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Maori myths and legends of New Zealand native birds

Updated on January 4, 2012

The Maori and the birds

The Maori regard birds as magical and mythical creatures. Myths and legends of the birds were woven into the natural world of the Maori. Some of their feathers were symbols of status, the most valued feathers were reserved only for the highborn chiefs. The Kiwi is the national symbol of New Zealand. This bird is greatly treasured by the Maori. Sightings of some birds brought good or sometimes bad omen. Others were messengers of death.

Since 1923 the Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand have worked actively to conserve indigenous plant and animal life in New Zealand.

Throughout the world the relationship between man and bird is undeniably linked.

(Photo: Huia bird feather now extinct)

The kiwi's clipped wings

One day Tane Mahuta (god of the forest) was walking amongst the trees (who were his children), he noticed that they were afflicted. The bugs on the forest floor were causing the ailments. Tane Mahuta asked his brother to call on the birds to come and eat the bugs.

His brother, Tanehokahoka said he would ask the birds. When he called to them, there was silence in the tree tops.

Tanehokahoka asked the Tui, "Tui will you help the trees and come down from the tree tops and eat the bugs?"

The Tui replied, "No, its too dark."

Tanehokahoka turned to the Pukeko and asked, "Pukeko will you come down from the tree top and eat the bugs on the forest floor to save the trees?"

The Pukeko answered, "No the forest floor is too wet."

Tanehokahoka looked to the Pipiwharauroa and asked, "Pipiwharauroa will you help, will you come and eat the bugs?"

The Pipiwharauroa said, "No I'm busy building a nest."

Tanehokahoka knew that if a bird would not be prepared to give up living in the tree tops and dwell on the forest floor, then there would be no future for the trees and the birds.

Finally, Tanehokahoka asked the Kiwi, "Kiwi will you come and live on the forest floor."

The Kiwi was silent for a while, then replied, "I will"

Tanehokahoka said,"Your legs will grow thick and will be very strong, you will lose your coloured wings, and you will never be able to return to the tree tops to see the sunlight again; and you will forage for food in the night."

The birds who would not help Tanehokahoka put two white feathers on Tui's neck to mark his cowardice. Pukeko would live in the swamp and Pipiwharauroa would have no home and live in other birds nests.

Tanehokahoka gave the kiwi strong legs and he would never fly again or see sunlight from the tree tops. The kiwi will be famous and will be the most loved bird.

Don't forget your binoculars

The most important piece of equipment you'll need during your bird watching pastime is a decent pair of binoculars. This model is specially designed for checking out the feathered bird variety. Take advantage of this great offer.

The amazing Lyre bird

Beautiful bird song

The Piwakawaka - Fantail (bird of death)

The demi-god Maui wanted immortality by passing through the body of the goddess of death, Hine-nui-te-po, she resided in the underworld of dead. A number of small birds accompanied him, one of them was the Piwakawaka. The nature of the Piwakawaka is erratic and irrespressive. Maui turned himself into a worm and preceded to move up Hine-nui-te-po's leg. The Piwakawaka was watching and started chirpping excitedly. The goddess awoke. She realised what Maui was trying to do and crushed him, to death, between her thighs. There is a superstition that if a Piwakawaka flies into a house, a son or neighbour dies.

The Kotuku

A mythic hero Tawhaki descended from heaven and brought three birds with him, one of them was the Kotuku.

This bird of the most enchanting birds that visit New Zealand the - elusive Kotuku. It is rarely sighted, for example, a bird watcher had been visiting the same area for over ten years before he finally sighted a Kotuku. Some believe that sighting a Kotuku is a good omen.

The Kotuku is considered tapu, set apart, by the Maori. Their plumes are reserved only for the high ranking chiefs.

The Kotuku accompanies the recently departed in the spirit world to their final resting place in Hawaiki.

Find out more ...

The birdlife in New Zealand is thriving despite the extinct ones. This book is a useful resource and guide for bird watchers.

The Kereru

The Kuku, Kukupa, Kereru also known as the Wood Pigeon, is a large bird measuring

51 cm and weighing in at 650 grams at full maturity.

The demi-god Maui was a trickster. His mother Taranga disappeared at dawn everyday. He delayed her by hiding her clothes. She searched for them; eventually she left without them. Maui turned himself into a Kereru and wore his mothers skirt. That is how the Kereru got its beautiful plumage. Their feathers are iridescent green, the head is bronze and they have a white vest.

In pre-European times the pigeon was part of the local Maori diet, it is now protected. This delicious delicacy had spiritual significance for the Maori. A dying kaumatua (elder) would ask for Kereru as a last meal, to sustain their spirit on the journey to their final resting place in Hawaiki.

Hunters or poachers?

