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The Ghost of moa

Long-lost journal reveals sensational information about New Zealand's extinct giant birds.

The discovery of a long-lost journal reveals East Coast Maori shared information about moa with a French naval crew 11 years before the giant birds were first mentioned in other records . . . and suggested they still existed in the early 19th century. Andrew McKenna reports.

In 1769 botanist Joseph Banks wrote: “This morn I was awakd by the singing of birds ashore from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile, the numbers of them were certainly very great . . . their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard.”

Banks was one of many Europeans to note New Zealand’s cacophony of birdcalls.

Aboard the Resolution in 1773, dropping anchor in what is now Doubtful Sound, the excellently named Lieutenant Pickersgill wrote, “. . . the sweet swelling Notes of a number of Birds made the finest Harmony”.

What those Europeans — most likely — did not hear was the deep, guttural call of the moa. That call has been reconstructed through the educated guess of scientists at Te Papa, and it booms out like a cross between a lion’s growl and a groan ripped from a horror movie, at once maudlin, disturbing, and somehow, lonely.

The moa, New Zealand’s answer to Africa’s ostrich and Australia’s cassowary, was extinct by the time Europeans arrived on these shores.

Fast forward to 1827 and the French arrived along the East Coast aboard the naval corvette L’Astrolabe under the command of Dumont d’Urville.

Assistant ship’s surgeon Pierre Adolphe Lesson recorded Tokomaru Bay chief Te Rerehorua telling them that if the ship waited, he, Rerehorua, could bring them some “very large (moa) assez promptement (fairly quickly)”. The birds, apparently, were still to be found in the interior, a considerable distance away.

Unfortunately, Lesson records “Tokomarua (sic) Bay although large was still too little known for us to risk it”.

French wariness inconveniently interfered with scientific investigation.

Ornithologist, historian and author Michael Lee pinpoints Lesson’s record, which has just been published in the Birds New Zealand journal Notornis 194 years after it was made, as the first ever reference to the existence of the moa.

“Lesson’s journals are extraordinary for a number of reasons,” Lee says, “but mainly because of the disclosure of the existence of a large flightless bird called ‘moa’, 11 years before any other Europeans mention it, who all happened to be British. It’s also fascinating that a recognised historical figure, the Tokomaru Bay chief Te Rerehorua, is identified as the informant.

“It’s extraordinary that these journals have been sitting there containing these sensational comments unnoticed until now.”

The journals are a unique contribution to the natural history of New Zealand, and were “lost” for 160-odd years.

Towards the end of his life, Lesson donated them to the Bibliotheque municipale in the Lesson family’s home town of Rochefort, where a French historian rediscovered them in 1992, wrote a thesis on them, and confirmed “without a doubt” they were authentic.

What is even more special for us on the East Coast is that the first references to the bird all come from this area, indicating that even if the moa were extinct here by that time, it was still “alive” in recent memory.

Lesson wrote: “. . . here, seeing the feathers that adorned the canoe of Orua (Rerehorua), this chief led us to understand that these were the feathers of another bird, which did not fly but only ran, and was called by them ‘moa’.”

According to Lee, moa feathers have been preserved in cool dry caves in the South Island for hundreds of years, “but one would imagine feathers used in a sea-going waka would not have a particularly long working life”.

“And yes certainly the memory of the moa appears to have been retained by Maori here longer than in other parts of New Zealand.

“That being said, it is likely there were other names Maori used for this bird in other parts of the country for the various species of moa, both large — gigantic — and relatively small. Therefore quite different looking.”

He says it is not clear whether moa were more common around the East Coast than in other parts of the country, though the plentiful bones found here early in the European period would suggest they were. Even if the largest ones had died out, smaller species might still have been darting around the forest undergrowth.

Moa once 'completely dominated' New Zealand

And it’s not only bones that have been found here.

“The first preserved moa footprints, ichnites, were found in a creek bed near Gisborne in 1866,” Lee says.

“The prevalence of moa remains found here and strong Maori memory may relate to the especially rugged topography of the East Coast hinterland, stretching back to the Urewera country.

“This may have helped moa to hold out longer than moa in more accessible parts of New Zealand. East Cape Maori later told British missionaries led by Rev William Willams, the first Bishop of Waiapu, that moa still existed near the mountain of Whakapunake, inland from Gisborne, and other references were made to moa at Hikurangi.”

Rerehorua’s request for the French to remain at Tokomaru Bay might also have been a ruse. He was possibly motivated by anxiety about the then shape of iwi politics, with the Musket Wars in full swing. Having a French naval corvette allied offshore would have been a comfort amid shifting alliances and skirmishes.

Within a few years of the Astrolabe’s departure, Rerehorua’s pa, Tuatini, was besieged by a coalition of enemies and Rerehorua killed and eaten, his head sold for gunpowder.

But back to the bird. Michael Lee says a “scientific consensus” exists today that is reluctant to accept that the moa may have hung on longer than 1400-1500 AD.

They were one of the biggest birds in the world, and they completely dominated this country for tens of thousands of years, he says.

“Humans have lived here for a blink of an eye compared to the moa.

“There were nine different species, from very big to not much bigger than a turkey. The biggest were over two metres tall, much taller than a man. It would take a big guy, a tough guy, to take them on. I think they were powerful and dangerous, especially if cornered.

“Animals and birds are not without cunning themselves. I believe the memory (Rerehorua) had meant they hung around longer than is presently accepted.

“It’s important for the East Coast area because it’s the first place where Westerners heard of the moa, and there are bones everywhere.

“They held on longer on the East Coast than in other parts of New Zealand — Northland for instance — where the nature of the country enabled people to quickly hunt them to extinction.

“Maori memory of the moa on the East Coast was at the very least still vivid in the first three decades of the early 19th century.”

Given the fate of Te Rerehorua in 1828, Lee wonders how many other elders, perhaps with special knowledge, memory and matauranga of the moa, died in the Musket Wars that ravaged the East Coast.

“This was moa country, moa land,” he says.

“These were enormous fascinating birds, and now they’re gone forever, which is a scar on the heart of the land.

“You fancy that the ghost of the moa must echo up those deep bush valleys of Tairāwhiti.”

Artist’s reproduction of the moa: Nine species of the flightless bird have been identified, and while there is scientific consensus that they were extinct by the time of European arrival, memory of them — at least — was still vivid around the East Coast. Image by John Megahan/PLOS Biology
Pierre Adolphe Lesson in later life: As a young man he embarked, as a pharmacist and botanist, on the “Astrolabe”, under the orders of Dumont d’Urville in charge of looking for the shipwreck of La Perouse. His meticulous journals have now come to light in English, revealing the first European references to the moa, informed by Rerehorua at Tokomaru Bay. Portrait in oils by Faustin Betbeder, 1869. Musees-municipaux Rochefort