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Forest Lore of the Maori

The Titi or Mutton-bird:

The Titi or Mutton-bird:

The tītī or mutton-bird (Puffinus spp) provided a considerable amount of food in some districts, not only for those dwelling on the sea-coast, but also for folk who held no sea-board; who lived far inland. These birds had many breeding places, some of them far inland, often on high hils and ranges. When returning to such places from their jaunts seaward, the birds would fly low when crossing the summit of a ridge, or traversing a pass, and this habit was noted by the Maori, who took large numbers of them at such places. These homeward flights took place in the evening, and about dusk they would be approaching their breeding-places. The saying He manawa titi seems to refer to the powers of flight possessed by the titi, and so a man possessed of good staying power may be described as a manawa titi. Another old saying connected with this bird is: He titi rere ao ka kitea; he titi rere po e kore e kitea (a day-flying titi can be seen, a night-flying titi cannot be seen). Sayings such as this were constantly being used.

In some cases these birds were taken at the breeding-grounds, to which the owners of surrounding lands resorted in order to take the young birds ere they were capable of flight. But it not infrequently occurred that the old birds, when flying homeward from the sea at eventide to a breeding-ground far inland, crossed the lands of page 346another tribe, the members of which could endeavour to take as many as possible. This they could do safely within their own territory; but should they trespass on the land of another tribe to take those birds, or their young, at the breeding-burrows or when flying, then they would certainly be attacked. There is a place called the Ahi-titi on the ridge close to the outlet of Waikare-moana, so called because at that place these birds were taken in olden times as they were on their way from the sea to their breeding-grounds further inland, one or more of which were at Manuoha. Now the Ruapani folk took the birds at the Ahi-titi, and some other places, but could not follow them to Manuoha, at which place the Tuhoe people attended to them. Many of the places where the home-seeking old birds were taken were known as Ahi-titi (titi fire) simply because at such places a fire was always kindled by fowlers to attract the birds as they winged their way inland in dusk or darkness.

On ridge-top or bluff-head, wherever the fleeting birds were taken, a long net was set up, a strong plaited fabric attached to upper and lower cords; when fixed the net was vertical and the two stout cords by means of which it was distended were supported by inverted V-shaped stanchions, each formed of two poles lashed together at the top. The upper and lower cords were known as the tama-tane and tama-wahine among the Tuhoe folk. A fire, the ahi titi, was kindled a short distance in front of the middle of the net, and men were seated at the foot of the net, each provided with a stick wherewith to despatch any bird that seemed too lively after contact with the net. Flying swiftly, and attracted by the fire, the birds hit the net with much force. The fowlers endeavoured to take the birds without making them bleed, for that was for some reason deemed to be unlucky. Also, women were not welcomed as members of the party, for should a menstruating woman approach the place, then few birds would be taken; they would fly about uttering loud cries, but would avoid the net. These birds no longer visit the old breeding-grounds of the North Island as they did of old, and natives have told me that the imported rat is responsible for the change.

Dieffenbach came across the mutton-bird on the slopes of Mt. Egmont, and tells us of its habit of going inland to breed. The local natives told him that the female bird never leaves its nest until its egg is hatched, and that it does not take any food during the period of incubation, hence the old saying concerning this bird: He manu whangainga tahi, a bird of Single feeding, or, as others express it, He titi whangainga tahi.

The taking of mutton-birds at Puketiti in the Hawkes Bay district was witnessed by Mr. J. Brooking about 1860. He explained that page 347the nets he saw used were about 12ft. long and 6ft. wide, being plaited fabrics with a mesh of 3in. or thereabouts. A long pole was attached to each end of the net, by means of which the net was held in a vertical position by two men. The course of the birds when flying inland lay across the summit of the Puketiti hill, and there it was that the fowlers set up their tent and kindled a fire about 4 yards in front of the net. On either side of the fire sat three men, about 6ft. apart, each of whom was armed with a rod about 9ft. in length, and nearer the net another man was stationed, armed in like manner. The flight of birds seemed to make straight for the fire, into which some flew headlong, while many others dashed into the net and feil disabled to the ground, where they were despatched by the Single rod-armed man. Meanwhile the six rod-armed men would be busily engaged, and laying about lustily with their rods at the hurtling horde of birds as they streamed past; many birds were Struck down by these men. Occasionally the squatting or kneeling men would be overthrown by the impact of swiftly-flying birds. The first flock to arrive would consist of forerunners, after which would come the matua, the main body, whereupon a scene of desperate activity prevailed for a brief space of time. Dark nights, or drizzly nights are said to have been preferred by fowlers when taking mutton birds by this method. The birds were plucked, boned, cooked, and then packed in tahā, gourd vessels, when the melted fat, result of the cooking, was poured over them until all were covered. When the whole had cooled and set, then the mouth of the vessel was closed, and plugged with any suitable material available.