New Zealand is known to be blessed with diverse avifauna. Over time, due to habitat destruction, rampant hunting, and other factors, some birds had to fight a tough battle for survival. One such story is that of the Huia.
An iconic songbird endemic to the North Island of New Zealand, one of the country's five native wattlebird species, the Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris), became extinct early 20th century. Many notable things about the extinct Huia made it so special. The most prominent feature of the Huia was the striking sexual dimorphism of the bills among the males and females. The shape and size of the male and female Huia bills were very different, making them a prized game for poachers. The Huia bird was regarded as sacred among the Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of mainland New Zealand. Maori of high status wore Huia skin or feathers.
In this article, we share some exciting facts about this majestic wattlebird, Heteralocha acutirostris, from New Zealand and share some insights into how the popularity of the bird gradually led to its extinction. If you like to read about birds, do not miss reading our articles on the greater flamingo and American kestrel.
What do they prey on?
Adult insects, larvae, fruits, and spiders
What do they eat?
Average litter size?
How much do they weigh?
7.05-10.58 oz (200-300 g)
How long are they?
Male- 18 in (45 cm)
Female - 19 in (48 cm)
How tall are they?
What do they look like?
Black, feathers have white tips and pale ivory bill
What are their main threats?
What is their conservation status?
Where you'll find them
Huia Interesting Facts
What type of animal is a huia?
A Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) was a songbird. It was the largest among the five wattlebird species native to New Zealand.
What class of animal does a huia belong to?
A Huia belonged to the Aves class of animal; it was the only species in the genus Heteralocha, family Callaeidae, and order Passeriformes.
How many huias are there in the world?
A Huia is an extinct bird, so there are no more Huias left globally. Its last confirmed sighting dates back to 28 December 1907.
The genetic study of the Huia bone from the pre-human settlement reveals that it was common in the North Island, with an estimated population range of 34,000- 89,000 birds.
Where does a huia live?
The fossil remains of Huia reveal that they mainly inhabited the mountainous regions of North Island and were absent in South Island. They preferred the montane forest and the lowland places. It is said that they moved places depending on the season and lived in lowland forests during winter and preferred montane forests during summer.
What is a huia's habitat?
The Huia lived in both of the two primary forest types prevalent in the North Island of New Zealand. Their preferred habitat seemed to be the broadleaf-podocarp forests characterized by a dense understorey. Some populations of it also lived in the southern beech forest. The Huias lived in the vegetation native to the region and were never seen around the burnt forests or farmlands, or pastures. A majority of Huia nests have been found near the summit of mountains. The bird made its nest with dried grass, twigs, leaves, and sticks, in the shape of a saucer. The nests were characterized by a small hollow in the middle with soft material like grass and twigs for cushion and insulation of the eggs. The nest's location varied - some in the hollow of dead trees, on low branches, near the ground with a shield of hanging vines.
Who do huias live with?
A Huia lived in pairs and usually would move around or forage for food in pairs or in a small flock of up to five birds. It is understood that flock was family members.
How long does a huia live?
Since the Huia became extinct from New Zealand in the early 20th century, there is a lot about the bird that could not be studied. There is no concrete information about the average lifespan of Huia.
How do they reproduce?
There is not much information about reproduction in Huia. The breeding season is said to be have been around October-November. The mated pair nested solitarily and are thought to be territorial. They had one brood per season, and the average clutch size was two to four. Huia eggs were grayish with purple and brown spots and measured 1.8 by 1.5 in (45 by 30 mm). The incubation duration is not known, but it is said to be primarily done by the female. After hatching, the adults would remove the eggshell from the nest. The chicks remained in the family and were fed and taken care of by the parents for three months, after which they appeared big enough to become independent.
Huias are said to be monogamous, and they are said to live with mated pairs for life. A study of a tame live pair by the New Zealand naturalist Walter Buller reveals that even in captivity, the pair exhibited a low affectionate twittering and would caress each other with their bills. When the male of this tame pair died, the female was distressed and pined for him and succumbed to death ten days later. A Maori man from the 19th century said that a pair of Huia lived most affectionately.
What is their conservation status?
The Huia is listed as an extinct bird species in the IUCN conservation list. It was endangered by the 19th century, and the efforts to save it could not be adequately enforced. The last confirmed sighting of the bird dates back to 28 December 1907 by WW Smith. Smith saw three birds in Tararua ranges. Later in 1922 and sometime in 1960, some credible sightings were reported, but nothing concrete came out.
Huia Fun Facts
What do huias look like?
The Huia was characterized by a glossy black plumage with a greenish/bluish metallic tinge. The edges of the tail feathers had 2-3 cm of white tips. The bird's bill was pale ivory in color and a bright orange wattle of about 24mm by 16 mm hanged at the base on each side of the bill. The size of the female curved bill was around 85-105 mm, while the male's bill measured about 54-60mm. The Huia had strong legs that were bluish-gray. The juvenile Huia sported a brownish-black plumage with off white band on tail feathers.
