Huia

Cover of The Flight of the HuiaThe huia had black feathers, with white on the tips of the tail feathers, and a bright orange wattle at the base of its beak.

The female’s curved bill could grow to up to 104 mm, one-third longer than the male’s shorter straight beak (about 60 mm). The bird was about the size of a magpie. The huia used its beak to dig into rotten logs or under the bark of trees for grubs and other insects.

19th century naturalists observed that the huia was found, usually in pairs, in the forest canopy and also on the forest floor. It moved about more on foot than flying. The name “huia” is thought to come from the sound the bird made, a shrill whistle.

Extinction of the huia

Huia were once found throughout the North Island, but by the time of European settlement they were only in the lower half of the island, suggesting that numbers had declined after the arrival of the Māori and before the arrival of Europeans.

The survival of the huia, whose numbers were already declining, was threatened by the introduction of predators such as ratsstoats, dogs and cats. Another threat to the huia was the number of hunters and collectors. Huia were killed so that they could be stuffed and put on display in private homes as well as museums.

Traditionally only Māori chiefs were allowed to wear huia feathers, and to wear the beak or tail feather of the huia was thought to be a great honour. When not in use, the huia feathers were kept in a specially carved box called a "waka huia".

In the 1880s Māori chiefs put a tapu on the huia, making it illegal under Māori law to kill the bird, but Europeans continued to hunt it. The Duke of York was presented with a huia tail feather when he visited New Zealand in 1902, recognising his status as a great chief. He wore it in his hatband, and the fashion created a huge demand for the feathers.

In 1888 a total of 646 huia were killed in one month on the Wairarapa Coast. In 1892 a law was passed banning the killing or capture of huia in New Zealand, but enforcement of the law was weak. It is also possible that myna birds, introduced from India in 1875, may have been carrying ticks which transmitted a disease to the huia.

The last proven sighting of the huia was in 1907.

More Information

Huia resources in our catalogue
Huia Jenny jones
Flight of the Huia Kerry-Jayne Wilson
The natural world of New Zealand: an illustrated encyclopaedia of New Zealand’s natural heritageopens a new window Gerard Hutching
Ngā manu - birds Te Ara
Huia New Zealand birds online
Our full list of New Zealand Birds and Animals
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