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Haast's eagle hunting for moa.

The Poukai, also known as the Hakawai or the Hokioi, is a carnivorous bird from Māori mythology. It is described by Sir George Grey, an early governor of New Zealand, as 'a huge black-and-white bird with a red crest and yellow-green tinged wingtips'. In Māori legend, the Poukai was said to kill and eat humans.

Mythology

In Māori mythology, the Hakawai was one of eleven Tapu (sacred) birds of Raka Maomao, the god of the winds. The Hakawai lived in the heavens and only descended to the earth at night, presumably to hunt. It was considered to be a gigantic bird of prey.

This bird of prey has been killed in at least two legends. In one, a Pouakai was killed by Pungarehu with a stone axe to help the Nuku-mai-tore, a race of fairies.[1] Hau-o-Tawara also led a band of 50 men to kill one that had been targeting a local village by luring it into a hole, which caught the beast, and allowed the men to kill it before ascending Mt. Tarawara to finish off its young.

Hearing the call of the Hakawai was considered to be a bad omen, traditionally presaging war. Ornithologists in New Zealand believe the myth related to an unknown, real-life bird species. As to whether it is a species that is extinct or still alive is unsure.

Mention of the Hakawai has occurred in Māori mythology throughout New Zealand for centuries. Since European settlement of the main islands) direct experience of the Hakawai via its call is largely restricted to the Muttonbird Islands, several small islands in the vicinity of Foveaux Strait and Stewart Island. The islands have no permanent human residents but are visited seasonally, from mid March to the end of May, for 'muttonbirding' – the harvesting of Sooty Shearwater chicks for food and oil. There, the sound ascribed to the Hakawai was described as having two main components, a vocal noise described as “hakwai, hakwai, hakwai” (hence its name), followed by a non-vocal roar, similar to that of a jet engine. It is most often heard on calm, moonlit nights and typically sound as they come from a great height.

Investigation

During the 1980s, ornithologist Dr Colin Miskelly, after hearing and recording the aerial display of the Chatham Snipe (C. pusilla), investigated the possibility that the sounds attributed to the Hakawai in the Muttonbird Islands were made by the recently extinct South Island Snipe Coenocorypha iredalei. It is described as being a small, unobtrusive, brown bird some 21–24 cm in length. Usually called the Stewart Island Snipe, it is considered to be a subspecies of the Subantarctic Snipe Coenocorypha aucklandica, .

Miskelly interviewed several muttonbirders who had memories of hearing the distinctive sounds of the Hakawai. He found that its apparent range had steadily decreased over the years to the early 1960s, after which it was never heard again. The non-vocal sounds made by the Hakawai were described variously as “a sound as if a cable chain was lowered into a boat” a “jet-stream”, a “blind rolling itself up” or “a shell passing overhead”. The reaction to the sounds by those who heard it was generally a 'powerful, looming sense of dread'.

The decrease towards extinction paralleled that of the South Island Snipe, of which the Muttonbird Islands were the final refuge, with the islands being progressively occupied by rats, feral cats and weka. The last known individuals of the snipe died in 1964 on Big South Cape Island following the accidental introduction of Black Rats.

Explanation

Its commonly accepted to be Haast's Eagle (Harpagornis moorei), a monstrous eagle that once lived on the South Island of New Zealand but went extinct around 1400.

A theory suggest that the legends refer to sound produced by several extinct Coenocorypha, genus of snipe from South Island.

Snipe in the genera Gallinago and Lymnocryptes, as well as the closely related woodcocks Scolopax, make courtship display flights at dusk and late evening. It is said to produce mechanical sounds described as 'drumming', 'bleating' or 'winnowing', through the vibration of their modified outer tail feathers caused by the rush of air in the course of a power dive. Of his research in the Chatham Islands ,Miskelly wrote:

I studied Chatham Snipe on South East and Mangere .Islands during November 1983 to January 1984 and in July 1986, and recorded three different kinds of aerial displays. All these displays were performed at night; the most spectacular display included both a vocal and a non-vocal component. This display was indeed hair-raising when I first heard it. The vocal component was a disyllabic call, repeated five times, identical to one of the ground displays given by territorial male Chatham Island Snipe. This was followed by a loud roar, similar to a jet passing overhead, as the bird swooped over the 6 m canopy at high speed. The non-vocal component of the call had three stacked bands (0.7 kHz, 0.9 kHz & 1.2 kHz) and lasted for about 1.5 seconds.”

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