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Forest Lore of the Maori

The Cormorant or Shag:

The Cormorant or Shag:

Concerning the cormorant or shag (Kawau, Phalacrocorax spp.) there is again not much to say; these birds were unimportant as a food-supply; still, they were occasionally eaten; those so served were the young birds, taken from the nests ere they could fly. The Maori would certainly have eaten the grown birds, but these would be difficult to take by native methods; a wary, far-seeing bird is your kawau. R. McDonald, in Te Hekenga, tells us how the Horowhenua natives caught shags much as hawks were caught, save that the apparatus was used in water. Two poles were set up in a vertical Position in the stream or lake, and to these a horizontal crosspiece was lashed. Above this perch-bar a cord was stretched from pole to pole in a horizontal position, and secured; from this cord were suspended a number of slip nooses. When a shag saw such a convenient perch from which to survey the food-containing waters, it would alight on the bar, and, not infrequently, be caught in one of the nooses. This practice I had not heard of, and east coast natives have merely told me that the young birds were taken to serve as a food-supply. Shaggeries are seen on dead trees, and on cliffs, and so we hear of pari kawau, or 'cormorant cliffs,' as such places are called. In olden times these places were visited periodically by the Maori folk, who would take many of the young ere they were capable of page 344flight, and these shaggeries were known by Special names. In some cases they would be rahuitia or preserved, as already explained, and these names are heard when natives are giving evidence of occupation before the Land Court.

These birds are noted for their straight flight; when seeking their feeding grounds in the morning, or returning to their roosting place in the evening, they seem to abide by the old definition of a straight line, the shortest distance between two given points. Hence we have the old saying: He kawau ka tukuki roto ki te aro maunga, a cormorant flying directly toward a hill-face, illustrating the direct flight of these birds when returning to a pari kawau. An allied saying is Ka māro te kaki o te kawau, the neck of the cormorant is straightened out—'for flight' understood. When this bird is about to take flight it cranes its head forward and straightens its long neck, and so a person would quote this saying when he wished his hearers to understand that he was about to depart. Again, when several parties of armed men, each probably representing a sub-tribe, combined in one column to perform a war dance, that column was known as a kawau maro. A ranga māro or headlong Charge in fighting would also be described by means of the above sayings. Another expression is He kawau moe roa, or 'a long-slumbering cormorant,' and this refers to the habits of the bird. One sees a kawau perched on a snag or elsewhere for a long time, motionless and perchance asleep, but that bird is attending strictly to its business; its all-seeing eyes will cause it to spring into action when prey or danger is at hand. So it is that the term kawau moe roa has been applied by the Maori to such nets, traps, etc., also snares, as are set and left unattended; these eel pots, nets, snares and so on sleep on as does the vigilant cormorant but do their work in the most effective manner, when the time comes for that work to be performed.

The cormorant is spoken of as being the offspring of one Terepunga, and this is referred to in a remark made by Pareihe at Taupo, that time he posed as an augur on the drear shores of that lone lake. The remark referred to was as follows: He ana kokoti ihu waka i te moana, he aitua; ko Rakaiora kokoti i te ara taua i te tuawhenua. Kati, ko te mokopuna a Terepunga e tau mai ra te tahuna, ki te mati i a au whiti ana te ra ki tua o Tawauwau. (A herring crossing the bow of a canoe at sea is an evil omen, as also is a lizard appearing in a path traversed by a war party. Well now, if the offspring of Terepunga resting on the sandbank yonder is slain by me, then the sun shines beyond Tawauwau.) As the old fighter succeeded in shooting the cormorant, then of course success came to the party, and the sun of welfare shone on Tawauwau, and far beyond.

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After all even full-grown shags cannot be so very distasteful, or Cook and his companions would not have appreciated them as they did. Their first banquet of this nature seems to have taken place at Mercury Bay, and in Sir J. Banks' Journal we read: "A tree in the neighbourhood, on which were many shags' nests, and old shags sitting by them … about 20 were soon killed, and as soon broiled and eaten; every one declaring that they were excellent food, as indeed I think they were." Captain Cook also described it as 'an excellent meal,' and, when lying at Queen Charlotte Sound, they indulged in more shags, which, Cook assures us, 'whether roasted or stewed we considered as very good provision.' George Forster, in his account of Cook's second voyage, speaks of another banquet on shags at the Sound, and, concerning those shags, remarks "which we had now learnt to relish instead of ducks." Of a native who dined with them, this writer says that he ate "very voraciously of a shag-pye, of which contrary to our expectation, he preferred the crust." Colonel Wakefield, in a report written at the above Sound on 1 September, 1839, remarks of shags that they are "very good eating, resembling very much in taste fresh killed beef."