New Zealand Birds’
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Historical fantasy

Available from Amazon Te Tini o Toi book cover

Te Tini o Toi, The Children of Toi, (book one), by Narena Olliver

Tarapunga of Mokoia Island

red-billed and black-billed gulls

A winged  habitant of the Rotorua country familiar to those who have done much fishing and camping round the lakes is the little sober plumaged gull that the Maori call the Tarapunga. Really a sea–bird, it found these lakes and the fishes thereof so much to its liking when it first made its way there from the Bay of Plenty coast — which is only thirty five miles away — that it became a permanent settler. It has breeding places on the pumice cliffs which shine as white as chalk on the eastern and north-eastern shores of Lake Rotorua. As night comes down, you will see it making homeward for its cliff nest, and often through the dark you may hear, particularly if you are in camp on the eastern side of the lake or on Mokoia Island, the thin, sharp cry of some belated gull, suggesting, say, a peevish ghost that has come home too late and found itself locked out.


Mokoia is a favourite haunt of the little birds. There is a low, sandy point which runs out to the eastward of Paepaerau beach, on the flat where the islanders have their whares and cultivations. On this point we used to see flocks of Tarapunga waiting patiently until the coming Marangai, the nor’–east breeze, should bring the shoals of whitebait, plentiful in the lake at certain seasons, close to shore. Presently there would be excitement and terror amongst the silvery Inanga, and jubilation amongst the well dined Tarapaunga.


But the most interesting thing about the lake gull is the fact of the Maori tapu that protects it from Arawa guns. No Maori would shoot Tarapunga. Human souls inhabit those birds, say the Arawa. The spirits of the dead enter into the Tarapunga; the leaders of the flocks are tribal chieftains of ancient days. So say the elders, just as old sailors say that when a bo’s’n dies, if he has been a good bo’s’n, he becomes an albatross and lives forever on the ocean wave.


And touching the origin of the tapu, here is the story, as narrated by an old Kuia at Mokoia Island, of Hongi’s invasion of the Rotorua District and how Ngapuhi with their guns camped on the Ohau beach until the war canoes had been brought up from the coast, and how they made their descent on Mokoia Island, where all the Arawa had assembled for safety: —


“It was in the days of Hongi Hika Kai–tangata, the Man–eater of the North, that these little birds of ours became for ever sacred to us.


“It was very early one misty morning,” the Kuia continued, “that they delivered their attack on this island. Our sentries did not see them at first, so that the enemy’s canoes were close up before the alarm was given. And the first our warriors knew of the Ngapuhi’s coming was the sight of a flock of Tarapunga suddenly flying up in alarm from the sandy point out yonder. The strange canoes appearing out of the fog startled the birds, and up they flew, screaming a warning to us that our foes were upon us. Our people at once knew that the Ngapuhi had alarmed the birds and they rushed to the beach to resist the invaders. And the birds circled overhead, tangi-ing with shrill voices, as they watched the defeat of their people the Arawa.


“Yes, we fell, and many scores of our dead were cooked in the ovens on this very flat and were eaten by the black–tatooed men of the north. My father fell there, and my uncles. My mother saved her life and my own — I was then but a little child. She ran with me on her back into the crowded meeting house, where the chieftainess Te Ao–Kapurangi saved so many of our tribe from slaughter.


“And afterwards, when peace came again, we remembered those Tarapunga birds, how they tried to save us that red morning on Mokoia here. Our priests karakia’d to them, recited their charms of propitiation and thanksgiving, and they declared that the birds should be tapu, for they acted as if they were human beings. We think that the spirits of our dead, those who died at the mouths of Hongi’s guns, and those who have since died in battle, enter into the bodies of those birds.


“And that is why we revere the Tarapunga today, and will suffer none, whether Pakeha or Maori, to injure them.”

Sub Species:

Other common names:  — 

silver gull, red–billed gull

Description:  — 

Native bird

37 cm., males 300 g., females 260 g., grey and white, bright red bill legs and feet, black wing tips.

Where to find:  — 

Around coast widespread and locally common. Lake Rotorua.

More Information: — 

»»»  Tarapunga, red-billed gull
       (on the NZ bird gallery page)

Illustration description: — 


Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1888.

Reference(s): — 


Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.

Pomare, Hon. Sir Maui, Legends of the Maori, 1906.

Page date & version: — 


Tuesday, 16 July, 2019; ver2009v1