Going the way of the Dodo: four pigeons, three extinctions, and te Tiriti o Waitangi

When Northland Maori leader Sonny Tau was found to have in his possession the bodies of five protected kereru (the large native pigeon, also known as kukupa) as he boarded a plane on June 16, a deep wound was opened. That story had hardly died when it was revealed on July 21 that kereru meat had been served to three government ministers (apparently without their knowledge) when they attended a hui at Maungarongo marae near Ohakune in 2013. One of those ministers, then-leader of the Maori Party Tariana Turia, defended the decision by Ngati Rangi to serve the food. Turia said a cultural take of kereru should be allowed, but only for special occasions for a marae. The bird was depleted not because Maori were eating them, she said, but because deforestation, exotic species and water pollution had destroyed much of their habitat. “To me, the issue is that our people are being criminalised for what was a normal practice.”

Kereru, the native wood pigeon of New Zealand

Kereru, the native wood pigeon of New Zealand. Photo: Rob Suisted, www.naturespic.com

Conservation Minister Maggie Barry contemptuously dismissed the suggestion that eating kereru could be allowed in certain circumstances, saying “Maori ate moa as well.”  (The giant flightless moa was hunted to extinction in the earliest phase of Maori settlement of New Zealand).

The question of protection of the kereru by force of the law has a history going back at least 150 years, a history deeply intertwined with struggles over land and forests, rights guaranteed under the Treaty of Waitangi, and the process of the imposition of the rule of bourgeois law. This history is not at all a thing of the past.

Nor is it a question limited to New Zealand. The story of the kereru has many similarities to that of other pigeon species of the world as European settlement expanded across the globe.

The most famous avian extinction in history was of a pigeon that once lived on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean: the dodo. Inhabiting an island with few predators, this pigeon had over the millennia evolved to a large size and become flightless. It was, like many species of birds which evolved under such conditions, totally unafraid of human beings when they first appeared on the island.

dodo (reconstruction based mainly on a contemporary painting)

dodo (reconstruction based mainly on a contemporary painting)

Although Mauritius was probably known to Arab sailors throughout the middle ages, and was discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1507, it was not until a Dutch colony was established in 1638 that human activity on the island really began. The abundant forests and wildlife were a major attraction: Dutch navigators on voyages of exploration and trade (including that of Abel Tasman to Australia and New Zealand in 1642) repaired their ships and re-stocked their supplies there.

The sailors arrived with a desperate need for fresh meat to supplement their meagre rations. They found that killing a dodo was as easy as walking right up to it and hitting it over the head with a stick. A single bird might weigh between ten and twenty kilograms. Although various written accounts describe the flesh as tough or unpalatable, many birds were killed for food in this way. Other mammalian predators that followed in the wake of the humans, chiefly rats, dogs, pigs, and macaque monkeys, wreaked even greater  destruction. As a result the dodo was extinct within two centuries of the island’s discovery. It was the first recorded extinction of the modern era – recorded, but not recognised as an extinction until much later, since the notion of extinction was inconceivable at the time.

A second species of pigeon, similarly unafraid of human beings, suffered the same fate a century later. Lord Howe Island, a tiny speck of land in the Tasman Sea off the Australian coast, was discovered in 1788 by HMS Supply, a ship that was setting up the penal settlement on nearby Norfolk Island. These were apparently the first human beings ever to see this island. Occurring at a later historical period, the slaughter of its avian fauna is somewhat better documented. A crew member on the Supply noted birds “in thousands…walking totally fearless and unconcern’d…so we had nothing more to do than stand still a minute or two & knock down as many as we pleas’d wt. a short stick…they never made the least attempt to fly away…The Pidgeons were also as tame as those already described, & wd sit upon the branches of trees till you might go & take them off with your hand…”

Lord Howe Island Pigeon, painting by George Raper 1780s

Lord Howe Island Pigeon, painting by George Raper 1780s

Another visitor in the same year reported, “Partridges are likewise in great plenty. Several of those I knocked down, and their legs being broken, I placed them near me as I sat under a tree. The pain they suffered caused them to make a doleful cry, which brought five or six dozen of the same kind to them, and by that means I was able to take nearly the whole of them.” 1

Nearly the whole of them indeed. The Lord Howe Island pigeon and two other large bird species were extinct by 1870; after black rats were accidentally introduced in 1918, another six species succumbed. Today only six of the original 15 endemic bird species remain on the island.