How cute are they?
The Huias, with their glossy plumage, white band on the feather tails, deep orange wattles, looked majestic. They were a famous bird among the native population of New Zealand and were very much sought after.
How do they communicate?
Huias communicated in melodious, flute-like whistles. They would point their bills at about 30-45 degrees while making their calls. The male and the female had different calls and would alternate the calls continuously while communicating and answering each other. Their calls could be heard within a radius of 400 m. The bird got its name -Huia, after its loud whistle, which the Maori described as a smooth, unslurred whistle which sounded like 'uia, uia,' meaning where are you.
How big is a huia?
The Huia was about the same size as the magpie. The males were about 18 in long, while the females were a little larger and measured 19 in.
How fast can a huia fly?
Huias had powerful legs but had limited ability to take on a long, sustained flight. They had rounded wings and used their legs to hop and jump to move around. Very rarely, they would fly above tree height, but they were able to take a jump of 20 ft in a go.
How much does a huia weigh?
A Huia weighed around 200-300 g on average.
What are the male and female names of the species?
There is no specific name to refer to the males and females of the species. They are generally referred to as male and female Huia, respectively.
What would you call a baby huia?
There is no particular name to call a baby Huia. They are often referred to as baby Huia or chick.
What do they eat?
The different bill shapes of the Huia pair allowed the birds to feast on a wide array of food sources. They primarily ate insects like the mantis, weta, butterflies, and their larvae picked from decaying wood. They would also prey on spiders and grubs that were found near the bark of trees, moss, and ferns. The Huias were omnivorous; their diet also included the native forest fruits like the kahikatea, hinau, and pigeonwood, among others. The shape of the bill of the male Huia enabled them to pick at the decaying wood and dig in to get insects and their larvae. The female with their decurved bill had the advantage of probing into deeper areas in the wood to find their food.
Are they dangerous?
There is no record of Huias being dangerous. They are described as quiet and naive birds with no fear of humans and were very easy to prey on. The Maori hunters imitated their calls to get to them. They would use a carved pole with a noose on one end to capture the female Huia first. The hunters would take advantage of the affectionate bond the pair shared. The female would give out a distress call to the male Huia on being snared, and when it reached out to the female, the hunters would capture it similarly.
Would they make a good pet?
The Maori kept the bird as a pet. Interestingly, Huia, like another of New Zealand birds, tui, could be taught to utter a few words.
Did you know...
The fashion trend of wearing the Huia tail feather caught on in Britain when the Duke of York was seen wearing it during a visit to New Zealand in 1901. A Maori guide to the Duke gifted it as a symbol of friendship and respect; the guide took it out of her hair and placed it in the Duke's hatband.
Due to its unique bill dimorphism, the bird collectors in many European countries were very keen on procuring the mounted specimens and feathers. Several hundreds of Huia were exported overseas. Between 1877-1889, an Austrian naturalist named Andreas Reischek took 212 pairs of Huia for the natural history museum in Vienna. In another event recorded by Walter Buller, a New Zealand naturalist, as many as 11 Maori hunters took 646 huia skins from the forest ranges of Manawatu Gorge and Akitio during one month in 1863.
The local government and naturalists tried to step up to save the Huia, the protection measures were not strictly enforced. In 1892 the wild birds' protection act of New Zealand was amended to include the Huia as a protected species as a last-ditch attempt. However, in 1901, the shooting season notices ceased listing Huia hunting as illegal. There were even plans to transfer some of the Huias to Kapiti and Little Barrier island, but those plans fell flat. The popularity of Huia sealed its fate into extinction. New Zealand has also lost some other songbirds like the South Island piopio, Wren, and South Island kokako to extinction for similar reasons.
Who wears a huia feather?
Maori of high rank wore the Huia feather as a hair decoration. Huia feathers represent leadership, nobility, and hierarchy. Wearing of its skin was also reserved for Maori of high class and status. Maori women also wore dried Huia heads as pendants.
Why is the huia extinct?
Two main factors led to the extinction of Huia - widespread overhunting and habitat destruction. Huia was a popular game bird for the Maori hunters and was prized for its skin which would be mounted on the specimen, and its tail feathers would be used for decorating headgears. The tail feathers of Huia among the Maoris were a sign of status. For this reason, there was an unrestrained level of overhunting of this iconic New Zealand bird.
The second factor that led to Huia's extinction from New Zealand was the loss of its habitat to deforestation. There was rampant deforestation in North Island by European settlement to create agricultural farmland. Large areas of the natural forest were cleared off by burning. The Huia was native to these ecological forests and could never adapt to the secondary forests that regenerated in its place. Predatory mammals like rats, cats, and others, were also introduced to these areas by the European settlers. They had a hard time fighting for their survival and eventually lost the battle.
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