Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/November 1877/The Gigantic Moa-Bird


THE extinction of many animals that are known to have formerly existed on the earth is a subject which cannot very easily be explained, while the number of them is greater than at first sight would be supposed. Various species no doubt undergo gradual extinction by changes which deprive them of their accustomed food; but others seem to die out from unknown causes. During the historic period a considerable number of animals have been swept off the British Islands, among which are the bear, the wolf, the Irish elk, etc. In America, during the comparatively short period of its history, various species have vanished, and others are following them. The beaver, formerly so generally spread over the whole of that country, is now only to be found in remote regions. The deer and the moose are disappearing in the same manner. The bison is very much diminished in numbers, and must ere long be extirpated. The mastodon, a creature of enormous bulk, has totally disappeared, although, along with the skeletons of them which have been discovered, there are evidences of their having lived on food derived from plants which are still existing. In other parts of the world, the dodo and the moa have perished within the last few centuries; and the apteryx is undergoing the same fate.

The moa or dinornis was a huge bird, of which the remains are plentifully found in New Zealand.

PSM V12 D097 Dinornis gigantea.jpg

Dinornis gigantea.

Within recent historic times, this colony was tenanted, to the almost entire exclusion of mammalia, by countless numbers of gigantic wingless birds of various genera and species, the Dinornis gigantea, the largest, attaining a size nearly thrice that of a full-grown ostrich. From traditions which are current among the Maoris, they were fat, stupid, indolent birds, living in forests and feeding on vegetables; while the name moa seems to have been given to them from their peculiar cry. Since remains have been found in great plenty, the investigation of this singular bird is of the greatest interest to students of natural history.

It is to the Rev. Richard Taylor that the first discovery of moa remains is due, which he thus describes:

"In the beginning of 1839 I took my first journey in New Zealand to Poverty Bay with the Rev. W. Williams, Bishop of Waiapu. When we reached Waiapu, near the East Cape, we took up our abode in a native house, and there I noticed the fragment of a large hone stuck in the ceiling. I took it down, supposing at first that it was human; but, when I saw its cancellated structure, I handed it over to my companion, who had been brought up to the medical profession, asking him if he did not think it was a bird's bone. He laughed at the idea, and said, 'What kind of a bird could there be to have so large a bone?' I pointed out its structure, and, when the natives came, requested him to ask them what it belonged to. They said it was a bone of the tarepo, a very large bird, that lived on the top of Hikurangi, the highest mountain on the east coast, and that they made their largest fish-hooks from its bones. I then inquired whether the bird was still to be met with; and was told that there was one of an immense size which lived in a cave, and was guarded by a large lizard, and that the bird was always standing on one kg. The chief readily gave me the bone for a little tobacco; and I afterward sent it to Prof. Owen by Sir Everard Home in 1839; and I think I may justly claim to have been the first discoverer of the inoa."

Mr. Taylor continued his inquiries among the natives, who informed him that the moa was quite as large as a horse; that these birds had nests made of the refuse of fern-root, on which they fed; and that they used to conceal themselves in the veronica-thickets, from which, by setting them on fire, the natives drove them out, and killed them; hence originated the Maori saying, "The veronica was the tree which roasted the moa." The natives further mentioned that when a moa-hunt was to take place notice was given inviting all to the battue. The party then spread out to inclose as large a space as possible, and drive the birds from their haunts; then, gradually contracting the line as they approached some lake, they at last rushed forward with loud yells, and drove the frightened birds into the water, where they could be easily approached in canoes and dispatched without their being able to make any resistance. These moa-hunts must thus have been very destructive; as, from the number of men employed, and the traces of long lines of ovens in which the natives cooked the birds, and the large quantity of egg-shells found on the western shores of New Zealand, a clear proof is given that these birds were eagerly sought for and feasted upon. Thus the poor moas had very little chance of continuing their race.

From a very interesting communication of the Rev. W. Williams, dated May 17, 1872, it would appear that the moa may not yet be entirely extirpated. He remarks:

"Within the past few days I have obtained a piece of information worthy of notice. Happening to speak to an American about these bones, he told me that the bird is still in existence in the neighborhood of Cloudy Bay, in Cook's Strait. He said that the natives there had mentioned to an Englishman, belonging to a whaling-party, that there was a bird of extraordinary size to be seen only at night on the side of a hill near the place; and that he with a native and a second Englishman went to the spot; that after waiting some time they saw the creature at a little distance, which they describe as being about fourteen or sixteen feet high. One of the men proposed to go nearer and shoot; but his companion was so exceedingly terrified, or perhaps both of them, that they were satisfied with looking at the bird; when after a little time it took the alarm and strode off up the side of the mountain."

In the Greymouth Weekly Argus, published in New Zealand in 1876, there appeared a letter signed R. K. M. Smythe, Browning's Pass, Otago, describing in a very detailed manner the capture of two living moas, a female eight feet high, and a younger one three feet shorter. The writer finishes his account of their capture by remarking that he has little doubt that he will be able to bring them both alive to Christchurch. It is therefore to be hoped that living representatives of the genus Dinornis still survive. Feathers of the bird have been also found in a state of preservation sufficiently good to show that they possessed an after-shaft of a large size; and at the same time tradition and the condition in which the bones are found, retaining much of their animal matter, tend to show how lately the bird formed part of the existing fauna of the country. If the letter be genuine, it cannot be long before ornithologists, of whom there are several of no mean repute in New Zealand, will be able to satisfy themselves on the subject.

An additional reason for supposing that these magnificent birds existed not long ago is found in the fact that specimens of their eggs have been preserved. In the volcanic sand of New Zealand, Mr. Walter Mantell found a gigantic egg, of the magnitude of which he gives us a familiar idea by saying that his hat would have been just large enough to have served as an egg-cup for it. This egg must have been one of a dinornis or a palapteryx, and, although its dimensions are considerably greater than the egg of the ostrich, still it is smaller than might have been expected from a bird from twelve to fourteen feet high. It is well known that the egg of the New Zealand apteryx, to which the moa bears a very close affinity, is one of dimensions that are quite surprising in proportion to the bulk of the bird. The apteryx is about as big as a turkey, standing two feet in height; but its egg-measures four inches ten lines by three inches two lines in the respective diameters. To bear the same ratio to the bird as this, the egg of the Dinornis gigantea would be of the incredible length of two feet and a half, by a breadth of one and three-quarters!

In the museum at York there is a complete skeleton of a moa, which, besides feathers, has the integuments of the feet partly preserved; from which it is evident that the toes were covered with small hexagonal scales. A specimen has also been sent by Dr. Haast, of New Zealand, to Prof. Milne-Edwards, which is to be seen in the Museum of Natural History at Paris.—Chambers's Journal.