Haast’s Man-Eating Eagle is Real

The Hōkioi

I draw here on Paul Rodgers, “Maori Legend of Man-Eating Bird is True,” NZ Herald (14 Sep. 2009); this article originally appeared in the Independent before flying homeward in less than a day on giant syndicatory wings. The eagle has come to light several times since its original “discovery” during the “Moa-Hunter” era of New Zealand naturalism in the 1870s—most recently, in 1992:  “Notes on the Weight, Flying Ability, Habitat, and Prey of Haast’s Eagle,” and again in 2005: “Huge Eagles ‘dominated NZ skies.'”

Haast's Eagle

An artist’s impression of a Haast’s eagle attacking moa. Image / John Megahan from PLoS Biology.

Rodgers begins:

A Maori legend about a giant, man-eating bird has been confirmed by scientists.

Te Hokioi [strictly speaking, hōkioi, also known as hākuwai and hākuai; see below] was a huge black-and-white predator with a red crest and yellow-green tinged wingtips, in an account given to Sir George Gray, an early governor of New Zealand. It was said to be named after its cry and to have “raced the hawk to the heavens.” Scientists [namely, Ken Ashwell and Paul Scofield] now think the stories handed down by word of mouth and depicted in rock drawings refer to Haast’s eagle, a raptor that became extinct just 500 years ago, shows their study in The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Haast’s eagle (Harpagornis moorei) was discovered in swamp deposits by Sir Julius von Haast in the 1870s.

In his paper, “Notes on Harpagornis Moorei [etc.],” Haast states that he named the bird after George Henry Moore, the owner of the Glenmark Estate where bones of the bird had lately been found—by his friend, the taxidermist Frederick Fuller (see below). A harpagon/harpargon is a grappling iron, or metaphorically, a miser, an apt name for a predator renowned for its rapaciousness. (Haast returned to the species in 1873.)

Rodgers continues:

It was at first thought to be a scavenger because its bill was similar to a vulture’s with hoods over its nostrils to stop flesh blocking its air passages as it rooted around inside carcasses. But a re-examination of skeletons using modern technology, including CAT scans, by researchers at Canterbury Museum in Christchurch and the University of New South Wales in Australia showed it had a strong enough pelvis to support a killing blow as it dived at speeds of up to 80kph.

With a wingspan of up to three metres and weighing 18kg, the female was twice as big as the largest living eagle, the Steller’s sea eagle. And the bird’s talons were as big as a tiger’s claws. “It was certainly capable of swooping down and taking a child,” said Paul Scofield, the curator of vertebrate zoology at the Canterbury Museum. “They had the ability to not only strike with their talons but to close the talons and put them through quite solid objects such as a pelvis. It was designed as a killing machine [just so!].” Its main prey would have been moa, flightless birds which grew to as much as 250kg and 2.5 metres tall. “In some fossil sites, moa bones have been found with signs of eagle predation,” Dr Scofield said.


Phalange measured from summit to articular end to point, 2.9 inches (70 cm); circumference, 3.17 inches (85 cm). Image / New Zealand Birds.

He concludes:

New Zealand has no native land mammals because it became isolated from other continents in the Cretaceous, more than 65 million years ago. As a result, birds filled niches usually populated by large mammals such as deer and cattle. “Haast’s eagle wasn’t just the equivalent of a giant predatory bird,” said Dr Scofield. “It was the equivalent of a lion.”

The eagle is thought to have died out after the arrival, 1000 years ago, of humans, who exterminated the giant moa. The latest study shows it was a recent immigrant to the islands, related to the little eagle (Aquila morphnoides), an Australian bird weighing less than 1kg. Remains of Haast’s eagles are rare because there never were many. They lived only on the South Island, with probably not more than 1000 breeding pairs at any one time.

A reclassification of the species as Aquila moorei, as a true eagle, was once suggested, but more recently it has been proposed that it be renamed Hieraaetus moorei, based on study of its mitochondrial DNA, which links it to the smaller Hieraaetus hawk-eagles and makes its evolutionary increase in size all the more remarkable (see “Ancient DNA Provides New Insights into the Evolutionary History of New Zealand’s Extinct Giant Eagle,” and, in brief, “Ancient DNA Tells Story of Giant Eagle Evolution“):

In a dramatic example of morphological plasticity and rapid size increase, we show that the H. moorei was very closely related to one of the world’s smallest extant eagles, which is one-tenth its mass. This spectacular evolutionary change illustrates the potential speed of size alteration within lineages of vertebrates, especially in island ecosystems. (“Ancient DNA Provides Insight“)

Haast's Eagle

Paul Martinson. Haast’s Eagle. Harpagornis moorei. 2006. From the series Extinct Birds of New Zealand. Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa. 2006-0010-1/37.

Insular gigantism indeed. As “DNA Tells Story” has it, “[f]or reasons that are not entirely clear, when animals make their way to isolated islands, they tend to evolve relatively quickly toward an outsized or pint-sized version of their mainland counterpart.” (One might be tempted to apply this evolutionary principle to human beings—or even, metaphorically speaking,  to social or memetic “evolution,” to explain the mental, bodily or spiritual gigantism or dwarfism of human settlers.)


