Volume 34 1925 > Volume 34, No. 134 > The moa in Maori tradition, by John White, p 170-174
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[The following notes on the moa were collected many years ago from native sources by that indefatigable collector, the late Mr. John White. They have reached our hands through the courtesy of Mr. White's family and of Mr. George Graham, of Auckland. As is to be expected, this information, handed down through succeeding generations, contains some statements that appear to be untrustworthy, such as the number of eggs mentioned, also the remarks concerning the passing of crop stones. Another matter for consideration is the question of colour. Are the colour terms given correct? It is known that one has to be careful when a native is describing colours; all collectors of data in the field of Maori ethnography are aware of this fact.

Barbaric man is ever wont to welcome an element of the marvellous, hence the Maori belief that the cuckoo passed the winter in seclusion by burying itself in mud until the warmth of spring returned. Mr. White was informed that, when the moa was resting or sleeping, it stood on one leg, but not always the same leg, for its procedure differed according to which wind was blowing, easterly or westerly. Another part of the subject that appears fabulous is the statement anent the food preserving habits of the moa. Curiously enough a similar story is told by the Tuhoe folk concerning the kakapo, a bird that formerly frequented certain ranges of the Urewera district. These natives told us that the kakapo collected the berries of the hinau and tawa trees, also fern roots (aruhe), and placed them in pools of water in secluded places. When summer approached they began to feed on these preserved supplies. (See Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, Vol. 41. p. 262.)

The expression moa kai hau denotes that the moa lived on air, and natives have told us that, when resting on one leg, the creature always faced the wind and kept its mouth open.

In Vol. 25 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, at p. 67, may be seen an account of how the moa was slain by spearsmen. It is of interest to note that the huge moa was known to the natives of the Cook Islands and the Tongan Group, as explained in Hawaiki, 4th ed., pp. 267–271, and in Folk Lore of March 31, 1921, at p. 50. See also a brief note in Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 7, p. 177. Papers on, and references to, the moa also occur in the following volumes of the Journal of the Polynesian Society:

Vol. 2, p. 156; Vol. 3, p. 232; Vol. 5, p. 120; Vol. 6, p. 83; Vol. 7, p. 177; Vol. 13, p. 193; Vol. 14, pp. 102, 103, 164; Vol. 16, pp. 46, 59, 106, 136, 137; Vol. 19, pp. 222, 223; Vol. 20, p. 54; Vol. 21, p. 146; - 171 Vol. 22, p. 42; Vol. 24, pp. 107, 135; Vol. 25, pp. 31, 66, 67, 126; Vol. 26, p. 148; Vol. 27, pp. 150, 152, 158; Vol. 28, pp. 12, 50, 107, 108, 109; Vol. 33, pp. 3, 11, 15, 81.

We are indebted to Mr. H. Hamilton for his interesting remarks on Mr. White's paper.—Editors.]

THE old Maoris told me that the moa was a wingless bird of great strength, having a thick, strong V-shaped beak. The upper part of the beak was curved downward, and its inner part was grooved cross-wise, and the outer end of the lower beak fitted into it. The beak was like black bone in appearance, and the inner part of it was jagged. The eyelids were dark coloured and seemed to close upward. The feathers resembled those of the kiwi, though true feathers, yet they had a hairy appearance. Though the moa had no wings, yet it had small flappers in their place, and these it moved when it was running. The feathers on the under-side of these flappers, and also those on the parts of the body where they rested, were of a pale yellow colour, and were from four to eighteen inches in length.

The moa lived in the open country, and only entered the forest when pressed by dearth of food; then it would go a short distance into the bush in search of such food as berries of the ti, toetoe-kiwi and pate [Cordyline, Gahnia lacera and Schefflera digitata]. They did not move about in large flocks, seldom more than two or three being seen together. A brood of young ones would follow the parents until about 18 months old, when they would probably wander off in twos or threes. The bird did not lay more than 30 eggs, and on these the hen bird alone sat. The eggs were about seven inches in diameter. While the hen bird was sitting the male would not go very far away, but kept the hen bird supplied with food during the sitting, which continued for about two moons. At this period also the male bird was unusually alert and pugnacious, readily attacking any creature approaching the hen. The male kicked like a horse, and strove to trample on an enemy. He would make a deep, hoarse sound, while the cry of the hen was a kind of bleat.

These creatures frequented the banks of streams and lakes, and were in the habit of swallowing stones from the size of a pigeon's egg to that of a small hen's egg. These were seen in the droppings of the birds. The moa was not - 172 a night moving bird, and it always slept standing on one leg.

