Birds – The Moas

IN the European occupation of New Zealand half a century or more ago great numbers of the bones of gigantic birds were found strewn over the surface of the plains or lightly buried in alluvial river-banks, lake-beds, and swamps, as well as caves and crevices among rocks. These birds were known by the native inhabitants as the Moa, and it was supposed from the abundance of the remains and their generally good state of preservation that their extinction had been of comparatively recent date. There are differences of opinion, however, as to the extent of the knowledge of the living Moa among the Maoris, the native inhabitants, and on this point the Rev. William Colenso, sometime Bishop of New Zealand, who first went among them about 1837,asserts positively that he found no evidence in the traditions and folklore of the Maoris that they had ever seen the Moa alive, or had knowledge of Moa-hunting.

This is surprising, for it is well known that among savage people even trivial incidents are handed down for generations, and anything so important as the wiping out of their chief food supply would seemingly have been abundantly commemorated in song and legend. It appears that the Maoris have only been in their present location for about ten generations, or some 250 or 300 years, and the Moa could hardly have lived within that period, and it is held as probable that their extinction was several centuries earlier than this. On the other hand, some observers claim to have found traditional evidence among the natives of their having hunted these great birds, and as will be shown later, several fragments have been found in such a perfect state of preservation as seemingly to preclude the probability of their being very old. But that there was a race of people who subsisted largely if not entirely upon this bird, and who are apparently very largely if not wholly responsible for its extinction, is abundantly shown. In many localities extensive camping grounds have been found where there were cooking places, employed evidently in cooking the eggs and flesh of the Moa. Some of them contain great numbers of fragments of egg-shells, and by the sides of others are refuse heaps containing hundreds of Moa bones, as well as vast numbers of crudely chipped stone implements, together with a few of more polished workmanship. Therefore it seems hardly likely that the Moas could have been living at best on the North Island within the past 500 years, although it is possible that on the South Island they may have lingered for a considerably later period, since in several instances, especially in the province of Otago, fragments have been found at the bottom of refuse heaps, in caves, and even in river deposits, that contain portions of the skin and ligaments, and with fairly well preserved feathers still attached. It has been suggested that possibly the Moa was domesticated or herded by the natives, but there is hardly more evidence to support this than the notion that a few examples may still be living in the remote, unexplored interior.

One of the best preserved specimens retaining the skin and feathers was found in a cave at the foot of the Obelisk Hills, Otago. It is a portion about seventeen inches in length from near the base of the neck, which at this point appears to have been about eighteen inches in circumference. The skin, which is about three sixteenths of an inch thick, is of a dirty red-brown color, and is formed into deep transverse folds. The surface is roughened by elevated conical papille, from the apex of some of which springs a slender transparent feather barrel, about half an inch long. On the dorsal surface some of the quills still carry fragments of the webs, a few of which are two inches in length. In color these barbs are chestnut-red, much as in certain species of Apteryx. Fragments of egg-shells as already mentioned are of common occurrence about the ancient cooking places, and now and then a more or less perfect shell is unearthed. Of these one of the most perfect came to light in 1901, having been washed from a bank some fourteen feet below the surface on the river Molyneux, Otago. This egg, which is described as of the usual pale buff color and is absolutely unbroken, measures seven and three quarters inches in the long diameter, and five and one quarter inches in the short diameter. Another nearly perfect example from the same locality was slightly larger, and a fortunate specimen found some years ago near Tiger Hill, in the interior of Otago, contained the well-developed bones of an embryo chick that must have been about fourteen and one half inches long, and well showed the massiveness of the posterior limbs. The egg-shell when not abraded is usually of a pale yellow color, smooth, and irregularly pitted on the outside with dots and linear markings. Its structure has been studied under the microscope and found to agree most closely with the eggs of struthious birds, and more especially with those of the Rhea or South American Ostrich.

Although previously observed by missionaries among the Maoris, the first Moa bone brought to scientific attention was in 1839, when Sir Richard Owen exhibited a portion of a femur before the Zoölogical Society of London. Since that date many thousands of bones have been collected and studied with the result of determining the existence of between twenty and thirty species, with a range in size from that of a very large Turkey, to Dinornis maximus, which possessed a tibia thirty-nine inches long and probably stood nearly ten feet high. Certain of the species appear to have been rare, while others, especially the smaller forms, were exceedingly abundant. In draining a swamp at Glenmark, near Canterbury, the soil was found to be literally full of Moa-bones, disposed in all sorts of positions, and more recently another small pond in the same region was drained, and in a space of twenty by thirty feet over 2500 bones were recovered, representing, it is thought, not less than 800 birds. In another locality where a ledge of rocks jets into a lake, thus forming a cul-de-sac, no less than thirty-nine Moa skeletons were found on the surface and so nearly in the positions in which they died that the pebbles that had been taken into the gizzards were located and collected. The causes which led to these mortalities are, and of course must remain, unknown, but it has been conjectured that glacial agencies may have had something to do with it, or possibly those found in the cul-de-sac were driven in by fire and cut off from escape by the water and the rocky ledge.

The Moas were flightless birds, so distinctly so, indeed, that in most cases every bone of the wing had disappeared. Even the coracoid and scapula are aborted or absent, and the breast-bone, which in shape may be broad and short or long and narrow, is without trace of a keel, and its grooves for the reception of the coracoid are either reduced to small facets or have totally disappeared. Coincident with the loss of the power of flight, which was doubtless brought about by the absence of predatory land animals which made the frequent use of the wings unnecessary, the hind limbs were greatly developed and made massive, though not quite to the extent found in the Elephant-birds of Madagascar. The tibia, which in the different species varies in length from about nine and one-half to some thirty-nine inches, is chiefly remarkable for the presence of a bony bridge at the lower end in front, which distinguishes the Moas from all living Ratites. There were three toes directed forwards and in most cases one directed back-wards. The number of vertebrae is absolutely known in only one species (Anomalopteryx Parva), there being in this twenty-one in the neck, and six free dorsals. The skull, which, however, differs considerably in the several genera, was generally broad and low, with a wide U-shaped or V-shaped and somewhat deflected beak. The feathers have a distinct and large aftershaft, as in the Cassowaries, and the webs are soft and dissociated. From the stoutness of the bill it is inferred that they subsisted largely on vegetation, such as succulent stems, seeds, and berries, with doubtless an occasional insect or reptile.

The Moas appear to find their nearest relatives among the Kiwis, and it has been assumed that like them the females exceeded the males in size, but recent studies indicate that this was probably not the case. They differ from them, however, in the short beak, and feathers with aftershafts, as well as in certain anatomical features. They were most abundant on the South Island, but were present on the North Island, and a single rather doubtful species, based on one bone, has been reported from Australia.