Tourists shot up a number of animals including the Kereru and posted the footage on youtube; New Zealanders were outraged. In the months of March and May, Maori hunt for Kereru for cultural reasons and food. New Zealand poachers also hunt Kereru. There are no customery rights in hunting Kereru it is not recognised by law. The maximum fine, caught poaching, is $100,000 or six months prison. A Maori environmentalist has placed a rahui (restriction) on Kereru hunting, in the mid-north since 1996.

The little owl - The Ruru

The Ruru is a bird of prey. This little owl is 27.5 cm high and its speckled brown feathers blends well against the bush foliage They feed on insects, small rats, mice and lizards. Their feathers are lined with down to allow silent flight.

The Maori regard these birds as watchful guardians. The Ruru have the spiritual capacity to protect, warn or advise. For instance, if a Ruru fies toward you then something is wrong. If a Ruru perches in a tree near your home then protection will be upon the house, property and inhabitants. The screech of the Ruru means that someone will die. The ordinary call of the Ruru is good news. If someone is making plans and the Ruru call that is a bad omen for the plan. They are messengers and pass on knowledge to tohunga (priests). These little owls had the spiritual power to protect Maori communities - their guidance was accepted and implemented by the Maori.


It is believed that birds can transport themselves to sacred heights. They carry spiritual power and impart knowledge and wisdom to tohunga (priests). The Maori had a practical knowledge about the different kinds of birds; they understood that the birds possessed extraordinary powers. Birdsong conveyed messages to human listeners. Sadly, there are some species, the Huia, that are now extinct, they brought much pleasure to the Maori. The spirit of a the recently dead would sometimes return in the form of a bird. If the bird ate the food left by a relative, it was a sign that wairua (spirit) of the dead would protect them. Birds have become national symbols and are great companions to people. Their presence have a profound effect on people, And their ability to fly, sing and display their natural beauty is thought provoking and emotive.


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      i like birds thanks for giving me my info on birds

    • literal profile image


      5 years ago from Aotearoa

      This is my work, I was denied access - squidoo blocked my access.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      @anonymous: Just saw your post... Not sure if that fantail is still hanging around. Maori omens are area/tribe specific and there is not a lot written about it anywhere since maori used verbal communication to teach. Local marae might be able to help you.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      We have a fantail that keeps coming into the House and following us to the Beach - it does this on a regular basis, sometimes more than 3 times a day coming inside. The omen says bad luck, which we have definitely had since it appeared 2 weeks ago. Can anyone add their expertise to the meaning of it?

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I love the natives birds here in New Zealand. They always fascinate me when I watch their behavior and enjoy their beauty. The spiritual lessons they give me help through my journey in life.

    • Stephanie36 profile image


      6 years ago from Canada

      Very interesting legends...

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Ah, I sincerely think the Kiwi is the most adorable bird, clipped wings or not.

    • Spook LM profile image

      Spook LM 

      7 years ago

      Quite delightful read and fascinating insight to cultural beliefs. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 

      7 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      very interesting topic and nicely presented lens. ~blessed~

    • dwnovacek profile image


      7 years ago

      Such an informational and beautifully-presented lens. I learned so much and look forward to more awesome lenses from you. Angel Blessed!

    • hlkljgk profile image


      7 years ago from Western Mass

      thanks for sharing these bird myths.

    • goo2eyes lm profile image

      goo2eyes lm 

      8 years ago

      maori land is a beautiful country. new zealand is a great place to visit. my husband was there when he was a bachelor.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Interesting and maybe there is something really true hidden in these legends, a morale and teaching to be learnt and taught to the generations.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Just had to peak in here again at this gem of yours!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      These birds, especially the kiwi look really exotic.

    • LouisaDembul profile image


      8 years ago

      It is really interesting to know the myths surrounding these birds.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      This is really a beautiful lens on an interesting topic. Blessed!

    • SciTechEditorDave profile image

      David Gardner 

      8 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area, California

      Nice lens! Congratulations on a Squidoo masterpiece!

    • Lemming13 profile image


      8 years ago

      Wonderful lens, fascinating. Blessed.

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 

      8 years ago from New Zealand

      Very nice lens on such beautiful birds. Thanks for sharing.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Informational and lovely pictures.

    • Paul Ward profile image


      8 years ago from Liverpool, England

      Fascinating and well executed: Angel Blessed.

    • EMangl profile image


      8 years ago

      very interesting to read

    • mariaamoroso profile image


      8 years ago from Sweden

      I am a bird lover. Thanks for a nice lens

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      What wonderful mythical tales and legend of the birds of New Zealand

    • SandyMertens profile image

      Sandy Mertens 

      8 years ago from Frozen Tundra

      Interesting facts about these native birds.

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image


      8 years ago



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