No moa, no moa 

in old Ao-tea-roa

Can’t get ’em

They’ve eat ‘em

They’ve gone and there ain’t no moa.

–W. Chamberlain

The tragic extinction of the big bird

By Tony Orman

For 50 million years, several species of moa browsed the natural grasslands, scrub and forest of New Zealand, not unlike deer and other wild animals do today.

But in a geological blink of the eye, moa became extinct.

Moa were preyed on by the giant Haast’s Eagle and Eyle’s Harrier and from about 1300 AD by the Polynesian immigrants. The predator pressure on the flightless birds became immense. Fires were lit accidentally or for the hunting purpose of driving the birds from cover. Either way, much of the moa habitat was destroyed. 

Unquestionably the combination of the raptors and “the moa hunters” caused the rapid plummeting to extinction within just a century or two. 

Swift demise

The author explains the unusually swift extinction of the bird and concludes that possibly a few remnant moa may have survived until 1880.The demise of the moa to extinction by the time the European settlers arrived in New Zealand, is certainly an extraordinary story. 

The moa comprised nine different sub-species.  The giant moa was tall at 3.6 metres in height and a big bird weighing in at 250 kilograms. The eggs were rugby ball sized.  In contrast, the bush moa was the most common sub-species and the smallest at just 50 cms tall.

Browsing done by moa and other birds

The Forest and Bird Society and some in government departments, have constantly maintained over decades that New Zealand’s vegetation evolved in the absence of browsing. The falsehood is one of the details which has on occasions been expounded to school children. 

But others including scientists have maintained vegetation evolved in the presence of avian browsing of the bush and grasses and that deer and other wild animals have generally filled the niche in the ecosystem, once filled by moas and other birds over millions of years.

Children and even adults should be captivated by the story of New Zealand’s extraordinary extinct bird and the equally remarkable Haast’s eagle and the North Island’s Eyle’s harrier.

“What Happened to the Moa?” is great for kids story time with excellent illustrations to complement the concise yet informative text. It’s a credit to the talented Ned Barraud who has both written and illustrated the book.

What Happened to the Moa written and illustrated by Ned Barraud. published by Potton and Burton. RRP $29.99

A Haast’s eagle attacking a trapped moa (Ray Jacobs Canterbury Museum)