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Volume 29, 1896
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Art. XI. — On the Poua and Other Extinct Birds of the Chatham Islands.

[Read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute, 12th October, 1896.]

In this paper I will endeavour to prove that the large, mythical, and extinct bird the poua, traditionally spoken of by the remaining survivors of the Moriori people who inhabit the Chatham Islands, was not allied to the moa (Dinornithidæ), but was a species of swan, and belonged to the family Anatidæ. Up to this date I believe it is correct to state that no find of moa-bones has been made at the Chathams, so we have no warrant to assume that the poua was a moa. Some persons have suggested that the fabulous bird of the southern Maori, the pouakai, might be similar to, or of the same species as, the poua, and it has been asserted that the former bird was a large eagle or bird of prey.

Assuming that the poua was a swan, its history might be related thus: It was a large bird of aquatic habits, whose favourite resort was the waters of Te Whanga (the harbour?), a large sheet of water separated from the sea by a sand-bank. Periodically this inland water gains a volume which causes it to burst through the shingle-bank and connect itself with the sea, until, by the shingle-bank being again cast up by the sea, this brief connection is dissolved. This poua (or swan) consumed great quantities of a plant which possibly was similar to that which we name duck-weed, and which floated in great profusion on the waters of this lagoon, and was called by the Moriori, “koko” (“koko?” is the name given by Mr. H. O. Forbes).

In the autumn season most, if not all, of the Anatidæ

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(geese) are moulting, and often lose the pen-feathers of the wing preparatory to the formation of a new growth, and so are unable to fly. At this time also the young, although they have reached their full development, and are very fat, are still incapable of flight, for the feathers of the wing are the last to be produced.

All the young and many of the old birds being now unable to fly, this is the time when they are comparatively helpless, swimming and diving being their only means of defence. This is the most favourable opportunity for the Moriori to catch the swan. How should this be carried out? We will suppose a small bay in Te Whanga, having shallow water some 3ft. in depth, is selected and enclosed by a picket-fence formed of upright stakes driven into the mud, and which yard has a narrow entrance facing the lagoon, from either side of which an extending wing-fence is carried out to a considerable distance, to act as a lead to the entrance of the corral, for the trap or decoy is on the same lines as a stockyard for wild cattle, and is now complete. The battue now commences by a quiet and cautious surrounding of a flock of swans by the natives in a number of raft-canoes (for there is no timber here of size sufficient to form the ordinary dug-out or canoe), and the birds are gently driven forward in the direction of the decoy, great care being taken not to flurry or approach too closely to the birds, in case they might commence diving, and escape in all directions. The drivers gradually close in as the birds enter between the wings, and, as they are then in shallow water, it is an easy matter to cause them to go through the narrow entrance of the corral, or yard, which can then be built up with similar stakes already prepared for this purpose. The swans being now securely penned, their captors enter with clubs and quickly knock them on the head, for the shallowness of the water gives little opportunity for diving as a means of prolonging the hunt. Now the Moriori will make the usual preparations for a great feast.

I think the late Mr. Potts published an account of the poua which he obtained from the surviving natives of the Chathams, but of this I have no present remembrance; but I can quote from a very interesting paper by Mr. Henry O. Forbes, one time curator of the Museum at Christchurch, New Zealand, and published in the Fortnightly Review for May, 1893, page 669, and entitled “The Chatham Islands and their Story.” Mr. Forbes says:—

“I knew from various sources that the Morioris had a tradition of a great bird they called the poüwa. Mr. Shand also had, with much kindness and trouble, recounted to me all that they themselves knew, and described to me the exact localities where they say their fathers trapped and killed

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those wonderful birds. To these places, therefore, excursions were next undertaken, in great hope and expectation of success.

“One of the most striking features of Wharekauri” (the larger of the Chatham Islands) “is the number of tarns and lakes it possesses. The most extensive of these, named Te Whanga, occupies the greater part of the low central, region of the island, and on its eastern side is separated from the sea only by a very narrow bar of sand, which every few years, when the lagoon becomes surcharged by the rivers which feed it, is carried away, and the water rushes out till the lagoon attains a certain level, when the sea again silts up the opening. The western side of this lake is bounded by cliffs of limestone of Palæozoic age, on which lies a bed, in some places 50ft. to 60ft. deep, of friable polyzoa, containing sharks' teeth and echinoderm spines of species belonging to the transition period between the Secondary and Tertiary epochs (the Cretaceo-tertiary of the New Zealand Geological Survey Reports). Along the margin of this lagoon, and at a short distance from the shore” (i.e., of the lagoon, not the sea), “so the traditions run, the Morioris dug deep holes, into which the poüwa were driven, and, when inextricably bogged, they were clubbed to death, and then dragged ashore to the cooking-pits. At every one of the indicated places we succeeded in finding old ovens, the sites of camps, or the remains of feasts, which were, as usual, birds, molluscs, and fishes.

