Victorian Taxidermy, The Huia

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Victorian Taxidermy, The Huia.

The Huia (Maori: [hu-ia]; Heteralocha acutirostris) was the largest species of New Zealand wattlebird and was endemic to the North Island of New Zealand. Its extinction in the early 20th century had two primary causes. The first was rampant overhunting to procure Huia skins for mounted specimens, which were in worldwide demand by museums and wealthy private collectors (This is the demands of victorian taxidermists and collectors).

New Zealand Huia , female.

New Zealand Huia ,

Huia were also hunted to obtain their long, striking tail feathers for locally fashionable hat decorations. The second major cause of extinction was the widespread deforestation of the lowlands of the North Island by European settlers to create pasture for agriculture. Most of these forests were ancient, ecologically complex primary forests, and Huia were not able to survive in regenerating secondary forests. The last confirmed sighting of a Huia was on 28 December 1907 in the Tararua Ranges. Further credible sightings near Wellington were reported until 1922, and the last reported sightings were in Te Urewera National Park in the early 1960s. These birds are now highly sought after in the taxidermy collecting world despite the quality of some of the mounts we have seen. An extinct bird is afterall an extinct bird, one in which specifically taxidermy played such an important role in its demise, see below.

New Zealand Huia , male.

Huia feathers, "royalty" and fashion

Extinction of the huia is sadly related to an international fashion of wearing their tail feathers in hats. On a royal visit to New Zealand, the Prince of York who later became King George V of England, was presented with a huia tail feather by a Maori chief. Huia feathers are a traditional Maori symbol of authority. The Prince of York followed the old custom of wearing huia tail feathers in headress, by placing the feather in his hat. This set off a world fashion trend that was devastating for huia.
Tail feathers and stuffed birds were in such demand that the bird was hunted vigorously until it was no longer found. The notable ornithologist Walter Buller, who killed large numbers of huia himself for museum collections, reported that a Maori hunting party collected 646 huia in a month. While the Prince of York's visit obviously affected the plight of the huia, it is not known if it was the total cause of extinction, as the bird's habitat had become severely depleted by 1907. Unlucky for us King George outlived the Huia and it is shameful that museums (British included) contributed so keenly to their demise also.

Walter Lawry Buller KCMG (October 9, 1838 – July 19, 1906)

Walter Lawry Buller KCMG (October 9, 1838 – July 19, 1906) was a New Zealand lawyer, naturalist and ornithologist. Buller was the author of A History of the Birds of New Zealand (1872-1873, 2nd ed. 1887-1888), with illustrations by John Gerrard Keulemans. In 1882 he produced the Manual of the Birds of New Zealand as a cheaper, popular alternative. In 1905, he published a two-volume Supplement to the History of the Birds of New Zealand which brought the work up to date.
Huia egg collected by Mikaera, Wainuiomata, 11 October 1877 and donated by Sir Walter Buller. Although badly damaged, this is the only huia egg known to exist. Image from Museum of New Zealand Te Papa and their copywrite.

Buller was born at the Wesleyan mission, Newark at Pakanae in the Hokianga, the son of a Cornish missionary, Rev. James Buller, who had helped convert the people of Tonga to Methodism. He was educated at Wesley College in Auckland. In 1854, he moved to Wellington with his parents, where he was befriended by the naturalist William John Swainson. In 1859 he was made Native Commissioner for the Southern Provinces. In 1871 he travelled to England and was called to the bar at the Inner Temple. Three years later he returned to Wellington and practiced law. Buller was a government minister from 1896 to 1899. He emigrated to England and died at Fleet in Hampshire. Was he responsible for the extinction, perhaps not, but he certainly gave it a good go!!!!!.

New Zealand Huia, female.

New Zealand Huia. Copywrite Mr Sailor, there are restrictions on this image.

Pair of New Zealand Huia by Rowland Ward.

Pair of New Zealand Huia by Rowland Ward.

Pair of New Zealand Huia by Rowland Ward.

Extinction of the huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) in 1907 was a tragic loss to New Zealand's ancient native avifauna. It serves as a reminder of the importance of bird protection. While today we are astounded by the ruthless hunting of huia to extinction during a very short period, and the ignorance of the time, even amongst respected ornithologists, we are left with no excuse for more bird losses with current knowledge of the value of biodiversity. The huia was probably New Zealand's most eccentric bird. It was a large 48 cm (19 inch) black bird with a bright orange "wattle" at the base of an ivory beak. It had a distinguishing wide band of white at the end of its long tail feathers. Huia were so sexually dimorphic, and unique because of the different beak forms of the male and female, that they were at first thought to be separate species. They were normally found feeding in pairs. In cooperative roles, the male used his short strong beak, which resembled the beak of a starling, to break up rotting tree trunks in search of huhu bugs and other insects. The female used her long curved beak, which was like a nectar feeder's, to reach into otherwise unreachable places. A Rotorua ranger, William Cobeldick, spotted a huia pair near Lake Waikareiti, and a lone huia at Taharua Stream in the Urewera National Park in 1924, but it had been declared extinct many years before this.

Victorian Huia heads.

New Zealand Huia

The wattlebirds of New Zealand are not found anywhere else in the world, and the huia was unique as the only bird in the world with completely different beak forms in the male and female. The ancient Callaeidae family flew to New Zealand 60 million years ago, and like many of the birds in the isolated archipelago, huia adopted ground feeding habits in an ecology devoid of mammals.

Study Skin of a New Zealand Huia. John Thomas Pusateri Jr credit.

New Zealand Huia, by John Gould

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