‘On his best night, he shot 67 kea’

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    “Last Sunday I dined on stewed kiwi at the hut of a lonely old gold-digger, who, besides the three cooked for dinner, had four other fat kiwi hanging on the wall, to serve through the week. My host informed me that he varied his bill of fare with weka and kākāpō.”

    The paragraph is buried within A History of the Birds of New Zealand (1888) – better known as Buller’s Birds, by the 19th century bird geek Walter Buller.

    Despite being one of our most distinguished ornithologists, Buller was happy to scoff kiwi stew. His host wasn’t breaking the law, as kiwi and kākāpō were not completely protected until 1906. 

    Today, the thought of kiwi stew is inconceivable. Even patting this nocturnal species under fluorescent lights is considered a national insult, as Zoo Miami learned the hard way after their marketing video melted the New Zealand section of the platform formerly known as Twitter.  

    ‘We have offended a nation’: Miami zoo’s treatment of kiwi bird enrages New Zealand,’ hooted The Guardian. The zoo received a torrent of complaints, a petition signed by more than 10,000 people, a ticking off from the Department of Conservation and a word from the PM.  

    The zoo’s behaviour was not only scientifically ignorant but culturally insensitive. The term Kiwi (with a capital ‘K’) is interchangeable with ‘New Zealander’, and the bird has been our national symbol for a century. It was as if the entire nation had been patted patronisingly on the head for money. 

    The kiwi has moved from stewpot to universally revered national taonga.

    State protection came too late for many species, a sorry list which nearly included the kākāpō. Fossil records show that in ancient forests of the North and South Islands, the kākāpō was New Zealand’s third most common bird. By the early 1970s it was close to being declared functionally extinct. If a small group of fluffy green holdouts hadn’t been found in Rakiura / Stewart Island in 1977, the world’s only flightless parrot would now be found only in museum bone drawers, lithographs and fuzzy photographs. Today the government, through DOC, pours much high-tech effort, with the help and advice of South Island iwi Ngāi Tahu, into preserving kākāpō. 

    Many birds, including the laughing owl, bush wren, South Island snipe and Chatham Island rail, gained state protection only after becoming extinct.

    Extinction was still a relatively new concept in 1900, to pākehā anyway. It had seemed ungodly to think that a species could be snuffed out by humans, until the evidence proved overwhelming. By the beginning of last century, ‘extinction denialism’ (as we would call it today) was extinct. 

    One bird was exempt from the government’s new-found interest in conservation – the ‘clown of the mountains’, famed for its intelligence and curiosity. Within my own lifetime, the New Zealand government subsidised the mass killing of kea, a bird so intelligent it uses tools to pry open boxes.

    Mountaineer Philip Temple called it “one of the worst cases of avicide in history”. In the 1920s, the bounty on kea was 10 shillings ‘per beak’. Half was paid by the government, and the rest shared by council and farmers who blamed kea for killing their stock. The 10 shillings of 1925 would be worth around $110 today, more than enough to allow kea hunters to turn pro.

    One documented kea killer was Albie Collins, who got his start on Mt Aspiring Station in the early 1940s. In his first winter, he shot 400 kea. The pay was great, he said, but the conditions were awful – hunters had to lie in the snow for hours in the dark, waiting.

    With his .22 rifle, Collins shot kea all winter. On his best night, he told one interviewer, he bagged 67 birds.

    By 1970, paid hunters had killed an estimated 150,000 kea. 

    When the government finally conducted a ‘bird census’, they found just 5000 kea left. The bounty system was abolished in 1970, although kea were not absolutely protected until 1986.

    One lesson to take from this ecological fiasco is how far attitudes can change, given new information. Once, extinction seemed bananas. Now we know better.

    What will be the next revolution in our understanding of the natural world?

    I like to dream, that to the list of all those domestic habits which once seemed radical and now sensible – from recycling to composting – will be added a realistic attitude to cats. 

    Just after last week’s editorial about Onetangi Beach’s young dotterel couple had been printed, but before it was published, ‘Heke,’ the young bird I wrote about, disappeared. Cat paw prints were found around the nest. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out what probably happened to Heke the dotterel.  

    One day soon, perhaps more of us might think of roaming cats with the same horror and revulsion as we think of stewed kiwi.

    But will this change in attitude come soon enough to save our endangered birds?

    • Jenny Nicholls

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