“At one spot at least we found grim proofs that the feasters did not always confine themselves to the aforementioned diet, for I gathered several human limb-bones and a couple of grinning crania, with in each an ominously suggestive hole in that region of the skull where an additional eye would have proved of such inestimable advantage to a race so cruel and treacherous to each other as our own. To my great disappointment, our extended excavations rewarded me with no bone or fragment of a bone of the poüwa or of the Apteryx. Yet from circumstantiality of the account of the poüwa in their traditions, and of the narrative I listened to a little later from Tapu, one of the oldest surviving chief men of the Morioris (whom I found living in a poor house-cluster at the south-east corner of the island), I cannot resist the conviction that the poüwa, which, if it was anything, must have been a species of moa, did actually live on these islands.

“Tapu was an intelligent old fellow, with a very Jewish countenance and highly-developed frontal processes. ‘The poüwa,’ he said, ‘he a big bird; he die—Oo !—two hundred, three hundred year'” —(this estimate of time is an acquired

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European phrase)—“‘long time ago. I see his bone stick up in Te Whanga, where the Morioris camp long time back. Me young fellow; father of me tell me Moriori make him hole in water, drive him poüwa in, hammer him dead, and roast him. His bone I see him stick in hole in mud in lagoon water Oo ! big, all same as cow; he eat plenty grass, swim’” (floating on) “‘lagoon water; Moriori call “koko.”’* It is, of course, impossible to describe in words Tapu's gestures and expressions, but no one who heard him could doubt that he had seen large bones in the lagoon, and that their origin had been explained to him by his father.

“In the kitchenmidden that produced the human remains there were thousands of swan-bones of the same species as that I had gathered by the side of the oven on the Waitangi Beach. This lake was therefore, probably, their chief home, whither they must have resorted in enormous numbers, for in some localities they appear to have been almost the sole food of the people. That the Swan, now indigenous only to Western Australia, South America, and the north of the Northern Hemisphere, had in past times been also a native of New Zealand was unknown till the previous year, when it was discovered during my excavations of a cave near Christchurch…. The Maori fisher-folk who occupied the cave fed on the swan and on the moa, and cast their bones side by side into the refuse-heap in front of their door, to await the future.

“Within recent years the Australian black-swan (Chenopis atrata) has been introduced into New Zealand, and has already multiplied with extraordinary rapidity…. The cause of the total extinction, therefore, of the ancient swan (and other birds also) in its natural home appears at present inexplicable.”

May not the poua have had weak pinions similar to the flightless duck of the Auckland Islands and the steamer-duck of the Patagonian coast?

We will now note the account of certain extinct or unknown birds of the Chathams, mentioned by Mr. Shahd in his account of “The Moriori People of the Chatham Islands,” published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. iii., p. 80:—

“The mehonui, a species of the New Zealand kakapo (Stringops habroptilus), larger than a goose, and the mehoriki, a bird about the size of a small hen. Both are extinct; they were wingless birds. The mehonui” (i.e., large meho) “was usually captured on its sleeping-place or nest, where six or

[Footnote] * Mr. Forbes must have here given a wrong name for this water-weed; “koko” is the name given to the bird tui, the parson-bird (Prosthemadera novæ-zealandiæ), by the Moriori, and also used by the Maori in the south of New Zealand.

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eight might be found huddled together, as the Morioris declare, like pigs in a bed. Having by observation found its sleeping-place on the ‘clears,’ the Morioris made long tracks leading up to it, carefully removing any sticks or obstructions which might alarm the bird by cracking; and then, by making a stealthy rush, they pounced on them, and secured all in the nest or sleeping-place. This bird had a powerful strident call, which could be heard at a great distance. Its neck was said to have been about as long as a mam's arm.

“The mehonui was peculiar in this: that if any one approached it in front it did not see him, and, approached thus quietly, was caught by the neck and strangled. It kept its head continually on the ground, looking for food, chiefly fern-root, which it burrowed for and dug out with its powerful bill, making, it is said, a rooting like a pig. Any one, however, coming from the side or behind was quickly detected, and the birds made off. Its colour was reddish-brown, something like the New Zealand kaka. The mehoriki” (small meho) “was a very tame bird, but was only caught at certain seasons, being strictly preserved at others. The eggs were never eaten if in the least turned” (i.e., sat upon); “children were always reproved for so doing. The birds were caught by preparing large traps with wide wings to them, between which they were quickly driven. These birds lived in and preferred the undergrowth of the bush, which afforded them concealment.” (Rather difficult to round them up in such a place.) “The flesh was said to be very delicate, and much relished by sick persons. The mehoriki was a very watchful bird. No stranger could approach without it uttering its warning cry.” (This is a singular habit for a very tame bird.) “In colour it was light-straw-coloured, and spotted like the New Zealand bittern, but not so dull a grey as the latter. The eggs were spotted, and about the size of a medium or small hen's egg.

“They also had the pakura (Porphyrio melanotus). There were also several varieties of ducks—perer', which were snared in pools or ponds, or driven ashore in the moulting season (perer' mounu). They were driven from the lagoons into the rushes and coarse growth of the ‘clears’ or open land, where large members were caught.”