Three hundred years after the last sighting of a dodo on Mauritius, it was discovered that one of the island’s largest trees, the tambalacoque, was dying out – the few remaining trees were estimated to be about 300 years old. They seemed to produce well-formed, fertile seeds, but the seeds failed to germinate. It was postulated by biologist Stanley Temple in 1977 that the trees had been co-dependent with the dodo. The seeds are formed in a large (5cm) fruit, and have exceptionally thick, hard pits. Temple hypothesised that the seeds could only germinate if they had been substantially abraded by passing through the digestive tract of the dodo (which was known to have fed on the fruits and seeds of forest trees, and which would have been one of the few animals large enough to swallow a tambalacoque fruit whole). Temple succeeded in getting the seeds to germinate at a higher rate by mechanically abrading them. (Temple’s theory, and a challenge to it, were discussed in an essay by Stephen Jay Gould2  which is summarised here. A more recent challenge to the theory can be found here.)

passenger pigeons juvenile (L) male (centre) female (R)

passenger pigeons juvenile (L) male (centre) female (R)

Our third pigeon extinction took place not on an island, but on the seemingly limitless expanses of North America. In the forests of the northeast region of this land lived the passenger pigeon. This was probably the most abundant single bird species that has ever existed in the history of life on earth. They gathered in immense concentrations. Early explorers of North America gave accounts of flocks of these birds flying overhead, so numerous that they darkened the sky as they passed, and the flock took a whole day to pass by – a single flock might contain several million birds.

The birds had coexisted with North American Indians for thousands of years; the Indians exploited them for food – eggs, squabs (hatchlings) and adult birds were taken, subject to various controls such as prohibitions on taking adult birds during the nesting season, and so these huge flocks still lived up to the middle of the nineteenth century.

How could birds that lived in such limitless numbers ever be driven to extinction? The demise of the passenger pigeon came with hunting by European settlers, especially hunting for the market. They were followed to their roosting and nesting sites, where they were shot and netted in vast numbers, even stupefied with noxious fumes until they fell out of the trees. The word ‘stool-pigeon’ dates from this time. A live pigeon was tied by its feet to a device which could be raised and lowered repeatedly. As it was lowered, the bird opened its wings as it would when it was landing. In this way a flock flying overhead could be induced to land.

The development of railways and telegraphs brought great numbers of hunters from long distances to the roosting and nesting sites. The final nail in their coffin came with the with the development of refrigerated railway wagons in the 1870s, allowing hunters to send their kill to distant markets, where they fetched high prices.

As early as the 1870s it became clear that the numbers of birds were declining catastrophically. Rather than slowing down and adopting measures to conserve the resource, the hunt for the remaining individuals intensified; sensing that the easy killing was coming to an end, the hunters wanted to participate in the hunt while it was still possible. The last passenger pigeon died in captivity in 1914.

A competitive market in the products of hunting is by its very nature adverse to conservation. Each seller comes to the market as an individual, responsible for his own actions only. Suppose a hunter sees the decline in pigeon numbers and wants to take some steps to conserve the resource. What would be the point, if their competitors refuse to comply, and gobble up the birds the hunter has left for conservation?  To be effective, conservation measures would require a collective decision binding on all the hunters – which is precisely what the competitive market precludes.  This is what made the slaughter of the passenger pigeons unstoppable, even when the signs of the catastrophe were obvious. (I have written about the passenger pigeon at greater length in this post on the centenary of their extinction.)

It was around this time that the first measures were adopted by the colonial government of New Zealand to restrict the hunting of kereru. Although the scale was much smaller, the circumstances were similar in some respects to those of the passenger pigeon in North America.  An excellent account of the fraught history of government measures taken to protect the kereru and how they affected Maori, was written for the Waitangi Tribunal in 1998, and published in 2001. Called Treaty Rights and Pigeon Poaching3, by James W Feldman, its is available here and is worth reading in full. Most of the rest of this article draws on that source.

