Although there were no mammalian predators in New Zealand before the advent of Homo sapiens, there were avian predators, some of which were quite extraordinary and would be considered mythical if we did not have the remains to prove their existence. One of these was the Haast eagle, the largest, most powerful, eagle the world has known, the females weighing as much as 13 kilograms and with wings spanning almost three metres. As herbivores, such as the Moa, evolved large body size, the eagle did too, allowing it to exploit a food source reserved in other lands for the great cats. Indeed the Haast eagle had talons comparable to a tiger’s and was capable of killing a human.
The first discovered bones of this species were found in 1871 during excavation of Moa bones at Glenmark swamp in Canterbury. They were described in 1872 by Dr Julius von Haast, first director of the Canterbury Museum, who named the bird after George Moore, owner of Glenmark Station on which so many sub fossil bird bones were found.
Haast described two species of eagle, one on the basis of small bones which are now believed to represent the male. Only three complete skeletons have been found: two found late last century are in the Otago Museum in New Zealand and the Natural History Museum in London: the third, found in a cave near Nelson in 1989, is held by the National Museum in Wellington.
The bones of this giant eagle are nowhere common but have been found widely in the South Island and southern half of the North Island, usually along with Moa bones in swamps and caves. However, Trevor Worthy asserts that the eagle has never been found in the North island and that all records are based on misidentifications.
The youngest eagle bones found may be only 500 years old indicating that eagles and humans co-existed. Charlie Douglas in the bird section of his book describes shooting something in the late 1800s that was probably two eagles.
Research by Dr. Richard Holdaway on the skeletal remains of the birds suggests that the New Zealand eagle was a forest eagle that could not soar but probably hunted like other forest eagles by perching high on a branch until a suitable prey came within range and then diving on it at speeds of up to 80 kilometers an hour. The impact, which could knock even the largest Moa off its feet, was cushioned by powerful legs. The brutal talons were then used to crush and pierce the neck and skull of the immobilised prey. The eagle and its mate could remain near the kill for several days. Like all eagles the Haast also ate carrion and preyed on trapped animals when these were available.
With a life span approaching 20 years, the eagles occupied, in pairs, territories up to several hundred square kilometers. They were found mainly in the drier eastern forest during the Holocene but were more widespread in the scattered forest and scrublands of the late Otiran Glaciations 20,000 – 14,000 years ago.
The Maori seemed to have called the bird Te Pouakai or Te Hokioi. Murdoch Riley in his book on Maori bird lore says that most authorities favour Te Hokioi. Other authorities say that the bird was a very large hawk that lived on the tops of mountains, another that it stayed always in the sky and was a descendant of the star Rehua. It was regarded as the ancestor of ceremonial kites, which generally took the form of birds. Elsdon Best records that it was a legendary bird, reputed to carry off and devour men, women and children. The birds were also depicted in rock drawings.
The Haast eagle succumbed to the environmental damage resulting from Polynesian colonisation. It became extinct probably several hundred years ago, along with the Moa, its main food source. Trevor Worthy says that Maori did kill them as their bones have been found in middens and fashioned into tools.
Phalange measured from summit to articular end to point, 2.9 inches (70 cm); circumference, 3.17 inches (85 cm).
Other common names: —
10-14 kg., wingspan almost 3 metres.
More Information: —
»»» Te Hokioi page
(in the Maori myths section)
Youtube video —
Illustration description: —
Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, 1871 and 1895.
Oliver, W.R.B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.
Stevens, Graeme, Prehistoric New Zealand, 1988
Riley, Murdoch, Maori Bird Lore, 2000.
Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, 1871.
Page date & version: —
Saturday, 30 October, 2010; ver2009v1