Art. XXVI.—On the Feathers of a Small Species of Moa (Megalapteryx) found in a Cave at the Head of the Waikaia River; with a Notice of a Moa-hunter's Camping-place on the Old Man Range.
[Read before the Otago Institute, 19th June, 1894.]
The history of the moa is one which will always have great attraction for the student of natural history in New Zealand; and year after year fresh details come to light, which, though perhaps small and trifling in themselves, assist in realizing the outward form and semblance of a family of birds as strange and grotesque as any that have ever existed. Every one is now familiar with the numerous restorations which have appeared in books, but should a specimen ever be captured in the flesh I am afraid the reality would scarcely match the figures we have drawn. Having recovered so many practically complete skeletons, the general forms of several genera are known; but whether they should be clad in black like the cassowary, in silver-grey like the rhea, or in brown like the emu, is quite uncertain. It is only quite lately that Dr. T. J. Parker has recognized facts which in all probability show that the heads of some individuals were topped with a crest of feathers. It is quite possible that the neck and head may have been adorned with caruncles or wattles, brilliantly coloured.
Maori tradition, which ought to be full of references to the appearance of the moa, does not help us much. In Sir George Grey's “Poetry of the New-Zealanders” (p. 138) is given a song which Mr. Colenso translates as follows (Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xii., p. 87):—
Produce and begin the talk of old,
The story of the very earliest times
Of the great ancient men:
Thus let it be; begin with the very beginning of all—
With the chief Kahungunu;
So that the bird's plume now present,
That is to say, of the moa,
Shall be stuck into the hair of my principal chief.
Mr. Colenso made diligent inquiries of old Maoris regarding the plumage of the moa, but, with the exception of the beautiful feather said to have been found at Whakapunake, he could hear nothing reliable. This one was said to be like that of the peacock; it did not differ a bit in its glossiness and
variety of colours, in its length, and in its ocellated appearance, its great beauty; altogether it was exactly like that of the feather of the peacock. Hawea, the native who gave this story, wrote afterwards to say that he had talked over the matter with some friends who had recently come from Whakapunake, and they had said that the celebrated moa on the mountain near their home had twelve of these beautiful round-eyed feathers like those of the peacock.
I have no doubt that this wonderful feather was really a peacock's feather derived from some trader or sailor, and that the information given by Hawea will not help us to picture any of the moas. In one of Dr. G. A. Mantell's papers he says, quoting a letter from Mr. W. B. D. Mantell, “And if the native traditions are worthy of credit the ladies have cause to mourn the extinction (?) of the Dinornis. The long feathers of its crest were by their remote ancestors prized above all other ornaments: those of the white crane, which now bear the highest value, were mere pigeon-feathers in comparison.”
I once heard from Mr. F. C. Sturm, who was a very early settler in Hawke's Bay, a story of his quest of a reputed moa-feather many, many years ago. The possessor was a chief living some distance inland from Wairoa. After reaching the place the chief produced a bundle of mats, and, after carefully unrolling a number of them, came to a finer and more valuable mat, which contained the waka in which was the “moa-feather.” Judge of my friend's excitement and dis-appointment when the treasure turned out to be the red horsehair plume from a dragoon's helmet.
Mr. John White, in a letter to Mr. Travers (23rd July, 1875),* says, “I forgot to say in my last letter that I have seen many old chiefs who have seen the moa-feathers worn in the heads of the old chiefs when the relators were boys. These men describe them as in some instances about 2ft. long, some 18in., some 12in., some 6in. long, with the down from the top of the quill to within the width of a man's hand at the top, the top being flat like the feather of the tail of the peacock. I think that I have in my Mss. the names which these feathers were called.”
In the Otago Daily Times of the 5th April, 1873, is the following: “Referring to the statement that live moas have been seen recently in New Zealand, Mr. Ebenezer Baker, Clerk to the Resident Magistrate's Court in Wellington, informs us (Wellington Post) that some years ago he found a moa's feather perfectly fresh near Tolaga Bay. It was about 18in. long, and apparently of the underpart of the wing. The feather was a long while in his possession, and was admitted
[Footnote] * Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. viii., p. 81.
by those acquainted with the subject to be a fresh one from a moa.” This is charming and conclusive. Another find of moa-feathers was made by a Dr. Nelson, at the Waipara, in 1858, as recorded in the Otago Witness (12th January). They were beautifully preserved fossils; but, alas! a fossil fern had in this instance been taken for the object desired.
From traditions and mistakes we must turn, then, to actual relics. Thirty years ago the celebrated York specimen was found at Tiger Hill, and the shafts of the feathers still remained on parts of the skin attached to the pelvic region. These were described by W. S. Dallas in 1865 (Proc. Zool. Soc., p. 262). Nothing, however, remained of the fluffy part of the feather.