By any measure, the kereru is a beautiful and impressive bird: although a large and noisy flier, I have seen kereru flying through a thick stand of forest, weaving between trees with great speed and agility. According to a Department of Conservation study, the kereru “is one of the most important seed dispersing bird species in New Zealand, because of its widespread distribution, mobility and the wide range of fruit it eats (at least 70 species).” Like some other endangered New Zealand birds, it has high longevity but a relatively low reproductive rate, typically raising only a single egg in a brood. If food is in short supply it will often not breed at all. This makes it especially vulnerable to predation by rats and other introduced mammals.

kereru feeding on karaka berries. Photo: Wayfarer Images

kereru feeding on karaka berries. Photo: Wayfarer Images

Its relationship to the forest is not unlike that of the Mauritius dodo to the tambalacoque tree. “No other common bird is capable of swallowing fruits greater than 12 mm diameter and dispersing their seeds intact. Seed dispersal of large-fruited species, such as karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus), tawa (Beilschmiedia tawa), taraire (Beilschmiedia taraire) and puriri (Vitex lucens), is virtually dependent on kereru (Clout and Hay 1989). Kereru can therefore be regarded as a keystone species vital to the health of mixed podocarp-broad-leaf forests.”

They are also good to eat. The kereru had been an important food source of Maori for many hundreds of years (in a land where mammalian quarry were absent) yet were still very numerous across the entire country up to the middle of the nineteenth century.

The abundance of birds available to hunt, and the kereru in particular, was often used in efforts to draw English settlers to New Zealand. Richard Hodgskin wrote in 1841 in his Narrative of eight months sojourn in New Zealand: ‘Wood pigeons are found in abundance everywhere – much larger, fatter, and more beautiful in plummage than our English pigeons. The flesh is delicious . . .These birds are easily shot, for they are so tame as to allow you to approach within a few yards.” [quoted in Feldman p11]

Ornithologist Walter Buller commented in 1873 that “it is not an unusual thing for a sportsman single-handed to bag fifty or more in the course of the morning.” [Feldman p12] Settlers formed Acclimatisation Societies which also introduced exotic bird species such as pheasants, quail and ducks as game, and set legal hunting seasons for them to protect these birds from over-exploitation. In 1864 kereru and native ducks were included in this legislation, and the use of snares and traps was prohibited. (The traditional Maori method for taking kereru was by use of snares or by spearing.)

These laws were continuously amended over subsequent years. [Feldman p13]. A £5 licence fee was added in a later amendment, along with a £20 fine for shooting without a licence (Both the licence fee and the ban on snares were dropped in respect of ‘native game’ by an amendment, then re-instated a few years later.)

These laws were introduced at a time when there was no Maori representation in Parliament; in fact these were the years of the biggest battles of the wars for the dispossession of Maori land.

Paora Tuhaere, Ngati Whatua leader, 1825-92 Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington (Ref: F-733271/2)

Paora Tuhaere, Ngati Whatua leader, 1825-92
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington (Ref: F-733271/2)

When Ngati Whatua leader Paora Tuhaere convened a Maori Parliament at Orakei in 1879, the gathering registered deep Maori concerns over these laws, and the loss of mana Maori over the kereru and other indigenous birds, which they regarded as a right guaranteed by the Treaty of Waitangi. Arama Karaka Haututu told the hui “the Maoris should be allowed to shoot over their own lands without being compelled to pay licences.”

By the 1890s the decline of bird numbers was causing alarm. “[The] beautiful New Zealand pigeon …is a bird which we must all regret has almost passed away. It is rare, indeed, to see it anywhere even in places which used to be its favourite haunt… No settlers [in the old days] need ever want for a rich supper and the poor pigeons were slaughtered somewhat indiscriminately,” wrote an observer for the New Zealand Institute as early as 1877.

In response, the government created some island bird sanctuaries, passed the first total bans on hunting of some rare species, such as the kotuku (white heron), and introduced the first closed seasons on kereru. These tightening restrictions caused increasing concern among Maori. In 1896, the Government added a number of important birds to the native game list, including the korimako (bellbird), kokako, kakapo, kiwi, tieke (saddleback), and hihi (stitchbird).

Southern Maori MP Tame Parata told Parliament in 1888, “Maoris…should have a right to do as they liked with birds found on their property. The Maoris were very careful with regard to their birds, and it was only at certain seasons of the year that they were allowed to be taken. There were three kinds of birds that were of importance to Maoris – the tui, the kaka, and the pigeon… [Maori] were much more careful in their endeavours to preserve these birds than were Europeans. They did not slaughter these birds mercilessly at all times of the year, and only cease when the birds were all exterminated.”

