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Forest Lore of the Maori

The Koekoea or Long-tailed Cuckoo:

The Koekoea or Long-tailed Cuckoo:

The two species of cuckoo were not included in the food-supply of the Maori, but these birds were occasionally snared when their plumes were required for decorative purposes; the tail-feathers of the koekoea or long-tailed cuckoo (Urodynamis taitensis) were the ones usually sought for this purpose. When so taken the birds were of course eaten; the Maori despised little that was in any way eatable. This latter fact was brought home to me about thirty-five years ago, when I sought in vain the skin of a kiwi that I had been drying; I found that, while I was absent from camp, my worthy friend Tutaka had arrived, and, on seeing the dried bird-skin, it occurred to him that he was hungry, whereupon he toasted that skin at the fire for a space, and then ate it. It is but just to say, how ever, that Tu left me most of the feathers.

Among the numerous names of the koekoea is that of kohoperoa the same being a good descriptive name, inasmuch as kohope is a form of hope, an old Polynesian term that is yet in use at Tahiti for the tail of a bird. An old Maori folk tale assigns to the koekoea, huia, and kotuku (white heron) a Special origin, inasmuch as we are told that those three birds were brought down from the heavens by Tawhaki, the old hero who performed mighty deeds in the dim past, in order that they might provide lordly plumes for his wife Maikuku. Another tale is to the effect that the koekoea, horirerire (grey warbler), huia, and kuaka (godwit) were brought hither from overseas in the vessel Takitumu when the ancestors of the Maori canoe came to these isles. Other wild tales were told by the Maori folk to account for the absence of the cuckoo during the winter; thus some maintained that they retired to the beds of lakes and there passed the cold season buried in the mud. Another story tells us that they bury themselves in the earth, that they are the offspring of lizards, or become lizards. One enthusiastic aboriginal naturalist, asserted that the koekoea and kumukumu lizard are, as it were, interchangeable forms, as also are the pipiwharauroa or shining cuckoo and moko kakariki or green lizard (Naultinus elegans). The moko piri rakau or tree lizard, and the teretere, a variegated lizard, are also connected with these superstitions.

The Maori emxloys the word Hoi! to represent the cry of the koekoea, and its peculiar hoarse whistle can be heard during the night from about the time when the manuka blossoms. Our local cuckoos cherish the same irresponsible attitude towards family-duties page 338that marks their congeners in the old world; so it is that their young are often fed by the whitehead (tataihore, Certhiparus albicapillus). Indolent, shiftless folk are compared to cuckoos, as in Ka rite koe ki te koekoea (You are like a cuckoo).

At p. 216 of Hawaiki, 4th ed., we note that the author of that work was inclined to believe that the migrating cuckoo led to the discovery of New Zealand, and quite possibly the recurring over-sea flights of such birds attracted the attention of voyagers and led to investigation, voyages of exploration. We encounter some peculiar passages in Maori tradition in connection with cuckoos, their powers of long flight, and their intelligence. These occur in the highly remarkable tradition of the deep-sea voyages of Whatonga, one of the old-time Polynesian sea-rovers who reached these isles of New Zealand, the one who visited Wellington harbour and brought about the first Polynesian settlement thereof. Whatonga was a native of Tahiti who flourished about seven centuries ago, and he possessed a pet bird, a tamed cuckoo, concerning which truly marvellous tales are told. In one Version of the story this bird is said to have been a koekoea, in another it is described as a pipiwharauroa, or 'shining cuckoo.' We are told that Whatonga was cast away on a distant isle, and that his friends despatched his pet bird, the name of which was Te Kawa, to search for him. A wise man, a tohunga of renown, repeated a charm over the bird ere it was released, and that charm was supposed to endow the bird with the necessary qualities to enable it to perform its task. Also the bird carried a message to the missing one in the form of a knotted cord. The Maori maintains that the tau ponapona (knotted cord) was used by his ancestors in Polynesia in order to send messages to distant persons; that it was not a mere mnemonic aid to memory, but that certain brief messages could be transmitted, and be understood by those conversant with the signification of the various knots, their arrangement, etc.

So Te Kawa, the cuckoo, set forth on its long flight across lone seas, and succeeded in finding Whatonga, who read off the message of the knotted cord, and despatched the bird with a return message written in cord knots. On being liberated, we are told, the bird soared far up above the earth, then flew off steadily in a certain direction, The trend of the flight of the cuckoo to its home island was carefully noted, and ere long, a vessel was prepared for a voyage, whereupon Whatonga and his followers laid her in her marks and sailed forth on the sea-road of Te Kawa, the bird messenger; so came they to the home island, the wa kainga that had mourned them as lost.

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