The young birds, up to about a year old, were of a dun colour, and had a woolly appearance, after which the feathers changed in colour and general appearance. The breast was of a light dun colour, the back was black, and the flappers were of a mottled appearance; the neck had a red tinge. Below the eyes and above the beak the skin was reddish and without feathers, and on the top of the head was a kind of wattle not unlike an orange. The legs had a scaly appearance, and the feet had three toes in front but none behind. These strong feet were used by the bird in tearing up the earth to obtain fern-roots for food. These roots it broke into pieces about a foot long, and carried them to a stream and there soaked them for some time before eating them. The bird scratched a hole in a place where it would fill with water, and placed the roots therein. In course of time the roots would become softened, when the bird would eat them.

The Maori people hunted the moa and looked upon it as a prized part of their food supply. It was cooked in the usual way by steaming in a hangi [cooked by means of heated stones and water in a pit]. It is said that the wood of the koromiko [Veronica] was used as fuel when cooking this bird. He koromiko te rakau i tunua ai te moa [This saying seems to refer to a roasting method rather than the steaming mode of cooking]. A peculiar exudation from this wood is called by the Maori “The fat of the moa.”

The moa was a dangerous creature to encounter in the open; by kicking and trampling it could kill a man. Thus the natives used to lie in wait for it on the tracks that it formed through the scrub. Armed with spears they concealed themselves on both sides of such a track, and speared the bird as it passed them. The wounded bird would set off at a run, and the wounds would be aggravated by the spear shafts catching in the scrub on either side of the track. The natives would pursue the bird until it weakened and so was overcome. Certain charms were employed by natives ere setting forth on a moa hunt, but these have been forgotten. Of a tribe that has disappeared it is said that it has passed away like the moa.

Women were not allowed to cook the flesh of the moa; for some unexplained reason men only might do so. The - 173 flesh is said to have been very palatable, and sometimes quite fat. When placed in the steam oven it was covered with leaves of the poporo, karamu and koromiko [Solanum, Coprosma and Veronica], which leaves were supposed to impart to it a desirable flavour.

Bones of the moa have been found at Hokianga, Kaipara, Waikato, Hauraki, Taupo, Patea, Nelson, and in nearly all parts of the grassy plains of the South Island. The natives used to secure the feathers found under the flappers [rudimentary wings] and use them as plumes for adornment on special occasions. They were exhibited at mortuary functions especially, and were highly prized. The last feathers seen were at Whakatane in 1845, when a number of bones of the dead were taken from a cave and concealed in the forest in the Rotorua district. Natives have told me that the last moa lived in a cave on the Ruahine range, on the Taupo side of that range.


This hitherto unpublished note on the habits of the moa is extremely interesting to ornithologists, and more particularly to those who have studied the evolution of our knowledge of this extinct bird. The account was probably given to White by some native who could not possibly have been acquainted with the scientific reasonings and deductions of the day. Given as traditional history or legend—and allowing for the probable distortion due to repetition—there is much that is accurate in the light of our present-day knowledge.

The historian describes the beak of the moa accurately as regards shape, and also states that “the beak was like black bone.” He is evidently referring to the horny sheath that covers the bone. The description of the feathers is accurate and appropriate, although no feathers have been found 18in. long. It must be remembered that this length is not improbable, as the Australian emu has certain feathers over a foot long.

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Regarding the moa laying “not more than 30 eggs” we can offer no direct evidence in denial. As in the case of the rhea and ostrich, the nest may have contained the eggs laid by the several females in the retinue of one male. I am strongly of the opinion that the historian is at fault when he states that the “hen bird alone sat.” If the nest of 30 eggs was, as I suspect, a communal effort by several females, the male bird would be responsible for their incubation as effected by the male emu, cassowary, rhea, and ostrich.

A differentiation between the calls of the male and female moa is probably correct, as it is the case in the opposite sexes of allied forms.

If accurately and reliably described, the account of the general colouring of the feathers is important, and the mention of “a wattle not unlike an orange” is of peculiar interest. Moa skulls have been found having pits in the cranial bone which suggest that either a crest of feathers or a comb was present in the living bird.

The atrophied wing (rudimentary wing or small flapper) was certainly present in the moa skeleton; and granting that this wing was outwardly evident, there is reason to suppose (by analogy) that it could be flapped at will. The kiwi has an atrophied wing furnished with a spur that is used in fighting, and the weka, though incapable of using its wings in flight, certainly flaps them when running and fighting.

These and several other points in the story add to the accumulating evidence that the Maori was contemporaneous with the moa.