Four months in Aotearoa New Zealand, and I am yet to see a kiwi. The feathered kind, I mean, not the beer-wine chugging kind. Not even at the local zoo, where we saw giraffes, bison, even a Sumatran tiger. But no kiwi! And it’s not as if they were missing birds either-we saw paradise shelducks, yellow-bibbed lorys, brolgas, even a cape barren goose or two. But no kiwi. What I have seen in plenty, though, is another fascinating bird that is also missing from the zoo list but seemed to quite make itself at home-the pukeko.

The pukeko is a gorgeous bird that is abundantly found in Aotearoa New Zealand and parts of the Pacific, and Australia where it is called a purple swamp hen. There seems to be some evidence for its spread far beyond, and some links to Roman and Egyptian civilizations
. East coast Maori believe the Pukeko was introduced to Aotearoa New Zealand by their ancestors on the Harouta canoe, while the west coast Maoris say it came with them on a canoe called Aotea. Pukeko seem to have been around for about a 1000 years, and either claim may well be correct.

The pukeko is a clumsy flier, and seems to prefer running from danger. In Maori myth, the pukeko used to live in the trees, but was cursed to live in swamps because it refused to get its feet wet when needed. Even today, the gait of a pukeko does remind one of a person daintily trying to step over and around puddles. In the same story, the kiwi was the ‘good guy’, and chose to lose its ability to fly. Ironic then, that the kiwi today is endangered while pukeko are plentiful enough to be considered pests by gardeners! The 'pest'status has been theirs for a while, though. Pukeko are associated in Maori myth with Punga, diety of all hateful and hideous things! For all this, they have been remarkably resilient, surviving the introduction of cats, dogs and other animals that so threaten the kiwi. These birds are possibly aided by their legendary cunning, acknowledged in Maori sayings.

The news is not all bad, though. While treated mostly with disdain, there does seem to be some honour for the pukeko-it appears on the crest of the Hamilton city council. I presume it is partly because this is dairy country-I cannot imagine a gardening town allowing that!

Pukeko are protected, but can be hunted with a license in duck hunting season. Sadly though, they are mostly left to rot, and rarely eaten. While I can understand hunting for food, I simply cannot understand hunting for sport. Pukeko meat is known to be tough, and I have found only two recipes for cooking it, one of which I reproduce here:

Step 1: Boil a large pot of water

Step 2: Add the pukeko and a medium sized rock

Step 3: Boil for several hours

Step 4: Remove pot from heat

Step 5: Remove the pukeko

Step 6: Eat the rock

Go here for the other. Maori seem to have eaten them by boiling them or roasting at the fire, though again, their meat was considered too stringy to be good. These handsome birds are quite entrenched in Aotearoa NZ culture, as can be seen from this kiwi (the beer-wine chugging kind) folksong, sung to the tune of ’12 days of Christmas’. Here is the tune (Indian version), if anybody needs it.

The kiwi has always been honoured in myth and custom, and its feathers are prized for beautiful Maori ceremonial cloaks. Even today, natives of this island are called ‘kiwis’. For all that, the kiwi that has so graciously given itself is endangered, and close to extinction. The pukeko, however, cursed in myth and sworn at now-still happily walks the countryside. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have less honour and life, than more honour and extinction. I think. Maybe. I guess it depends, ey!


Thanks to cheetah100 for the picture of the pukeko, and Hamilton City Council for the crest.


1. http://www.hamiltonzoo.co.nz/page/pageid/2145833073/our_animals

2. http://www.nzbirds.com/birds/pukeko.html

3. http://www.imeem.com/groups/krtXRJht/blogs/2007/05/23/Q6Xt63r-/maori-myths-and-legends

4. http://www.foodlovers.co.nz/forum/read.php?16,86251,86707,quote=1

5. http://www.mtbruce.org.nz/kiwimore.htm

6. http://www.diggersvalley.co.nz/pages/birds.htm

7. http://folksong.org.nz/nzchristmas/pukeko.html

8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owK5tHjL0aE

9. M. Riley, 2001. Pukeko, in Maori Bird Lore. pp.155-159. Viking Sevenseas NZ Ltd.

10. M. Orbell, 2003. Pukeko, in Birds of Aotearoa, A Natural and Cultural History. pp.118-120. Reed.


Blind Dayze said...

he heee nice recipe ..pukeko + rock :-)... come to think of it i've never eaten any "bird meat" other than the usual the usual chicken ....

feddabonn said...

lol. try the same recipe with pigeon or crow...

mesjay said...

Is it a large bird like the ostrich? That seems to be a rule of earth life -- good guys are endangered while bad guys thrive.

feddabonn said...

@mesjay: nopes! more like a chicken/duck size. there used to be large birds called moa, but the're extinct now.

Gauri Gharpure said...

i have been reading up about your time in the new land and have enjoyed all the posts a lot.
this post reminds me of a extinct black parrot that couldn't fly..

feddabonn said...

@gauri: thanks! very glad to know these are being enjoyed-really adds to the fun of writing them.

which parrot are you referring to? the flightless birds generally seem at the most risk of extinction. sadly, it is often our 'cute' dogs and cats that are a cause!

Joe Pinto said...

My dear feddabonn - I'm sorry I missed this post, while I was in Dubai. Subject: Kiwi and Pukeko. I'm like you and the pukeko. "I’d rather have less honour and life, than more honour and extinction." I'm a survivor. You can only go against the tide, if you're alive. No silly bravado for me. Peace and love - Joe.

feddabonn said...

lol joe. thanks for a perspective. i'm not quite decided yet-maybe bravado (necessarily spectacular and in keeping with overall strategy) is sometimes a good thing. i often go back to the sheer brilliance (and apparent pointlessness) of gandhi @ dandi.

Marty Mars said...

Nice feddabonn

Pukeko are interesting birds, known as swamp hens they have massive feet. Not good eating as you have indicated and also a bird that can have a number of living arrangements. For instance they can live one on one with their mate and they can also live in a commune style approach with multiple partners.

My favorite aspect is their colour. Deep, vibrant and unusual.

feddabonn said...

thanks marty.

pukeko are definitely gorgeous. thanks for that info on their living arrangements!

Country Lane said...

We live down a country road that ends in a swampy estuary. We're surrounded by swampy paddocks and orchards and the pukaks seem to go for the communal life here because their numbers regularly reach plague proportions.
They move about at will inhabiting whichever property most suits them and creating havoc wherever they go. It's not uncommon to have 15-20 living in the small block of pear trees that border our section. Any new planting is ripped out very quickly unless protected (they must be going after the grubs in the soft earth) and no garden is safe.

My vege garden is now completely encloseed in wire netting to keep them from devouring lettuces and stripping my corn plants. They don't seem so fond of brassica but then again neither am I so here's no compromise available there.

Once every couple of years we have an informal confab with the neighbours and ask the shooter up the road to do a bit of a cull.

Speaking of cats and dogs I suspect there are few cats and not many dogs game enough to take on a gang of pukeko - they're a fairly tough and stroppy bird.

feddabonn said...

ah heck, country, sounds like the pukeko really are punga's children! need to see if there are some shooters around here-see if i can get a few feathers...

Country Lane said...

feddabonn wrote:"see if i can get a few feathers"
Next cull I'll drop you a line.