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Forest Lore of the Maori

Pukeko (Porphyrio melanonotus); also known as pakura:

Pukeko (Porphyrio melanonotus); also known as pakura:

Here we have, not a flightless, but a slow-flight bird that flies but little, and one that was fairly numerous in low-lying and swampy areas in former times. The Maori couples this bird with the kaka parrot in the old saying: He pakura ki te po, he kaka ki te ngahere. A pakura at night, a kaka in the forest, because both give warning of the passing hours of night by occasionally uttering a cry; the third cry of the pakura tells that dawn is at hand.

As to the mythical origin of this bird it would appear that it was originally a denizen of the heavens. When Tawhaki ascended to the sky-lands he met Pakura the swamp-hen and Matuku the bittern coming down to earth in search of a cooler abode by calm waters, for the sky lands were being dried up by the fierce heat of the sun. Tawhaki remarked that Pakura had wounded himself, his forehead being bloodstained, whereupon Matuku the bittern explained that Tamaiwaho had smitten him, because Pakura had filched and eaten of Tama's food supplies. So it is that the red bloodstain is still seen on the head of Pakura, the swamp-hen. This origin-myth, simple and pleasing as it is, does not seem to have pleased all, for some tell us that Punga was the forebear of the pukeko, and when Pukeko was born, Tawhaki said: "Let your child be a foster-child for me," to which Punga consented. Then Tawhaki, who had cut his hand with an adze while building the house Rangiura, smeared some of the flowing blood on the forehead of Pukeko, as a token to all that he had adopted the infant.

The Matatua folk maintain that the pukeko and kokako (crow) sprang from one Hine-wairua-kokako. The former bird was, when numerous, somewhat of a pest, for it entered the sweet-potato cultivations of the Maori and did a considerable amount of damage. If much harassed by these birds the Maori would, in some cases, erect light fences of reeds, etc., to protect their crops; the swamp-hens did not, apparently, think of flying over these barriers; such light work was often performed by old men. Or certain old folks would page 191pass much of their time driving prowling pukeko away from the crops, crying out the following formula as they did so: Hie! Hie! Haere ki te huhi haere ki te repo, haere ki a Hine-wairua-kokako! Hie! Hie I (Be off, Go away! Away to the morass, away to the swamp, away to Hine-wairua-kokako! Away! Be off!)

Some of the east coast natives assert that the pukeko was introduced by their ancestors; that it was brought hither on the vessel called Horouta, which reached these shores from Polynesia about twenty-four generations ago. Yet more assertive are the Aotea tribes of the west coast that the pukeko, the kiore or native rat, and the karaka tree were all introduced into this land by their ancestors in the vessel called Aotea. Doubtless the rat was so introduced, but as to the bird and tree—Quien sabe?—though both are said to be natives of Rangitahua or Sunday Island, 600 miles from Auckland, and there is some evidence to shew that Aotea tarried there a while when coming hither to Aotearoa.

The pukeko was taken by means of snares, running nooses suspended from a horizontal cord stretched taut and secured to stakes. This apparatus would be rigged up in places frequented by the birds, and these birds are generally on the move, stalking slowly about, and so would run their heads into the snare-loops and be caught. The most satisfactory snare-loops were obtained when the material employed consisted of narrow strips of Cordyline-leaf; not only is this material more durable than the leaf of the flax, but also it retains rigidity better; the loops remain well distended, even when old. As in the case of snaring ducks, also of arranging snares round water, the loops were so arranged as to overlap each other, hence a bird could only avoid them by turning back, and the witless pukeko, like many other species, never seemed to read a lesson in snare-gripped, struggling victims. It will be seen that this method of snaring is the same as that employed when taking ducks, save that, in the latter case, the snares were arranged over water. Wherever these birds had formed pathways through such vegetation as sedges, rushes, etc., snares would be set in a number of places across these paths; the taut cord to which the actual snares were attached was known by at least three different names, tahu, takeke and kaha.

The matuku or bittern mentioned above is also said to have been one of the offspring of Punga, and is another bird from whose cries auguries were drawn as to weather and seasonal conditions; one of the sayings of the men of old was: Me he mea ka ka haere te matuku i te po he tau waipuke. (If the bittern continues to cry out as it moves about at night, then a season of floods follows).