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Forest Lore of the Maori

The Weka (Ocydromus australis, etc.)

The Weka (Ocydromus australis, etc.)

The wood-hen. In the weka we see a bird that has assisted in the task of exploring and settling New Zealand to no mean extent, and this remark applies more particularly to the South Island. Explorers, miners, surveyors, all those who have traversed or sojourned in the rugged districts of the south, have, or should have, called down blessings on the head of the weka for being on hand just when he was most wanted. The weka is endowed with two qualities that have helped to fill many human stomachs, and have sent multitudes of his fellow weka down the path of death, those qualities being an undying curiosity and a pugnacious disposition. We are often reminded that a much-quoted old saying runs in this wise: Ka motu te weka i te rnahanga, e Kore a muri e hokia, which implies that a wood-hen that has escaped from a snare will never be foolish enough to return to it. That may be so, but the same birds that escaped would be easily taken in other such snares, either by tari or tupaki.

Wood-hens were taken by means of set snares placed in the runs sometimes formed by these birds, of tawhiti traps, of a running noose on the end of a rod, also by means of dogs, and sometimes by hand. Dr. Haast, in his report of his explorations on the west coast of the South Island, published in 1861, teils us that, in those days, the wood-hen was very numerous on the plains, in the forest, and on the mountains. He is quite truthful when he says that this bird despises nothing; from mutton chops to yellow soap, empty tins and the camp dish-clout, all is fish that comes to the wood-hen's net. His party caught a great many of these birds by means of a slipnoose on the end of a rod, and, if some small bird could be caught and held in one hand, or exposed to view, the wood-hens would rush forward to attack it, disregarding the noose-draped rod extended to capture them. The fowler would often hold a small leafy branchlet in his left hand, and by rustling this on the ground and imitating the cry of some small bird he would induce the wood-hens to approach near enough to be caught in the tari or noose. Haast's companions sometimes caught them by hand, having caused them to approach close to them by means of exhibiting a dead robin. The best lure was found to be the cry of a young wood-hen, when one could be captured. Mr. R. Henry, before mentioned, stated that, if you hold out in one hand a bait on the end of a stick, and in the other a rod with a slip-noose on its outer end so that the page 176 Fig. 2—Tari-Weka (Weka snare) E. H. Atkinson, Del. page 177 open noose is suspended just in front of the bait, then the witless weka will walk up and thrust its head through the loop in order to reach the bait. All the operator has then to do is to flick his noose-bearing rod upward, and thereby put an end to the wood-hens' curiosity, and his own hunger. When hunting with a dog the Maori would first lure the bird by imitating its cry, and then, as it approached him, he would liberate his dog and trust to it to secure the bird. Brunner, when exploring on the west coast in 1848, noted that the wood-hen "is the most useful and valuable bird for a bushranger," and states in his Journal that an imitation of its cry will attract it so that it can be snared, also that he sometimes caught them with his hands merely by shaking a dead katuhituhi or robin at them. They are downright pugnacious, and will fly at a bunch of feathers, or a piece of red cloth; several early writers speak of using the latter as a lure. Heaphy mentions the use of a piece of flax-leaf by natives in calling wood-hens; the call-leaf was a common usage among them. Heaphy saw Maoris using as a lure a bunch of feathers or leaves tied to a rod about 4 ft. long, while the running noose of flax was secured to another about 6 ft. long. The operator would shake the lure as he made a chirping noise; the wood-hens would advance to attack the lure, with disastrous results to themselves. One entry in Heaphy's Journal runs: "Twenty-three wood-hens and nine pigeons were caught by our little Scotch terrier dog." The pigeons must have been feeding on the ground, perhaps on berries. Brunner stated that the wood-hen gets very fat when feeding on the berries of the karamu (Coprosma).

A South Island contributor of the Ngai Tahu folk has contributed the following notes, which may be seen in the original Maori in No. 9 of the Addenda:—The task of taking and preserving the wood-hen commenced in the autumn; that is, in the month of April. All the Maori folk set forth to reach the plains, ranges, or Valleys where wood-hens were taken; on reaching the places whereat such work was usually carried on they would encamp; each division of the people would so act. The women would remain incamp, while the men, each one accompanied by his dog, would go forth and pursue the birds with dogs at all times; when many wood-hens had been taken then they would be carried into camp, where they would be plucked, and afterwards cooked to be preserved in fat. When the cooked birds had cooled they were packed in seaweed vessels. Now when the birds were plucked then the women would proceed to cook them in wooden bowls in a careful manner that prevented the vessels being injured by fire. The birds were packed in the bowls in layers, after which many hot stones were placed among them, and the page 178heat of these cooked the birds. Then the cooking-party was left to continue its work, while the men returned to their bird-hunting; when many had again been taken they would be conveyed to camp and disposed of as the first batch had been. The work would finally cease in the third or fourth month of the Maori year, and then the people would busy themselves in carrying the birds preserved in their own fat from the temporary camps to their permanent homes; so would the work end about the end of August. The vessels containing the preserved birds would be placed in an elevated storehouse; rats and other food-supplies so preserved were prepared and treated in the same way.

Waiapu natives told me that wood-hens were caught by means of the tawhiti form of trap, also known as tupaki, spring-snares that strangle a luckless creature caught in them; these were set under hinau trees when their berries were ripe and falling. A small enclosure of sticks, a form of puaka, was made, several openings being left in it, and in each of these a spring-trap was set. The enclosed space was bestrewn with the berries, which attracted the birds, which birds, when attempting to pass through one of the openings, were caught in the running noose and so released the whana or spring, after which the weka's interest in life ceased.

Maori folk of Southland will teil you that, long before Europeans arrived on these shores, their ancestors, when on their periodical expeditions to take wood-hens in forest ranges of the interior, would sometimes encounter parties of 'wild' Maori folk of whom nothing was known. These would probably be refugees, remnants of harassed clans that had sought safety in rugged districts.

South Island natives appear to have made capes by sewing together skins of weka, the threads being passed through the turned up edges of the skins, apparently, but the description received is not very clear; probably the skins were fastened to some form of woven groundwork. A cape or cloak was found in a cave in the Otago district that had the body of the garment covered with strips of bird-skin, while the upper and lower edges were furnished with a kind of fringe formed by attaching strips of dog's skin shewing black, reddish-brown, and white hair.

Cook seems to have seen numbers of wood-hens when at Dusky Bay in 1773. He teils us that they found food on the sea-beach, and were so tarne or foolish as to stand and stare until they were knocked down with a stick. He adds that they "eat very well in a pye or fricassee." Of the weka found at Macquarie island we were told by one authority that some New Zealand wood-hens page 179were liberated there about 1890, while another states that they were taken there about 1830.

Buller speaks of the weka becoming exceedingly fat when feeding on the fruit of diminutive species of certain pines found on the slopes of Ruapehu.