The sound of an extinct bird
February 9, 2018 11:01 AM   Subscribe

The huia is an extinct New Zealand bird whose last confirmed sighting was in 1907. There are no audio recordings of an actual huia. And yet we know what it sounded like.

The huia occupies an important place in Māori culture and oral tradition and is considered tapu, or sacred.

Habitat loss, predation by introduced mammals, and human hunting all played a role in the huia's fate. In 1901, the Duke of Cornwall (previously the Duke of York, and later King George V) was given a huia feather worn in his hat, causing a fashion trend that likely hastened the bird's extinction.

Before the huia's extinction, the Māori people hunted the bird by imitating its calls. Huia calls are known today because of a later recording of these imitations. In 1949, forty years after he had participated in an unsuccessful government expedition to locate surviving members of the species, Māori elder Hēnare Hāmana imitated the huia calls at the request of a local historian.

First-person descriptions of wild huia sightings can be heard in this 1967 radio documentary. Today there are few if any living people who have seen a huia in the wild, and the 1949 recording has been used to illustrate the feelings of hope and loss as humanity enters the Anthropocene epoch.
posted by compartment (11 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
That was ... bittersweet.
posted by widdershins at 11:10 AM on February 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Neat to have the call but sad because extinct. Thanks.
posted by MovableBookLady at 11:11 AM on February 9, 2018

I'm reminded of this XKCD.
posted by tavella at 11:24 AM on February 9, 2018 [13 favorites]

The actual imitation calls begin around 2:20 in the recording. The lead up to that is an explanation that is covered in the preceding paragraph - that there were failed expeditions and individuals who could imitate were on those expeditions and now they're here to record...etc...etc.

They are good imitations, too. Not that I've ever heard of the huia, but the whistles sound like those a bird would make.
posted by Atreides at 11:36 AM on February 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Here's Buller's Birds, aka the comprehensive (for the 1880s) and beautifully illlustrated A History of the Birds of New Zealand, 2nd Ed, by Walter Buller.

Here's his entry for the Huia.

Here's the plate of the Huia, showing the orange wattles and sexual dimorphism of the beak that made the bird so unusual.

Here's a far better view of Keulemans' gorgeous illustration of the Huia.

What a loss.
posted by Herodios at 12:04 PM on February 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Have any NZ composers incorporated the call into their work, Messiaen-style?
posted by No-sword at 3:58 PM on February 9, 2018

A British ornithologist/composer named David Hindley appears to have done so in the early 90s. Unfortunately, the piece doesn't seem to be readily available online anywhere. If you live in Wichita, KS; Muncie, IN; or Granville, OH your local public or university library maaaaay have it.
posted by compartment at 5:55 PM on February 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

Perfect! Now all we need is for a midwestern Mefite to hit the library, listen to the piece, then come back here and post an MP3 of themselves whistling it from memory.
posted by No-sword at 8:43 PM on February 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

Our family doesn't really do history etc, we're pakeha but have no connection to the UK, it's all 5 generations back. But I do have one inherited taonga, a family bible from 17xx containing a single huia feather
posted by mbo at 11:13 PM on February 9, 2018 [7 favorites]

I considered doing a post about recordings of extinct birds after someone posted a cleaned-up version of a Slender-billed Curlew call to xeno-canto. Slender-billed Curlew is likely to already be extinct and if so is the first European bird to go extinct since the Great Auk. There’s a video of it here.

There’s a blog post with links to other extinct bird sounds here, including Dusky Seaside Sparrow, Ivory-billed Woodpecker and several Hawaiian species.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 2:26 AM on February 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Really gorgeous post. Thanks.
posted by flipmodemedian at 9:11 PM on February 10, 2018

« Older Rice and Racing in Luzon   |   A part of everything is here in me Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments