New Zealand Birds’
(The Greytown Gallery)

65 Wood Street
Post Office Box 146
Greytown, 5742
New Zealand

Mobile: +64 (0)27 508 5078 [email protected]

Historical fantasy

Available from Amazon  Te Tini o Toi

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

Tieke, the saddleback


The saddleback  takes its English name from the band of colour running across the adult bird’s back. According to Maori tradition the saddle marking was caused by the man–god Maui, Maui–potiki. This happened shortly after he and his brothers had snared the sun as it emerged from its cave. Maui beat the sun so mercilessly as it lay imprisoned close to the ground that it was greatly enfeebled. When the sun could take no more and pleaded for mercy, Maui released it, its energy all gone, so that it was able only slowly and wearily to make its way across the sky. Thus to this day we have longer daylight hours.


The heat of the sun and his exertions made Maui very thirsty so he asked Tieke, the saddleback to bring him some cold water but the bird pretended not to hear and took no notice. This irritated Maui so much that he seized it and in doing so singed its feathers with the heat of his hand. The markings on his back are a permanent reminded of how it incurred his displeasure. Maui then threw the bird away from him into the water that he had been unable to reach.


This is the reason that the Tieke became known to Maori as water bird. It was mentioned in invocations recited when rain was needed, when calling on Rangi, the sky father, to give assistance through his many offspring who control the weather.


Ngatoroirangi, the great ancestor and priestly tohunga of the Te Arawa tribe, owned two pet saddlebacks. They were renowned for their supernatural powers and wisdom and were claimed to be able to predict in their cries and manner of flight a change in the weather and which way the wind would blow. Therefore they had proved most helpful as pilots on the journey out from the Pacific with Te Arawa canoe.


The female sacred bird was named Mumuhau, the male bird Takareto. They stayed with Ngatoroirangi on Cuvier, Repanga, Island, and the saying is — Kei Repanga nga manu mohoi, ko Mumuhau, ko Takareto — At Repanga are the wise birds, Mumuhau and Takareto. Put another way — Manu mohoi kei Repanga — or to use an equivalent English expression: old birds are not caught with chaff.


They, or at least this bird species, continue to serve Maori at Cuvier Island as reliable barometers. The peculiar note of one is an unfailing sign of good weather, whilst the shrill cry of the other is a no less certain warning of storm.

According to Buller, the Tieke was not wilfully killed by Maori, it being regarded with a degree of superstitious reverence and as a bird of omen. It was supposed to keep guard over ancient treasures, while a war party hearing the call of the bird on the right considered it an omen of victory but on the left it presaged defeat.

Sub Species:
rufusater, carunculatus.

Song of :  —  Tieke, the saddleback

 Viking Sevenseas

Other common names:  — 

Jack bird, wattled stare, wattled starling.

Description:  — 

Endemic bird

25 cm., males 80 g., females 70., head and body glossy black with bright chestnut saddle across back, rump and tail coverts, pendulous orange-red wattles at base of black bill. Young of North Island birds similar to adults but South Island young are plain brown.

Where to find:  — 

Off shore islands, Hen, Whatupuke, Red Mercury, Cuvier, Lady Alice, Stanley, Kapiti, Little Barrier, Tiritiri Matangi, Mokoia in Lake Rotorua, and Whale Island, off the North Island. In the South Island, islands off Stewart Island, Motuara Island.

Credit for the photograph: — 


Dave Curtis

Illustration description: — 

Reference(s): — 


Riley, Murdoch, Maori Bird Lore, 2001.

Oliver., W.R.B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.

Page date & version: — 


Monday, 1 July, 2019; ver2009v1