Moa, moa everywhere
“It's not every day you dig a hole and find a moa,” said the news story on the Stuff media website in March 2016. Not a live creature, of course; these uniquely New Zealand birds have been extinct for hundreds of years.
What happened was this: workers excavating a trench in rural Canterbury for an electricity company unearthed the skeletal remains of two moa – a female South Island giant moa and bones of a much smaller male bird. The discovery made news briefly but it brings to mind a much more remarkable 'find' some seventy or more years earlier – also in Canterbury, at a site known as Pyramid Valley.
Remains of moa have been found at dozens of sites throughout New Zealand, some in coastal dunes, some in caves, and others in swamps, particularly those having layers of alkaline mud. Quinn Berentson, author of a definitive book on the moa, writes that, of all the swamp sites ... none is more important to our understanding of them than that at Pyramid Valley.
It was here in 1938, a century after the moa was re-discovered, that Joseph Hodgen, a farmer, and his son Rob found a stunning collection of moa bones when they began to dig a pit in a swampy part of their land in which to bury a dead horse. The remains of the birds were immaculately preserved, Berentson tells us, under a layer of “yellow quivering jelly”, a limey alkaline gel made of billions of freshwater crustaceans.
The pit discovery was the first in which complete skeletons were found. In total, more than 180 birds were extracted, mainly under the guidance of Roger Duff,the then-director of Canterbury Museum. This extensive find enabled scientists to begin to learn what the moa ate and how they bred and behaved, leading to a much fuller understanding of moa ecology.
As Berentson explains, the moa were perhaps the most unusual family of birds that ever lived. Some boasted legs like an elephant, others laid eggs the size of rugby balls, and the giant moa was the tallest bird ever to walk the planet. They evolved in isolation over millions of years, roaming the forests, mountain-sides and grass lands of the remote islands that became New Zealand.
But, big as many of them were, they were no match for humans and became easy prey for the Maori who arrived from other islands in the distant north in the thirteenth century. The birds' flesh provided food, their feathers and skins were used to make clothes, and fish hooks were carved from their bones.
By the time European explorers arrived, moa were ghosts of the past, a mysterious, even alarming creature in the lore of the Maori descendants of those first explorers of New Zealand who, for a time, became moa hunters. One story has it that the moa was known as the “fire bird”. On the website “Living Heritage – Tikanga Tuku Iho”, pupils of Tiniroto School in the East Coast/Gisborne region report that the moa was called ahi manu (fire bird), because of the way the local people had hunted them – setting fires to drive the birds towards previously dug pits where they would be killed, cooked and eaten.
Evidence shows that the various species of moa lived throughout much of New Zealand. Near to Kaikoura a large moa egg was found, possibly the largest to date (240mm x 178mm) – associated with a Maori burial ground. Egg shell and bone remains were found in rock shelter sites in Central Otago and these suggest that the this area was a home to South Island giant moa. Aurere in the north of the South Island was the site in the 1850s of a notable gold field but, at the same time, substantial quantities of moa bones were found in caves in the nearby Takaka Hill. In the North Island a significant find of moa bones and pieces of moa eggshells occurred near Ohawe in Taranaki. But the greatest discovery, to date, of moa remains was that at Pyramid Valley.
As Quinn Berentson writes: “Pyramid Valley was an unprecedented find and of priceless value to those who tangled with the mysteries of the moa, and the Canterbury Museum had excavated more intact skeletons in one small paddock than had been found around the entire country in six decades.”.
Berentson, Quinn. Moa: the Life and Death of New Zealand's legendary Bird. Nelson, Craig Potton Publishing, 2012.
Living Heritage – Tikanga Tuku Iho. Website managed by the 2020 Trust for children to create their own web pages.
Image Credit: Te Papa - South Island Giant Moa. Dinornis robustus. From the series: Extinct birds of New Zealand. Production Paul Martinson; artist; 2005