Hoani Taipua added, “Another cause of the destruction of the birds was the willful waste of the forests of the country: hundreds of thousands of acres were destroyed annually.”

A petition to Parliament signed by Taiaha Purini and 137 others in 1905 stated, “From former times down the Maoris have been a people expert in administering their bird-forests, and all other food workings; for that reason an abundant supply prevailed; and now since the European Law has come in to protect them, our birds are disappearing. Another prayer of your petitioners is that we may have the power to prevent Europeans from wrongfully coming to kill our birds, We are not permitted to go to their lands . . . to kill birds.” [Quoted in Feldman p22]

The decades following the defeat of Maori military resistance were a time of rapid acquisition of Maori land by the government, for resale to settlers. For Maori struggling to hold on to the last remaining lands, the prospect of losing an important food source was a life-and-death matter. By the same token, for the land-hungry government, denying these food sources to Maori created a powerful incentive for them to sell the land. These influences can be seen most clearly in the ban on using snares, which was re-instituted in 1907 over objections by the Maori MPs, along with a prohibition on the traditional practice of preserving the birds for later consumption. Another reflection of this is the provision for exemptions to the closed seasons for the Urewera and a few other regions where Maori still retained effective control of the land, and in the ongoing disputes about what time of year the hunting season would be open. Maori wanted an open season when the birds were best to eat; the government kept insisting on a season that suited recreational hunters.

The opposition of the early conservationists to Maori exploitation of native birds deepened in the first decades of the 20th century. Conservationist Henry Ell pressed the government to a total ban on hunting some species, including the kereru. “Unless something is done and that at once to stop the willful destruction of our Native birds, particularly by the Maoris, it is only a matter of a few years when many of the varieties will be absolutely exterminated on the Mainland. I think the time has come when the potting of tuis, pigeons and kiwis should be absolutely prohibited,” he said in 1908.  “…there is abundance of food in this Country now, therefore there is absolutely no excuse for killing Native birds which are becoming very rare for food.’

Henare Kaihau, Member of Parliament for Western Maori 1896-1911, with his daughters at Waiuku. Photo:  'Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A6037'

Henare Kaihau, Member of Parliament for Western Maori 1896-1911, with his daughters at Waiuku. Photo: ‘Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A6037’

Against the charge that Maori were responsible for the declining numbers of the birds, Maori representatives in Parliament continued to argue that it was pakeha settlers who were destroying the bush that was the bird’s habitat. They asserted their rights as guaranteed by the Treaty of Waitangi. “The Maori people . . . are under the impression that they still possess the right conferred by – and held by them since – the Treaty of Waitangi, to kill and take, for the purposes of food, native game and fish throughout the Dominion; but this Bill seems to put an end to that. I am very much astonished indeed at Parliament acting in this way,” Henare Kaihau, the representative for Western Maori, told Parliament in 1910.

The argument that clearing of the forest was the main cause of the pigeon’s declining numbers seems to have been widely accepted; however no measures were taken to slow the clearing of the bush. One group of settlers pressed for more hunting while the pigeons still remained (much as the North American hunters had accelerated the hunt for the passenger pigeons as their numbers dropped).

“Pigeons are very plentiful in the Waimarino district this year and are being shot by the Moaries, Bushmen, Settlers and Poachers yet legitimate sportsmen who observe the ruling of the Minister are prohibited from having a few days shooting in the bush, a pleasure much appreciated by those living in the cities and towns. A very large area is being felled and burnt every year in this district and the food is therefore being destroyed and it is only a matter of a few years before the pigeon will be starved out of this district.”

The government, too, accepted that extinction was the likely fate of the pigeon. “Doubtless you are aware that the native pigeon is a bird endemic to New Zealand and it is well known that with the gradual destruction of the bush the native pigeon will eventually become extinct, and in view of this it must, I think be admitted that it is most undesirable to in any way help to facilitate the extinction of this magnificent bird,” the Minister of Internal Affairs said in 1917. [quoted in Feldman p35].

