The Huia, Heteralocha acutirostris, was a species of New Zealand Wattlebird endemic to the North Island of New Zealand. It became extinct in the early 20th century, primarily as a result of overhunting and widespread habitat destruction. The last confirmed sighting was on 28 December 1907 when W.W. Smith saw three birds in the Tararua Ranges. Further credible sightings were reported as late as 1922.
The Huia was notable for a remarkable degree of sexual dimorphism in bill shape. The male and female had markedly different bills, although the sexes were otherwise similar with predominantly black plumage. The Huia held a special place in Māori culture and oral tradition; the bird was regarded as tapu (sacred), and the wearing of its skin or feathers was restricted to people of high status.
The Huia is the only bird known to show marked sexual dimorphism in the shape and size of the beak. The beak of the male was short (approximately 60 mm), slightly arched downwards and robust, like that of a woodpecker, while the female's beak was finer, long (approximately 104 mm) and curved downward like that of a hummingbird or honeyeater. Another, less obvious aspect of the Huia's sexual dimorphism was the size difference between the sexes. Males were 45 cm (18 in) long, while females were larger at 48 cm (19 in) in length.
Like the surviving New Zealand wattlebirds, the saddleback and the kokako, the Huia used its rounded wings to fly short distances, but preferred to use its strong legs to move in long leaps and bounds through the canopy or over the forest floor. The tail was spread to help the bird balance as it clung vertically to tree trunks.A quiet, social bird, the Huia was monogamous with pairs bonding for life. The bird was usually found in breeding pairs, although sometimes groups of 4 or more were encountered. Walter Buller records that a pair would always keep close to each other, constantly uttering a \"low affectionate twitter\", even when in captivity. He also observed that a pair he held in captivity would frequently groom each other. When the male of this pair was accidentally killed, the female \"manifesting the utmost distress pined for her mate and died 10 days afterwards\". A Māori man in the 19th century recalled that \"I was always told by my old people that a pair of Huia lived on most affectionate terms... If the male died first the female died soon after of grief\". The bird was named for its loud distress call, a smooth, unslurred whistle sounding like the words \"Who-are-you-o\". If this call was imitated, the bird would come to investigate. The Huia had no fear of people, and therefore could be captured easily by hand. Females also allowed themselves to be handled on the nest. An imitation of the bird's call survives as a recording of 1909 Huia Search Team member Henare Haumana whistling the call (NZ Sound Archives).
A species of phtilopterid louse has been described from the Huia. Rallicola extinctus, formerly considered the only species of a separate genus Huiacola ("Huia inhabitant"), apparently became extinct with its host.
The Huia mainly inhabited the mountainous regions of the North Island, descending in winter or in periods of cold weather to lowland forests on the plains to forage for food. Its diet consisted of insects and their larvae, including weta, huhu, spiders, as well as small berries. The sexual dimorphism of the bill structure gave rise to feeding strategies that differed radically between the sexes. The male used its bill to chisel into the outer layers of decaying or live wood, whereas the female probed areas inaccessible to the male, e.g. the burrows of insect larvae in living wood. Studies of the anatomy of the male head and neck musculature also suggest that the male was capable of "gaping", which involved the bird inserting its bill into rotting wood to split the wood.
Contrary to popular opinion, meals were not often shared by a pair (although such behaviour may have occasionally served to strengthen the pair bond). A pair did not cooperate in feeding, at least not in a strict sense. All such reports are based on misunderstanding of an account by Buller, which referred to a pair kept in captivity. Rather, the divergent bills represent an extreme example of niche differentiation, by which intraspecific competition between the sexes was reduced. This allowed the species to exploit a wide range of food sources. While sexual dimorphism in bill shape is found in other birds, it was most pronounced in the Huia. The woodhoopoes and certain birds of paradise show a similar, but less extreme, dimorphism, and the bills of many hummingbirds show sexual difference in length which is not linked to variations in body size.
In Māori culture, only people of high rank wore Huia feathers. In some legends, the Huia was one of the birds attained from the heavens by Tāwhaki so that his wife could decorate her hair with its feathers; this celestial origin meant that the feathers of the Huia were treated with the greatest respect.
In other traditions, the Huia was the leader of the hākuturi, the spirit guardians of the forest, which included Whiteheads and Riflemen. A single Huia feather was worn as a talisman against misfortune. If a man dreamed of a Huia or its feathers, it meant his wife would conceive a daughter; if he dreamed of Kōtuku feathers it implied the conception of a son.
The bold and inquisitive nature of the Huia made it particularly easy to capture or kill. Māori attracted the Huia by imitating its call and then captured it with a tari (a carved pole with a noose at the end) or snare or killed it with clubs or long spears. Often they exploited the strong pair bond by capturing one of a pair, which would then call out, attracting its mate which could then be easily captured. Although not usually hunted for food, the Huia was considered excellent eating.
