New edition of a legendary book

By Tony Orman

This book, just published, is actually a reprint of the 2012 first edition. It’s a very welcome reprint as not only is it splendidly produced by Nelson publishers Potton and Burton, but it features meticulous research by the author and an intriguing saga around a mysterious bird.

It also throws some interesting light on New Zealand’s ecosystem before Europeans and introduced wild animals such as deer, colonised the land

The tragedy of the “blitzkreig extinction”

Quinn Berentson of Dunedin, scientist, writer, documentary film maker and photographer, laments the passing of the moa into extinction. 

It must have been a wonderful sight to see the moa, nine species in all, inhabiting the lowland forests and plains, the forest and snowgrass tops. But sadly today the image is only one fit for the imagination, not the eyes.

Scientists have termed the killing out of the moa as a “blitzkrieg extinction,” such was the ruthless and rapid way it was carried out. “All that is left alive of the moa is the extraordinary story of its long life and sudden death,” he says.

The incredible browsing moa

Quinn describes the moa as the most unusual and unique family of birds that ever lived, a clan of feathered monsters that were isolated on the small islands of New Zealand. Left to the “wildest whims of evolution”, they became so large and different from the rest of the avian group so that they became almost as much mammal as bird.

That reference to “mammal” is of particular interest to the on-going debate and the oft-quoted statement that New Zealand’s vegetation evolved in the absence of browsing animals is simply not true. Before 1400 AD and the likely date of the extinction of the moa, the pristine New Zealand was most likely, heavily browsed.

With little competition and no ground predators moas thrived for millions of years. It’s likely that period involved 50 or 60 million years.

“They adapted and diversified to fill virtually every terrerstrial environment, from sand dunes to flax swamps, deep primeval rain forest to frozen sub-alpine tussock. Some were the size of turkey while the largest, the giant moa became the tallest bird to have ever lived on the planet.”

Human predators arrive

Then immigrants arrived from Polynesia. Seemingly in a geological blink of an eye, the moa disappeared, erased from history so quickly and thoroughly that today New Zealanders scarcely give them a thought.

“They have become creatures of myth and urban legend – ghosts in the bush,” says Quinn.

….perhaps 100,000 moa were butchered and cooked at this one camp alone [on the banks of the Waitaki River] making it easily the largest pre-historic killing site in the world. Quinn Berentson 

Curious, Quinn set about delving into the history. 

There’s another side to the moa story too and it involves humans and their egos and idiosyncrasies.

The despicable scientist Richard Owen

Within the wider scientific fraternity the mystical, mysterious moa became the focus of intense scrutiny.

“Baser human nature took over and highly personal and nasty infighting soon broke out amongst those who competed to study them,” says Quinn.

Englishman Richard Owen, a scientist of an enormous conceit and competitiveness, further tainted with a spiteful, vindictive streak, possessively clung to his “Father of the Moa” reputation that was founded on his publishing of a moa paper in 1838. 

The author describes him as the “most unscrupulous scientist in Britain” who would without conscience hijack others’ discoveries. Owen clashed viciously with another scientist Gideon Mantell and later Mantell’s son, Walter.

Meanwhile in New Zealand noted early explorers like William Colenso and Bishop William Williams innocently entered the fray. In later years geologists the ambitious and ego-driven Julius von Haast and James Hector became embroiled in feuding over the moa.

Quinn Berentson skilfully brings the human jostlings and clashes over the moa to light.

What of the bird itself?

Moas were flightless birds up to 3.5 metres high with the giant species having succulent 30 to 40 kg drumsticks a metre long. The birds were relatively easy to hunt and kill, and human-induced bush fires ravaging their habitat also killed many.

 Quinn Berentson estimates the moa population was at least one million. But scientist Les Batchelar in 1986 put the number at between six and 12 million. The late Dr Graeme Caughley reckoned more in line with Batchelar. But who can say for sure? Really no one.

“It is difficult to estimate the total population of either moa or moa hunter involved in the great slaughter but it is obvious that a relatively small population of humans wiped out an enormous number of moa,” says Quinn.

Many species

DNA testing just last year revealed there were very likely nine species. Moas lived everywhere in New Zealand except the Chatham Islands. The giant three metre plus moa lived in both the North and South Islands. The metre high Upland Moa in the South Island high country and the medium sized Crested Moa in north-west Nelson. 

Then there was the Heavy-footed Moa and Eastern Moa in the eastern South Island, the turkey-sized Mantell’s Moa in only the North Island, the squat Stout-legged Moa in all the North Island and eastern South Island and the smallest of all but most widespread  – the Little Bush Moa –  all of the North Island plus western and southern South Island. 

A rapid extermination

The slaughter of the moa was amazingly rapid. Science has revealed within just 100 years of human settlement, moa were extinct in most areas of New Zealand. Radio-carbon dating from moa bone and charcoal suggest the most intense moa hunting happened across the 14th and 15th centuries.

The life and biology of moa times is fascinating in itself. The moa’s only natural predator  – before the invasion of Polynesians – was the Haast’s Eagle which was at the top of the food chain in ancient New Zealand, the equivalent of a lion, tiger or great white shark. 

The giant eagle had a three metre wingspan and Quinn estimates that by about 1350 as the Haast’s eagle’s habitat in eastern South Island had been burned and the moa exterminated, they died out. It is probable the eagles were also hunted by humans.

The blitzkrieg was swift

The moa might have survived in a small pocket until 1900. One or two authorities believe it possible that when in 1948, New Zealand Deerstalkers Association’s founder “Doc” Geoffrey Orbell discovered the takahe in the Murchison Mountains Fiordland, perhaps – just perhaps – one or two moa survived there too.

This book is absorbing reading — very highly recommended. 

Moa: The Life and Death of New Zealand’s Legendary Bird by Quinn Berentson is published by Potton and Burton, Nelson. RRP $59.99 (above visuals other than the cover were used by Jim Hilton and Roger Childs in their book on NZ’s Changing Biodiversity).