The first paper describing any well-preserved feathers was read by Captain Hutton before the Wellington Philosophical Society in 1871,* and a figure was given which represents an average moa-feather very fairly. These feathers were found, together with moa-bones, buried in the sand, about 50ft. from the surface, at the junction of the Manuherikia and Molyneux Rivers.
About the same time (12th January, 1869), Dr. Thomson, of Clyde, sent to the Colonial Museum twenty feathers found 18ft. below the surface, between Alexandra and Roxburgh. Some of these are in the Museum. The remains found in the Earnscleugh cave, on the Obelisk Range, included the fine neck now in the Otago University Museum, and this retained a number of the shafts of feathers.
The Museum† has also specimens of moa-feathers collected by Mr. Taylor White from a cave near Mount Nicholas and at Queenstown. Specimens from both of these caves are in the Otago University Museum.
Mr. White had a considerable number of well-preserved feathers in his possession until recently, and some of these are now in the Museum of the Hawke's Bay Institute at Napier, and the remainder in England; and in a second paper, in vol. xviii. of the Trans. N.Z. Inst., p. 83, he mentions that one feather—a large one—was pure white.
Professor Owen, in his work on “The Extinct Birds of New Zealand” (vol. i., p. 442), figures a feather, in a woodcut, which is utterly unlike anything that could ever come from a moa. Probably the original sketch was merely a diagram roughly drawn to show the distribution of the colouring on the feather.
Mr. Hill some years ago found a splendid impression of a feather in a deposit of very fine pumice-mud, containing leaves,
[Footnote] * Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. iv., p. 172, pl. ix.
[Footnote] † Vide Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. viii., p. 101.
&c., of existing species of New Zealand plants, and has described it as a moa-feather.*
The feathers still remained on the metatarsi of a specimen of Mesopteryx didinus described by Professor Owen,† and are of a grey colour at the base, deepening into reddish-brown at the top. The legs being feathered so far down must have given a curious appearance to this species. The specimen described came from a cave on the Queenstown side of the Old Man Range.
These feathers are not double-shafted.
A paper on moa-feathers by Dr. Hector was taken as read at the February meeting of the Wellington Philosophical Society in 1880, but I do not think it has ever been published.
In 1876 Dr. Hector found on some very ancient Maori weapons in the British Museum what he considered to be undoubted moa-feathers.
The matter is fully discussed in Owen's work, p. 449, et seq. Professor Owen, however, thinks the feathers were those of a large kiwi. It is unfortunate that any doubt should exist, but the specimens in question were lost, and consequently cannot be further examined.
The only instance in which moa-feathers have been found applied to any purpose by human agency is the case I recorded last year† of the strip of skin with feathers sewn on to the skin-mat found wrapped around a skeleton in a cave in Upper Taieri. These feathers belong to Dr. Hocken, and I have brought them down to-night to show them in connection with those more recently discovered.
At the time I noticed them they did not correspond exactly with any known examples. Now, however, I have several amongst the present find which exactly correspond, and confirm the original identification. Fortunately, in this case, the feathers can be assigned to an individual moa of a small species, which has hitherto been known as Megalapteryx.
I have now to offer for your inspection a number of feathers of this small moa found by myself in a cave in one of the gorges of the Waikaia. This river and its headwaters pour down from the rugged schistose range called the Old Man Range. During the winter the upper parts of the river, and the White Comb district in particular, are practically inaccessible, and the few gold diggers in the creeks and river-beds are cut off from the outer world by the snowdrifts. I visited the district at Christmas time, and, leaving my horse at an accommodation-house known as Vernon's, walked
[Footnote] * Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xxi., pp. 318–20.
[Footnote] † Zool. Soc. Trans., vol. xi., pt. 8, No. 4, p. 257, plates 59–61, 1883.
[Footnote] † Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xxv., p. 488.
on with a guide to a digger's hut some three or four miles further on. Whilst on the journey a torrent of rain descended, and the rivers rose so rapidly that we were practically shut in for two days. Fortunately, however, the cave I was anxious to examine was accessible, being within a few hundred yards of the hut, and about half-way up the steep slope of the side of the gorge. Thick fern covered the face of the slope, but this was of comparatively recent growth, as less than seven years ago the whole gorge was thickly covered on both sides with a dense bush, chiefly of Fagus. Chinese diggers, however, accidentally caused a great fire, which denuded the whole face of the country for miles, and now the only remains in this gully are the blackened stumps and trunks of the larger trees. The huge schist blocks which strew the slopes of the ravine form admirable shelter-caves, and these are in many cases absolutely dry. This dryness, and the fine dust resulting from the disintegration of the rock, seem to favour the preservation of animal remains. The cave was not large, say 6ft. in height at entrance, the floor rising and the roof lowering till they meet about 8ft. in. The floor also sloped towards the left side looking into the cave. At the lowest part, where the floor joined the wall, the fine dust was thickest, and here I found the greater number of feathers. Together with the moa-feathers were those of Ocydromus (weka), morepork (Athene), parroquet, &c. Owls must have frequented the cave in considerable numbers or for a long period, as there were numbers of the pellets ejected by them. Under a large block near the entrance I found a hollow space containing a number of feathers and a dried rat; the fur seemed somewhat mottled, grey and brown, and the size of the animal much less than the black Polynesian rat.
