When we take people on a basement tour of the Museum's collections, opening the cupboard of mounted huia specimens is always emotional. Most people have never seen so many huia in one place, and there's often a feeling that if it weren't for the greed of museums these birds might still be alive. But this isn't just unfair; it promotes errors about just what drives species to extinction.

The huia was in trouble 750 years ago, the moment the first human beings arrived in Aotearoa. Fossils reveal it was found over the entire North Island, but overhunting and the introduced Polynesian rat had eradicated it from the most of the island by 1840. Brian Gill of Auckland Museum suggests that if Europeans had never arrived in New Zealand the huia would still have continued its slow decline to extinction.

The arrival of Pākehā made things worse. Settlers accelerated forest clearance for farming, and introduced more mammalian pests that killed birds and robbed their nests. Huia seemed to have moved to lowland forest to feed during the winter, so even though they persisted in the Ruahine, Tararua, and Rimutaka ranges, their winter habitat was being turned into farmland. By the 1860s, the bird was in steep decline.

As huia became rarer, their tail feathers became more highly prized. During a 1901 Royal visit, the Duke of York put a huia feather in his hatband and started a craze for the feathers. The feathers were soon selling for £1 each, making each bird worth £12 – a tidy sum. Despite being protected by law in 1892, huia were being massively over-hunted.

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Shooting parties of Māori and Pākehā would kill hundreds for export and the feather trade. People simply ignored the law when there was easy money to be made.

Huia seemed doomed. At the time there was no organised conservation movement and translocation and captive breeding were in their infancy. Scientists around the world could see the writing on the wall, and were anxious to get huia specimens into museum collections, so at least some trace of the birds would remain after they went extinct. But the numbers collected for museums were trivial compared to the mass slaughter that was going on. Brian Gill estimated that there are only about 350 huia in all the world's museums, whereas our best estimate for the huia population at the time Pākehā arrived is around 50,000 birds. Most of the birds that were stuffed and mounted were sold privately, to people who wanted something exotic to display in the parlour. Many of these specimens – moth-eaten, faded and missing some tail feathers – eventually found their way into museum collections.

It's easy for us to blame the extinction of the huia on a single villain, like rapacious museum collectors. But the culprits were ordinary people: acclimatisation societies bringing in stoats to solve the rabbit problem, farmers clearing some bush for pasture, hunters just trying to make a bit of extra money, fashionable gentlemen willing to pay £1 for a feather, middle-class families after an interesting talking point for the mantelpiece.
From the small collective impacts of ordinary people we get an environmental tragedy.

It's something worth thinking about in light of today's extinction crisis, when we're looking for villains to blame for Maui dolphins or yellow-eyed penguins.

Mike Dickison is curator of natural history at Whanganui Regional Museum.