Home > New Zealand ecology > Wattlebirds > Huia     

Eagle skull

Extinct birds

58 losses since human arrival




Takahe  Kiwi
Kakapo  Penguin
Moa  Wren

birds list

273 oceanic,
coastal and
terrestrial birds


Four crested
Little blue

Critically endangered birds

Nine Red List, 26 nationally critical

Rediscovered birds

The remarkable return of five extinct species

Birds of prey & owls

Birds of prey
Falcon,  Harrier
Haast's eagle
Laughing owl

Parrots & Parakeets

5 parakeets
Blue duck

Native ducks

Blue duckGrey duck
Paradise shelduck
NZ shoveler
NZ scaup


Auckland Is.
Campbell Is.
Brown teal

Gigantism in insects


Living fossils

Leiopelma frogs
Land snails



Greater & Lesser
short-tailed bats,

Long-tailed bat

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.


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.

The huia was one of only three species that make up the entire Callaeidae family of wattlebirds, which is part of the Passeriformes order of perching birds. The family, which today only includes kokako Callaeas cinerea and saddleback Philesturnus carunculatus, is endemic to New Zealand.

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.

Huia hosted an exclusive louse .....

The huia had its own species of louse Rallicola extinctus, which went extinct along with its host.  Specimens of the louse, which lived in and fed on the huia's feathers, have been recovered from bird skins preserved in museums for 100 years.  The louse was recently discovered on the old huia skins, and has never been seen alive.

Huia, John Gerrard Kuelemans

Huia feathers for 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.

Walter Buller had the attitude of the period when he proclaimed the inevitable loss of all New Zealand endemic life.  He changed his view in his later years, advocating Kapiti Island as a sanctuary for remaining threatened birds, but he was unsuccessful in getting huia translocated there.

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. A reliable sighting today would instigate a massive search, capture, and a captive breeding, release and monitoring programme.

2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

Heteralocha acutirostris

North Island kokako
Callaeas cinerea

Philesturnus carunculatus
Lower risk, near threatened

United States Threatened & Endangered Species, Foreign Listed Species

North Island kokako
Callaeas cinerea

2005 New Zealand Threat Classification System

Heteralocha acutirostris

North Island kokako
Callaeas cinerea wilsoni
2 Nationally endangered

South Island kokako
Callaeas cinerea cinerea

North Island saddleback
Philesturnus carunculatus rufusater
7 Range restricted

South Island saddleback
Philesturnus carunculatus carunculatus
2 Nationally endangered

Illustration Credit
Center top: John Gerrard Keulemans 1842-1912, Huia Heteralocha acutirostris 1888
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
Center bottom: Permission of Peter Schouten

Next page - kokako
Next page - saddleback
Return to wattlebirds

Copyright © 2004-2009 TerraNature Trust. All rights reserved.

home | sponsors | latest news & events | join - donate | contact information | projects
volunteer activities | about us | environmental issues | New Zealand ecology