Exhibit of Week: Small bird was sacred treasure to the Mãoris

Two huia birds in the taxidermy section of the Scarborough Collections.
Two huia birds in the taxidermy section of the Scarborough Collections.

The world’s most expensive feather – you’d probably hazard a guess that it came from some exotic and iridescent bird of paradise, right?

Well, you’d be wrong – it was actually the rather plain, but elegant, tail feather of a huia, a New Zealand bird which became extinct early last century. Found only on the North Island, it’s believed that its demise was due to several factors, including the deforestation of its natural habitat in the island’s lowlands by European settlers creating pasture, and the same settlers’ introduction of predators, including rats and cats.

Another reason, though, was cultural – the feathers of the huia, especially those striking broad tail feathers with their white tips, were much in demand, at first by high status Māoris, and later by fashionable European incomers.

The huia was the largest of an ancient family of New Zealand wattlebirds which had no relations anywhere else in the world. It’s believed to have had the most distinct sexual dimorphism – that is, the differences between males and females – ever known in a bird’s bill: the male’s beak was short and crow-like, the female’s finer, longer and with a very distinct curve.

This allowed them to forage for food in very different ways – the male would use his bill like a pick-axe to hack at rotten wood, while the female would use hers to probe more solid wood. Sadly, this couples’ versatility didn’t allow the species to survive – the last confirmed recorded sighting of a huia was in 1907, although there were other possible sightings later in the 20th century.

So why did an unnamed Wellington family think so highly of this simple dark-brown-and-white feather that they were prepared to pay the astounding sum of NZ$8,000, or just short of £4,000, for it at an auction in Auckland five years ago?

The clue is probably in the fact that they are believed to be collectors of important Māori artefacts.

New Zealand’s indigenous people considered the huia to be ‘tapu’, or a sacred treasure. A group of 12 feathers from a huia’s tail, usually still joined at the base, was called a ‘mareko’, and was worn by high chiefs going into battle. Feathers were also used to decorate the heads of the recently deceased, while dried skins were worn at the ears, and the beaks used to make headpieces which rattled as the wearer moved. Huia feathers were kept in a special carved wooden chest called a ‘waka huia’, or huia canoe.

A Māori legend explains the origin of the sexual dimorphism of the huia’s bill – a chief found a female in a trap, and took two of her tail feathers to wear in his hair, enchanting the bird so she would return to him when he needed more. One day she turned up with her feathers dishevelled from sitting on her nest, and the chief endowed her with a long, curved beak so she could reach her tail feathers and lift them out of the way.

This cultural importance was, tragically, to sound what was probably the final death knell for the already rare huia. In 1901, a high-ranking Māori woman plucked a huia feather from her hair and placed it in the hatband of the Duke of York, later George V, who was on an official visit to Rotarua – it was seen as a sign of respect.

The high societies of both the UK and New Zealand were quick to adopt the fashion, and the tail feathers of the birds were soon selling for between £1 and £5 (about £100 to £500 today).

This beautiful pair of huia – the shorter-billed male on the left – is part of the taxidermy section of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.