by it.

In the South Island these birds seem to have frequented the plains in olden times, but in the North I have heard of them only as denizens of the forest; generally their colonies were situated in rough lands, on bush ranges, among cliffs, well away from native settlements. This was one of the few birds that the Maori skinned, and this was for the purpose of making what we may term dress-capes (kahu kākāpō) that were worn over the shoulders. In 1882 Te Whiti of Parihaka stated that, in pre-European times, adventurous North Islanders occasionally made expeditions to the South Island in order to procure greenstone, kakapo skins, and those of the seal. One Kaihua made several canoes in the far south, and brought them back to the north laden with treasures.

Manu takaha, manu taupua, manu taupunga and manu taki are names applied to a bird that acts as a sentry, like the tiaka referred to above, in some cases used to denote a decoy bird. As a final remark on the kakapo here is an old saying referring to that strange bird: He page 175kotuki ki te rangi, he kakapo ki te whenua— A white heron in the heavens, a kakapo on earth, the application being unknown to the writer.