Although the Huia's range was restricted to the southern North Island, its feathers were valued highly and that they were exchanged amongst tribes for other valuable goods such as greenstone and shark teeth or given as tokens of friendship and respect. Through this trade, the feathers reached the far north and the far south of New Zealand. They were stored in intricately carved boxes called waka huia which were hung from the ceilings of chief's houses. Huia feathers were worn at funerals and used to decorate the heads of the deceased. The marereko, described by Edward Robert Tregear as an 'ancient war-plume' consisted of twelve Huia feathers. The pōhoi, an ornament made from the skin of the Huia, was highly valued. The bird was skinned with the beak, skull and wattles attached, while the legs and wings were removed. The skin was carefully dried and the resulting pōhoi ornament was worn from the neck or ears.
A captured Huia would be kept in a small cage so that its tail feathers could be plucked as they grew to full size. The bird was also kept by Māori as a pet, and like the Tui, it could be trained to say a few words. There is also a record of a tame Huia kept by European settlers in a small village in the Forty-mile bush in the 19th century.
The Huia was found throughout the North Island before humans arrived in New Zealand. The Māori arrived around 800 years ago and by the time European settlers arrived in the 1840s habitat destruction and hunting had reduced the bird's range to the southern North Island. Māori hunting pressures on the Huia were however, limited to some extent by traditional protocols. The main hunting season was from May to July when its plumage was in prime condition, while a rāhui (hunting ban) was enforced in spring and summer to allow the species' numbers to recover. It was not until European settlement that the Huia was truly threatened. Its numbers began to decline due to three factors; widespread deforestation, introduction of mammalian predators and overhunting. Another possible cause of extinction is disease, but, like the extinctions of other New Zealand birds in the 19th century such as the Piopio, the decline of the Huia was poorly studied. Because it spent a lot of time on the ground, the Huia would have been particularly vulnerable to mammalian predators, especially ship rats, cats and mustelids. In the 19th century, massive deforestation occurred in the North Island, particularly in the lowlands of southern Hawkes Bay, the Manawatu and the Wairarapa as land was cleared by European settlers for agriculture. The Huia was particularly vulnerable to this because it appeared it could only live in old growth forest where there were plenty of rotting trees filled with insect larvae. It seems it could not survive in regenerating secondary forests. Although the mountainous part of their former range was not deforested, the lowland forests of the valleys below, where Huia took refuge in winter and cold weather, were systematically destroyed. Habitat destruction and the predations of introduced species were problems faced by all New Zealand birds, but in addition the Huia faced massive pressures from hunting.
Huia were sought after as mounted specimens by collectors and museums all over the world, who were interested in its pronounced sexual dimorphism and its beauty. The hunting of Huia for this purpose was initially done by naturalists. Austrian taxidermist Andreas Reischek took 212 pairs as specimens for the natural history museum in Vienna over a period of 10 years and Walter Buller collected 18 in just one of several expeditions to the Rimutaka ranges in 1883. However, others keen to profit from the decimation of the species soon joined in. Buller records that in 1883, a party of 11 Māori obtained 646 Huia skins from the forest between the Manawatu Gorge and Akitio. Ultimately several thousand Huia were exported overseas as part of this trade.
By the late 1880s, both Māori and European settlers noticed a serious decline in Huia numbers and the chiefs of the Manawatu and the Wairarapa placed a rāhui on the Tararua range to prevent the killing of the bird. In February 1892, the Wild Birds Protection Act was amended to include the Huia, making it illegal to kill the bird; however, enforcement was not taken seriously. A recommendation was also made that island sanctuaries be set up for endangered native birds; however, the new bird sanctuaries, such as Kapiti Island and Little Barrier Island, were never stocked with the Huia. A live pair destined to be transferred to Kapiti in 1893 was instead appropriated by Buller, who bent the law to gain permission to take them to England.
Female Huia beaks have been known to be used in the creation of jewellery such as brooches.
The visit of the Duke and Duchess of York, later King George V and Queen Mary, to New Zealand in 1901 was celebrated throughout the land and at an official Māori welcome in Rotorua a guide took a Huia feather from her hair and placed it in the band of the Duke's hat as a token of respect. Soon many people in England and New Zealand wanted to emulate this royal fashion and wear Huia feathers in their hats. The price of feathers was soon pushed to one New Zealand pound each and some sold for as high as five pounds. Shooting season notices ceased listing the Huia as a protected species in 1901 and a last-ditch attempt to reinforce government protection failed when the Solicitor General ruled that there was no law to protect feathers.
The last official sighting was on 28 December 1907 when W.W. Smith saw three birds in the Tararua Ranges; however, unconfirmed reports after this date suggest that extinction came a little later. A man familiar with the species reported seeing three Huia in Gollans Valley behind York Bay (between Petone and Eastbourne, Wellington) on 28 December 1922. Sightings of the Huia were reported here in 1912 and 1913 and this area of mixed beech (Nothofagus) and podocarp forest was well within the bird's former range. Despite this, naturalists from the Dominion Museum in Wellington did not investigate the reports. The possibility of a small Huia population still existing in the Urewera ranges has been proposed by some researchers, but is considered highly unlikely. No recent expeditions have been mounted to find a living specimen. The Huia had been little studied by naturalists before it was driven to extinction.
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