Frederick Fuller and the Harpagornis

On Sunday 26 March 1871, at Glenmark, the taxidermist was supervising an excavation five to six feet below the swamp. There, over an area of 30 feet square and among a quantity of moa remains, were found, in an excellent state of preservation, a few smaller bones. These—a femur, rib and two claws—Frederick at once deduced to be from a giant bird which preyed on and died with a swamp-stuck moa. Some time later, further bones from the same skeleton were discovered.

Newspapers . . . made passing reference to the discovery. However, Haast wrote it up in an article in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. Fearing that a vessel might be lost on the voyage to England, [he] stated that he would depart from the practice of sending the bones to an overseas anatomical expert. Instead, he would honour the Glenmark landowner by calling the bird Harpagornis moorei and have Frederick Fuller articulate his find.

Haast, impressed with the enormous strength of the feathered moa hunter [the bird, that is], commented that, of contemporary carnivorous mammals, only the lion and tiger possessed stronger claw bones. Research has shown that Harpagornis dwelt in the South Island’s shrub land and forest. It scooped up unsuspecting geese, and struck down 250 kilogram adult moa, the tallest bird ever to have existed. Not only was Harpagornis the top carnivore in the early New Zealand food chain, it was also the world’s largest eagle and the largest bird of prey, bigger even than its cousins, the Philippine eagle and Andean condor. He reigned supreme for thousands of years prior to the coming of the Maori.


The Hawk and Hōkioi

There exists an etymological myth from South Island Māori, probably Waitaha in origin:

Its rival was the hawk [kāhu]. The hawk said it could reach the heavens; the hokioi said it could reach the heavens; there was contention between them. The hokioi said to the hawk, “what shall be your sign?” The hawk replied, “kei.” Then the hawk asked, “what is to be your sign?” The hokioi replied, “hokioi–hokioi–hu–u.” These were their words. They then flew and approached the heavens. The winds and the clouds came. The hawk called out “kei” and descended—it could go no further on account of the winds and the clouds, but the hokioi disappeared into the heavens.

“Kei” is the cry of the hawk. “Hokioi–hokioi” is the cry of the hokioi. “Hu–u” is the noise caused by the wings of the hokioi. It was recognized by the noise of its wings when it descends to earth.

All three versions of the name—hōkioi, hākawai and hākuai—may be cognate with hōkio, “descend,” apt given its mode of attack. The bird was thought normally to remain unseen, known only by the sound of its wings and its victory cry, considered an evil omen for any who heard it. Māori sometimes apply the name metaphorically: a hōkioi is a boaster who is always calling out their own name; the parable Pekapeka rere ahiahi, hōkioi rere pō (“The bat flies at twilight, the hōkioi at night”) applies to people who move under the cover of night (A.W. Reed, Reed Book of Māori Mythology, rev. Ross Calman [1963; Reed, 2004] 372-73).


The Pouākai

There is an alternative Māori name: pouākai or poukai (see Taylor [1855] 398; Wohlers [1876] 110; Stack [1878] 63; Skinner [1912] 146-47; and see NZETC). While Tregear casts doubt on the stories of Pouākai in “Myths of Observation,” Lucifer: A Theosophical Magazine (Mar-Aug. 1895) 113-14, in his Maori Race (1904) he recounts the standard story without passing judgment upon it (except to include it under the heading “Fairies, Ogres, Monsters, Etc.”!):

In the South Island there is a tradition concerning a monstrous bird of prey, the Pouakai. It is said that one of these birds had its nest on a spur of Tawera mountain [Mt Torlesse]. When it attacked human beings its downward rush was so fierce that none could withstand its fury, and its victim was carried off to be devoured at leisure. At last a hero [Ruru] appeared who resolved to destroy the ferocious bird, so he made his men, 50 in number, form a network of young trees laid over a deep hole, and in the hole the 50 men armed with long spears were hidden. The hero himself went forward to lure the bird to the place of concealment. This he succeeded in doing, and then, saving himself from attack by swiftness of foot, he too took refuge in the hole, just reaching shelter as the monster swooped downward. As the bird . . . violently attempted to reach him with its claws through the network of branches the spears of the 50 were plunged upwards between the saplings into its breast, and after a desperate struggle the great man-eater died. [Thereafter, the survivors climbed the mountain and killed Pouakai’s offspring.] Sometimes the story is varied with an account that a strong block-house was erected and in this the band of deliverers seated themselves. When the bird came it was assaulted and killed with stone axes. (540-41)

There are two other versions, in all of which the hero also acts as a decoy: in the first, the hero is Te Hauotāwera, a visitor who decides on a similar ruse to Ruru’s, but using a net made of manuka sticks over a pond; in the second, a red-haired hero uses a pōkeka (flax cape), in which the bird’s claws become tangled (Reed 306-08).


2 thoughts on “Haast’s Man-Eating Eagle is Real

  1. Hi Claud,
    The only records are archaeological and historical: from bones etc. and Maori “myths” (or rather historical narratives). As Rodgers suggests, “The eagle is thought to have died out after the arrival, 1000 years ago, of humans [i.e., the settlers who became Maori], who exterminated the giant moa” (in actual fact, the loose consensus is that Maori arrived in about the thirteenth century).

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