I had been led to examine this interesting neighbourhood in consequence of the finding of a very complete specimen of the dried leg of a small species of moa (known as Megalapteryx) by Mr. McLeod, a miner living in the neighbourhood. The leg still retains the dried skin and muscle, and carries a quantity of double-shafted feathers, mostly of a silky nature, and tipped with a lighter shade of brown. It is remarkable as coinciding with Professor Owen's specimen (assigned to M. didinus) in having the metatarsus feathered. This extremely interesting specimen was found in the cave after the fire had burned away the mass of creepers and shrubs which had grown up over the entrance, and I have little doubt but that the remainder of the body was burned at the same time. The dried leg is now in my possession, and I am glad to say that Dr. T. J. Parker, F.R.S., the Director of the Otago University Museum, has kindly consented to describe it in detail. The only feather of a new type is one of a purple colour, 55mm.
long and about 5mm. wide from end to end. The remainder are of various shades of brown with a lighter tip. Those best preserved show the double-shafted character very plainly, but there is no doubt that some of those which have no trace of a secondary shaft are true moa-feathers. This is, no doubt, owing to the different character and function of the feathers on the different parts of the body. Thus, in the emu the feathers from the back are harsh and wiry, and without the double shaft, but in the young state, and from the undersurface of the body, they are double-shafted and soft and silky.
It took me all day to fully examine this small cave and two similar ones near it; from all three I obtained the same type of feathers. In each of these caves were abundant traces of owls. I collected six or seven hundred feathers, besides those still remaining on the leg. As soon as it was possible my guide and myself crossed the stream in front of the hut, and climbed the range to a considerable elevation, with the intention of visiting a place called Gorge Creek, but we found the water in the creek too high to cross. The whole country at this elevation has been burnt, and, instead of large tussocks of snow-grass and fern, is covered with sorrel and the scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis). A number of caves were examined, and in two we found moa-feathers, but not in any quantity. A curious bright canary-coloured feather of considerable size was found, which I can only refer to a yellow variety of Stringops.
The day was hot, and I was not sorry to commence the descent from the range. The country above the Gorge Creek has a considerable extent of fairly level, swampy hill-tops, covered with the huge white stranded rocks (called white comb). In passing across a small plateau of perhaps three or four acres; surrounded by swamps, I noticed on the bare surface of the ground thousands of flakes of various-coloured quartzites. A little further on were groups of Maori ovens, and quantities of small fragments of moa-bones. I picked up a number of the flakes, one or two pieces of rough implements, and one fragment of a polished tool. If it had not been for the burning of the huge grass tussocks this ancient Maori camp would have been quite hidden. A space of fully two acres was thickly strewn with chips and flakes of stones, which do not occur anywhere near. I was informed that there are two similar camps within sight of this one, but I could not spare the time to visit them.
There is absolute evidence in this case of the use of the moa as food. The quantity of bones lying by the ovens in
which they were cooked, and the comparative absence of any other inducement (wekas being the only other possible prey) for hunters to visit and camp on such an inhospitable spot, all point to these being moa-hunters' encampments, to which blocks of suitable stone have been brought from afar to serve as knives for the feast. The caves and shelters in the huge mass of mountains close at hand have furnished some of the best-preserved specimens of the moa yet found, and were, no doubt, a summer feeding-ground of the moa, to which yearly expeditions were made.
The forms of the stone implements are different from the majority of those found on the coastal encampments, and some approach the leaf-shape so closely as to preclude the suggestion of chance, and seem to indicate their use as points for spears or darts. The majority of the flakes were of the “turtle-backed” type, and probably used for cutting purposes. Their size, however, was very small compared with the monsters found at the Shag Point camp, an average specimen being about 75mm. long by about 30mm. wide, while the Shag Point ones are sometimes 220mm. long and 80mm. or 90mm. wide. I also found a thin disc of slate, sharpened at the edge, about 90mm. in diameter. These discs are not uncommon in the older middens along the coast-line.