Four months in Aotearoa New Zealand, and I am yet to see a kiwi. The feathered kind, I mean, not the beer-wine chugging kind. Not even at the local zoo, where we saw giraffes, bison, even a Sumatran tiger. But no kiwi! And it’s not as if they were missing birds either-we saw paradise shelducks, yellow-bibbed lorys, brolgas, even a cape barren goose or two. But no kiwi. What I have seen in plenty, though, is another fascinating bird that is also missing from the zoo list but seemed to quite make itself at home-the pukeko.

The pukeko is a gorgeous bird that is abundantly found in Aotearoa New Zealand and parts of the Pacific, and Australia where it is called a purple swamp hen. There seems to be some evidence for its spread far beyond, and some links to Roman and Egyptian civilizations
. East coast Maori believe the Pukeko was introduced to Aotearoa New Zealand by their ancestors on the Harouta canoe, while the west coast Maoris say it came with them on a canoe called Aotea. Pukeko seem to have been around for about a 1000 years, and either claim may well be correct.

The pukeko is a clumsy flier, and seems to prefer running from danger. In Maori myth, the pukeko used to live in the trees, but was cursed to live in swamps because it refused to get its feet wet when needed. Even today, the gait of a pukeko does remind one of a person daintily trying to step over and around puddles. In the same story, the kiwi was the ‘good guy’, and chose to lose its ability to fly. Ironic then, that the kiwi today is endangered while pukeko are plentiful enough to be considered pests by gardeners! The ‘pest’status has been theirs for a while, though. Pukeko are associated in Maori myth with Punga, diety of all hateful and hideous things! For all this, they have been remarkably resilient, surviving the introduction of cats, dogs and other animals that so threaten the kiwi. These birds are possibly aided by their legendary cunning, acknowledged in Maori sayings.

The news is not all bad, though. While treated mostly with disdain, there does seem to be some honour for the pukeko-it appears on the crest of the Hamilton city council. I presume it is partly because this is dairy country-I cannot imagine a gardening town allowing that!

Pukeko are protected, but can be hunted with a license in duck hunting season. Sadly though, they are mostly left to rot, and rarely eaten. While I can understand hunting for food, I simply cannot understand hunting for sport. Pukeko meat is known to be tough, and I have found only two recipes for cooking it, one of which I reproduce here:

Step 1: Boil a large pot of water

Step 2: Add the pukeko and a medium sized rock

Step 3: Boil for several hours

Step 4: Remove pot from heat

Step 5: Remove the pukeko

Step 6: Eat the rock

Go here for the other. Maori seem to have eaten them by boiling them or roasting at the fire, though again, their meat was considered too stringy to be good. These handsome birds are quite entrenched in Aotearoa NZ culture, as can be seen from this kiwi (the beer-wine chugging kind) folksong, sung to the tune of ’12 days of Christmas’. Here is the tune (Indian version), if anybody needs it.

The kiwi has always been honoured in myth and custom, and its feathers are prized for beautiful Maori ceremonial cloaks. Even today, natives of this island are called ‘kiwis’. For all that, the kiwi that has so graciously given itself is endangered, and close to extinction. The pukeko, however, cursed in myth and sworn at now-still happily walks the countryside. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have less honour and life, than more honour and extinction. I think. Maybe. I guess it depends, ey!


Thanks to cheetah100 for the picture of the pukeko, and Hamilton City Council for the crest.


1. http://www.hamiltonzoo.co.nz/page/pageid/2145833073/our_animals

2. http://www.nzbirds.com/birds/pukeko.html

3. http://www.imeem.com/groups/krtXRJht/blogs/2007/05/23/Q6Xt63r-/maori-myths-and-legends

4. http://www.foodlovers.co.nz/forum/read.php?16,86251,86707,quote=1

5. http://www.mtbruce.org.nz/kiwimore.htm

6. http://www.diggersvalley.co.nz/pages/birds.htm

7. http://folksong.org.nz/nzchristmas/pukeko.html

8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owK5tHjL0aE

9. M. Riley, 2001. Pukeko, in Maori Bird Lore. pp.155-159. Viking Sevenseas NZ Ltd.

10. M. Orbell, 2003. Pukeko, in Birds of Aotearoa, A Natural and Cultural History. pp.118-120. Reed.

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