Saturday, December 5, 2009

Our Feathered Friends

I’ll confess from the start that this is not the best picture of our pretty native tui that you’ll ever see. I was in the middle of the bush on Ulva Island (near Stewart Island in the very south of New Zealand) with a small camera and an inadequate zoom, so everything is a little fuzzy - although you can still he his shiny green-black plumage and the distinctive white wattle under his beak. So that’s the excuses out of the way…. Now to one of our loveliest song birds…. It seems hard to believe now but the tui was once an important food source for Maori. When I was doing one of the kai features for Ngai Tahu’s TE KARAKA magazine recently, I spoke with one man, who said his grandmother always loved tui. She’d catch them, pluck them (the feathers were used for cloaks and kete decorations), impale them on a stick and roast them over a fire. Like most people in this day and age of rigorously enforced penalties for harming native birds, I was slightly horrified. I could hardly believe him. But he was right of course. Maori would frequently hunt and snare the birds at the beginning of winter when the birds were fat and healthy. It still seems a shame to me – they wouldn’t have made the biggest feast after all and they sing so beautifully. Tui are also masters at mimicking other birds and animals and in the old days, Maori are said to have kept young male birds in cages and taught them to talk. The birds would be kept in isolation – away from any noises they could copy – and new words would be repeated until the bird had learned them. The phrase 'me he korokoro tui – like a tui’s throat' is also high praise for a gifted speaker.

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