A few months ago, a 2.5m high sculpture was installed in Palmerston North. Titled "Ghost of the Huia", it is the creation of local bronze sculptor Paul Dibble. Since the installation of this impressive sculpture, we at Zimmerman contemporary art gallery have heard many accounts of the significance of the huia to the Manawatu, and of the deep affection held for this remarkable extinct bird. Accordingly, throughout January we are paying tribute to the huia, our beautiful lost bird. In conjunction with this tribute, Zimmerman is displaying selected Paul Dibble bronze works featuring the huia.
A striking creature unique to New Zealand, the huia sported bright orange-red wattles at the base of its beak, and glossy black plumage with a green iridescence. Its tail feathers, with a distinctive band of white across the tip, were highly prized by Maori. Only people of high rank were permitted to wear the tail feathers of the revered bird and, when not in use, the treasured feathers were stored in ornately carved boxes known as waka huia.
The beaks of the male and female huia were so remarkably different that early ornithologists assumed the male and female belonged to different species. The male, with his stout adze-like beak, prised away bark and rotten wood in search of insects. The female, with her long slender curved beak, probed more deeply into the cavities excavated by her mate, able to reach other insects and grubs. Thus the huia were a complementary feeding pair, each able to access food not available to the other.
While capable of flight, huia flew only short distances, preferring to move in bounds or jumps through the forest canopy or along the forest floor. Having little fear of people, inquisitive huia could easily be caught by hand, by imitating the bird’s soft, flute like song. A version of the huia’s song, as whistled from memory by an elderly man, can be heard www.nzbirds.com/birds/huia.html
Fossils show that, in pre-human times, huia lived from North Cape to Wellington. By the time of European settlement, however, huia inhabited only the forests in the lower part of the North Island. The demise of the huia is attributed to hunting by both people and introduced predators, as well as to the clearing of the huia’s forest habitat.
By the late 1880s, the decline in huia numbers became evident to both Māori and European settlers. In efforts to save the huia, Māori chiefs in the Manawatu and Wairarapa put a tapu on the bird, and in 1892 a law was passed making it illegal to take huia. Yet these efforts ultimately proved in vain; the last confirmed sighting of a live huia was in the Tararua Ranges in 1907.