As summer approaches, Northlanders will no doubt be spending more time at the beach, bush walking or maybe even exploring some of the local caves.

With the peacefulness that surrounds some of these more remote locations, one can reflect on their environment and perhaps ponder at what was happening there in prehistoric times.

If you do want to know, a visit to Whangārei Museum is a must where visitors can catch a glimpse of the now extinct flightless bird, the moa, that roamed Northland thousands of years ago.

Moa bones found at Abbey Caves, near Parihaka, Whangārei. Photo / Supplied
Moa bones found at Abbey Caves, near Parihaka, Whangārei. Photo / Supplied

New Zealand's ocean isolation preserved and developed a number of different moa species, but habitat destruction and excessive hunting led to the bird's rapid demise resulting in their extinction around 1300 to 1440 AD.


The revelation of New Zealand's greatest faunal secret began in 1834 when Joe Polack arrived at Tolaga Bay on his badly damaged cutter in need of repairs.

While there, Polack was shown several large fossil ossifications by local Māori, and thought they were emu or ostrich bones as they had mentioned that very large birds had once existed.

In 1839 a Poverty Bay flax trader and natural history enthusiast, John Harris, was also given a piece of unusual bone by Māori who found it in a river bank.

He subsequently showed the bone fragment to his uncle, who took the bone to England where it was examined by naturalist Richard Owen.

Moa foot bones from the little bush moa (Anomalopteryx didiformis) in the Whangārei Museum. Photo / Supplied
Moa foot bones from the little bush moa (Anomalopteryx didiformis) in the Whangārei Museum. Photo / Supplied

At first, the great anatomist refused to believe either that a bird could have grown such a bone or that the bird could have lived in New Zealand so he appealed for further specimens.

Before long additional samples arrived and Owen recognised the bones could only be from a giant flightless bird, naming the species Dinornis, meaning "prodigious" or "terrible" bird.

Moa soon came to be regarded as a scientific marvel, of interest to naturalists and collectors around the globe.

It was long thought the flightless bird never existed north of Auckland and so it was a sensational discovery when a number of moa bones were found exposed in sand-dunes at Pataua in 1875.


Among the bones uncovered were five different species of moa, including Dinornis novaezealandiae, the North Island giant moa, one of the tallest birds that ever lived, growing to about three metres tall.

Over time, several other extraordinary discoveries of moa remains have been attributed to Northland, including moa bones uncovered at Matapouri in 1910, gastroliths (gizzard stones) found on Mt Manaia in 1945 and egg-shell fragments recovered from Kauri Mountain in 1981.

Additional finds at nearby beaches, Waro, Maunu and Waipu Caves have also been recorded.

More recently, in 2013 the remains of several little bush moa (Anomalopteryx didiformis) were discovered at the base of a limestone grotto near Abbey Caves by local farmer Ian Calder.

Having survived in New Zealand for millennia with the giant eagle its only predator, sadly all that remains of moa are the vestiges now housed in collections worldwide, including those in Whangārei Museum.

So next time you are enjoying the scenery at the beach, in the bush or while caving, spare a thought for these now extinct flightless birds that once frequented our local area.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North.