It seems to me that the habits and descriptions of these birds have got mixed up. The parts I have written in italics would seem applicable to the extinct swan and the method of catching it. The mehonui could not well be the name of a species of kaka-po (i.e., night-parrot), nor would a parrot have a neck as long as a man's arm; for the Polynesians signify a parrot by the word “kaka”; like the Maori kaka (Nestor meridionalis), kaka-riki, “small parrot” (the varieties of the

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parrakeet, Platycercus novæ-zealandiæ, &c.)* And this word “kaka” is said to be found in our English name “cockatoo,” from the Malay kaka-tua (or tuwha), and comes to us through the Portuguese. Moreover, Dieffenbach visited the Chathams in 1839–41, and obtained a specimen of a nearly extinct rail, of small size (Cabalus dieffenbachii), the native name of which he gives as moe-riki—i.e., “the small moe” (not meho, but evidently the same word, for Mr. Shand mentions no rail to correspond with this otherwise); and in New Zealand “moho” is the name of a species of flightless rail or coot, also called “takehe” (Notornis mantelli), a bird larger than the pukeko (Porphyrio melanotus) but of similar-coloured plumage and markings; and in Maori “moho” is the name for dark-blue colour, as if the bird's plumage was taken as the standard of that colour, and Dieffenbach's rail is not of that colour. Forbes found the remains of a large coot, or waterhen, at the Chathams, which he supposes almost identical with similar remains found in far-away Mauritius (Fulica newtoni); also the bones of a large rail (Aphanapteryx); a raven-like crow (Palæocorax moriorum); the kea (or mountain-parrot of New Zealand), so named from its call-note by the Maori, and not “kaka” something, by the rule laid down above (Nestor notabilis); the lesser owl (Spiloglaux novæ-zealandiæ); the small hawk (Harpa ferox); and of the woodhen, or weka (Ocydromus australis): “they lay in association with Dieffenbach's woodhen (Cabalus dieffenbachii), a bird so rare that since 1840 only three specimens have been obtained.” Bones of the tuatara lizard (Sphenodon punctatum) were also obtained.

In New Zealand there was at one time, and it was known to the early colonists, a small rail, the banded rail (Rallus philippensis), considered identical with a rail found at the Philippine Islands. It was called moho-tatai, moho-pa-tatai, and moho-pereru: “tatai,” the sea-coast, on the “moho,” of the seashore.

Mr. Shand's description, given above, of the method adopted in catching the meho-nui (or large meho) or moho, is singularly borne out or corroborated by the verbal form of moho in the Maori language—as, whaka-moho, “to steal softly upon any one”; and to this we might compare whaka-kiwi, “to look aside, to regard obliquely.” No doubt this was a habit of the kiwi (Apteryx) when listening for the movement of worms or underground insects. A place near Wanganui called Aramoho

[Footnote] * The parrakeet provided the standard of the colour green to the Maori, so kaka-riki = green, also a green lizard (Naultinua elegans); and New Zealand has another parrot form in the kaka-tara-po or kaka-po (night-parrot), the flightless parrot (Stringops habroptilus). It is possible that the kea, or keha, the sheep-eating parrot, was originally named kaka-kea.

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—the road or track of the moho (Notornis)—shows that the Maori was well acquainted with this bird.

Mr. Edward Tregear, in his Maori-Polynesian Dictionary, gives—

“Poua (myth.), a gigantic bird, said to have inhabited the Chatham Islands. The last flock is reported to have been drowned in the large lagoon called Te Whanga, they having been driven into it by the natives. There is as yet no proof of their having existed. The poua is probably related to pouakai, which see.”

“Pouakai (myth.), a man-devouring bird of gigantic size, supposed to inhabit the South Island (of New Zealand). One of these birds was a source of terror to the fairies, called Nuku-mai-tore, until Pungarehu smashed its beak with his stone axe and killed it. See “Ancient History of the Maori,” by John White, vol. ii., p. 33. For tradition of one being killed by Te-hau-o-tawera, see A.H.M., iii., 194; also see Stack, Trans. N.Z. Inst., x., 63.”

I hope my readers will agree with me that my argument fairly proves that the poua was a swan, and that the finding of thousands of the bones of this bird by Mr. Forbes at the very spot pointed out as the place where the poua was most readily killed verifies the same; also, that the mehonui could not be related to the parrots, but was most probably allied to the Notornis, more especially on the strength of the term “whaka-moho” (to approach stealthily), and of the word “moho” also meaning in Maori “a stupid, a blockhead”— possibly alluding to the ease with which the bird might be caught. It is just possible that Aphanapteryx was the large meho, and the coot, or waterhen, was the lesser meho. What, then, was the name of the smaller rails—moe-riki (Cabalus dieffenbachii) and the one lately described by the Hon. W. Rothschild? It is quite certain the smaller rails would be active and hard to find, as they are found to be at this present time, even setting aside the fact of their great rarity. Yet Mr. Forbes found the bones of Aphanapteryx, a large rail, of a coot (Fulica), of the woodhen (Ocydromus), and of Dieffenbach's rail (Cabalus) at the same refuse-heap, which would give us three rails, including the woodhen. This would give three species to compete for the two names, “meho-nui” and “meho-riki.”

Although this paper has been written in haste, and under difficulties, I hope that a fair amount of proof is given to show the great probability that the great bird poua was the extinct swan.