Ngā rau kura – Precious feathers
In 2007 I identified the birds in Te Papa’s Māori cloaks using microscopic analyses of feather down and museum bird skin comparisons. My findings have provided a deeper knowledge of the museum’s natural history and Māori collections but also an appreciation and understanding of Māori bird use at the time when many of these taonga (treasures) were made in the 1800s.
One such cloak that exemplifies the beauty, prestige, mana (authority) and knowledge contained within it is this Kahu kiwi (kiwi feather cloak) showcased in the DeClassified! exhibition, on display in Te Papa in 2015. This striking cloak is quite unique with its very dark brown kiwi feathers. On closer inspection, black feathers were discovered hidden underneath the brown kiwi (Apteryx spp.) feathers. Bound together and placed across the middle of the cloak are 12 bunches of black belly feathers from the now extinct huia (Heteralocha acutirostris).
Ngā tohu o ngā kairaranga – the signs of the weavers
The identification of huia in this Kahu iwi was significant as it was the first cloak in Te Papa’s collections to have this sacred bird incorporated. Kiwi feather cloaks are one of the most prestigious types of Māori feather cloaks, and the addition of huia makes this cloak particularly important. Huia represent Rangatiratanga (chieftainship) and in pre-European times, only those of rank or authority wore the black and white tail feathers.
This was partly due to the unique characteristics of this bird. Huia were beautiful examples exhibiting sexual dimorphism in the form of their differing bill sizes. The males had shorter straighter bills and were effective at penetrating wood when hunting for invertebrates. The female’s longer curved bill was ideal for extracting the food from within the wood. Often found in mating pairs such as the specimens imaged below (OR.000096), they exhibited a very sweet and trusting demeanour. Huia were very rare, historically only found in the North Island and later limited to higher mountain ranges.
Their scarcity therefore made them vulnerable to predation, habitat loss and overhunting in the 19th Century. They were unique and only found in New Zealand. Hundreds of huia skins were sold and sent overseas as biological specimens for museum collections in the late 1800s, and the last accepted sighting of the huia was in 1907. Their extinction was both a great cultural and biological loss for New Zealand avifauna.
The Anatomy of feather identification
To establish what bird the black cloak feathers originated from, a black feather was analysed by observing the microscopic features of the fluffy down at the base of the feather. A typical contour feather has pennaceous barbs towards the tip of the feather, these barbs hook together creating a physical barrier against the elements. At the base of the feather, within the down are barbs projecting off the central shaft or rachis (‘raykis’). Branching off these downy barbs are smaller barbules. Located on these barbules can be nodes or prongs that are specific to each group of birds.
It is the shape, size, location, distribution and pigmentation of these nodes that helped identify the birds in Te Papa’s cloaks. It also helped to establish that the black cloak feather analysed belonged to the order Passeriformes, known as perching birds. Other passerines include tūī and house sparrows. By looking at the minute details in the nodes, barbules and villi (cilia, transparent growths at the base of the barbule) of the cloak feather, it was possible to determine the species. In conjunction with this, I noted the physical aspects of the feathers of the huia in the museum bird skin collection and I could compare the size, shape and colour of the cloak feather and identify it as a black huia belly feather.
- Try and identify a feather by looking at it under the microscope.
- Read more about this research here.
Hokimate Harwood – Bicultural Science Researcher