Ask the feathers

In early March, Te Papa Tongarewa was asked by an overseas museum if they could borrow ‘amakua hulu manu Kūka’ilimoku (feathered image) for an exhibition. As part of the process to allow or decline a loan, all the materials that make up an object need to be identified. We were unsure of the exact species of feathers used to cover the ‘amakua hulu manu Kūka’ilimoku. We asked our Bicultural Science Researcher Hokimate Harwood, if she could identify them.
Left: 'amakua hulu manu Kūka'ilimoku (feathered image), 1700s, maker unknown; feathers, animal teeth, pearl shell and plant fibres; gift of Lord St Oswald, 1912. Right: Close-up showing black Hawai'i mamo feathers used for the eyebrow

Left: 'amakua hulu manu Kūka'ilimoku (feathered image), 1700s, maker unknown; feathers, animal teeth, pearl shell and plant fibres; gift of Lord St Oswald, 1912. Right: Close-up showing black Hawai'i mamo feathers used for the eyebrow

Over time a few of the feathers had fallen from the frame, which is made from split aerial rootlets of the ‘ie’ie vine (Freycinetia) and covered with netting of olonā fibre (Touchardia latifolia). Hokimate was able to use these feathers to make positive identifications.

Left: Microscope image of red Passerine feather. Right: I'iwi (Vestiaria coccinea). Photograph by Michael Walther, reproduced courtesy of Oahu Nature Tours

Left: Microscope image of red Passerine feather. Right: I'iwi (Vestiaria coccinea). Photograph by Michael Walther, reproduced courtesy of Oahu Nature Tours

Fallen red feathers were identified under the microscope as originating from a passerine. The colour patterning, structure, and size of the feathers were consistent with the i’iwi (Vestiaria coccinea) bird. The i’iwi is an Hawaiian honeycreeper described as having vermillion red feathers. These red feathers cover most of the head of the image, and there are also remnants on the crest of the head.

Left: Microscope image of white Galliforme feather. Right: Red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus). Photograph by Michael Walther, reproduced courtesy of Oahu Nature Tours

Left: Microscope image of white Galliforme feather. Right: Red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus). Photograph by Michael Walther, reproduced courtesy of Oahu Nature Tours

The black and yellow feathers located on the eyebrows and ears were identified as most likely the extinct Hawaiian mamo (Drepanis pacifica), based on descriptions and images of mamo (Drepanis spp.) and o’o (Moho spp.) in Hawaiian avifauna literature. In the future, microscopic analysis could be used on fallen black or yellow feathers to distinguish between these two genera. Downy white feathers located on the crest were identified as Hawaiian fowl, most likely domesticated jungle fowl (Gallus gallus var. domesticus) by using microscopic comparisons.

2 Responses

  1. Hokimate Harwood

    Thanks for your comment Wayne, the term honeyeater has been changed to honeycreeper. Hokimate Harwood

    Reply
  2. Wayne

    Thoroughly enjoyable reading – that is until I spotted the word ‘honeyeater’. Iiwi’s are not honeyeaters (Meliphagidae) per sé but rather a remarkable branch of the Fringillidae (Finches and Hawaiian HoneyCREEPERS). Something could be mentioned about jungle fowl too but I will stay away from that one. Still I repeat I enjoyed the read and have learned something new – which is what these sites are all about aren’t they

    Reply

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