Throughout this time, Maori generally continued to hunt the kereru according to their own rules of conservation, and, when confronted by rangers of the Acclimatisation Societies, asserted their rights to do so under the Treaty. The uncertain legal status of the Treaty in this matter went largely unchallenged in court, despite an opinion issued by the Crown Law Office in 1917 that “The provisions of the Animals Protection Act 1908 are general in their terms and apply to all persons whatsoever. There is no exception with respect to Maoris or half-castes and anything contained in the Treaty of Waitangi cannot affect this position.” [quoted in Feldman p38].

All legal ambiguity was removed in 1922, with the passing in Parliament of another amendment to the Animals Protection Act which listed kereru as an ‘absolutely protected species.’ Pigeon hunting continued by both Maori and Europeans, albeit now entirely illegally. The new regulations gave increased powers of search and arrest to voluntary rangers from the Acclimatisation Societies and also officials of the Forest Service, the government agency with responsibility for administering indigenous forests. There were many prosecutions for poaching over the years, limited mainly by the degree that country constables and volunteer rangers could gather the evidence in remote bush regions. There was also a widespread belief on all sides that the prosecutions did little to discourage hunting.

That is the legal situation that has existed, essentially unchanged, down to the present. But some important things have changed since 1922.

In the first place, the pace of clearing of the forests slowed after the 1930s, as all the land suitable for farming had been cleared. Parts of the remaining forests on mountainous country were given some kind of protection as national parks or reserves. With this, the decline in the kereru population also slowed and their numbers stabilised. Contrary to expectations, the kereru managed to avoid the fate of its cousins on Mauritius, Lord Howe Island and North America. In some areas where the depredations of exotic predators such as rats and stoats have been controlled or eliminated, there has been a slight recovery.

A second change is that the Maori population has been largely proletarianised and partly urbanised. Henry Ell’s 1908 statement about the availability of alternative foods, false when it was made, finally became true. Kereru are now no longer an irreplaceable food source for anyone. This does not resolve the question of hunting them entirely, however. Kereru as food are still regarded by many as a cultural taonga (treasure), a food to be enjoyed occasionally, in special circumstances.

And consequent on that proletarianisation came a third important change: a new resurgence of Maori national struggles in the 1970s, demanding that the Treaty of Waitangi be honoured.  No longer could government policy be imposed without any respect for the Treaty, as had been done explicitly in 1922. The principal achievement of this resurgence was the Waitangi Tribunal, and the recognition of past injustices that it mandated.

Department of Conservation website

Department of Conservation website Photo of Rangi-te-ao-re-re Raki with kiwi © Sabine Bernert

Governments since the 1970s leaned more toward winning Maori co-operation with conservation efforts, giving some limited recognition to Maori methods and practices of conservation, and their role as kaitiaki (guardians) of the forest. Part of this included making exceptional arrangements for cultural ‘takes’ of protected species on special occasions.

Across the country there are now many local schemes, often set up as part of the Waitangi Tribunal settlement process, whereby Maori take primary responsibility for conserving the natural resources of their rohe (tribal area), controlling pests and managing access, in collaboration with the Department of Conservation under the Nga Whenua Rahui scheme (some details here) and local authorities. While it is generally agreed that kereru numbers are still too low to permit anything more than a very small cultural take on rare occasions, it is the status of kereru as a taonga species, a status inseparable from its traditional role in Maori diet, and the long-term goal of restoring kereru numbers to the point where hunting is again possible, that motivates these conservation efforts.

It is this last change, only partly recognised in law but crucial to enabling the kereru to survive and thrive, which came under attack in the recent discussion. Statements like that of the Conservation Minister show clearly that there are many in the government who would like to return to the old days, where Maori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi were explicitly violated by the conservation laws, the role of Maori as kaitiaki of the land and its creatures dismissed with contempt, and the conservation laws ineptly enforced by a bureaucratic state against a hostile people.

To yield to this pressure, and relinquish the recognition of the Treaty won in recent decades, would not only be a blow to Maori, but would once again raise the possibility of the kereru going the way of the dodo.


  1. Quoted in Flannery, Tim, The Future Eaters, Reed Books, Melbourne, 1994, p177
  2. Gould, Stephen Jay, Nature’s Odd Couples, in the collection The Panda’s Thumb, Penguin, London, 1980, pp231–39.
  3. Feldman, James W, Treaty Rights and Pigeon Poaching – Alienation of Maori access to kereru 1864-1960, Waitangi Tribunal Publication, Wellington 2001

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