Walter Buller immortalised New Zealand's birds, but he also personally contributed to the decline of several species, says the author of a new play on the famous ornithologist.

In the 19th century, Buller was the foremost authority on New Zealand's native birds and his book A History of the Birds of New Zealand helped settlers appreciate their beauty.

But he was a ruthless, domineering man and "a pathological social climber", says Wellington playwright Nick Blake, and sent thousands of bird specimens overseas to curry favour with influential collectors.

The Government entrusted him with the job of putting breeding pairs of the now-extinct huia on island reserves.

"The last known breeding pair of huia were in his hands and they ended up in the possession of Lord Rothschild in England. Within a few years of that, they were extinct.

"You can't say he did it but he certainly played a strong hand - it's heart-breaking and infuriating," says Blake, whose play, Dr Buller's Birds, debuts at the NZ International Arts Festival in Wellington tonight.

Buller was also fascinated by Maori culture.

At 18, he ran a Maori language newspaper and became a Government translator. But as a magistrate in the Native Land Court, he ran foul of many iwi.

According to his Darwinian beliefs, the indigenous people - like native birds - were regrettably doomed to be superseded by the superior European culture.

To this day, there is "deep, deep anger" among many Maori when Buller's name is mentioned, Blake says.

"Others, more distant from the consequences of his actions, say he was a man of his time, and you have to look at him in that context to understand him.

"And that is part of my purpose in this play: we see him shooting and stuffing huia because they are on the verge of extinction and they need to be put in museums.

"It sounds like a sick joke to us, but the reality is that the rate of extinction today is higher than it was then - so who do we think we are?

"In another 100 years, a more enlightened generation will be pointing their fingers at us for destroying the environment and sustainability of life on these islands."

Blake admits to taking "a few liberties" with the sequence of events, compressing a number of historical events. The story that emerged revolved around transactions involving the lake in the southern Horowhenua - the last remaining block in the tribal lands of Te Keepa Rangihiwinui.

Te Keepa was a hero of the Land Wars on the colonial side and had honours heaped on him by Queen Victoria.

However, he realised that by selling his people's land to Pakeha, it was going to be lost forever.

"He then tried incredibly hard, using every power he had, to try to stop the sale of Maori land to Pakeha ... but it was too late."

Blake says he was nervous about the idea of writing a Maori character, and "stepped around it very gingerly for a long time". But he is known for his non-conventional approach to theatre. Unlike most productions, where the set and costumes are still being knocked together in the last week, these were completed early on and have formed the foundation for an elaborate production.

During the height of summer, actors Peter Hambleton (Buller) and Rawiri Paratene (Te Keepa) rehearsed in wool suits, created from vintage patterns and authentic down to the last detail.

"Victorian men wore formal suits, no matter how rough the conditions, and I wanted them to inhabit this world and really own it ..." Blake says.

* Buller's Birds, Circa Theatre, Wellington, February 25-March 25