Our first object of the month is this lovely taxidermy of a female Huia bird (Z.00270).
Pupils taking part in the Big School Birdwatch this month are very unlikely to see a Huia, as they have only ever been found on the North Island of New Zealand. Even our kiwi followers will be hard pressed to see this bird outside their window, because they are thought to have gone extinct around 50 to 100 years ago.
To those in the know, it’s easy to tell this specimen is a female. That’s because Huia birds had the greatest variation in beak shape between the male and female, of any bird species in the world! As our Huia demonstrates, the female had a long, slim, downward curving beak. Meanwhile males had a much shorter and more robust beak. This variation between the male and female is known as sexual dimorphism. It is a topic which former Shrewsbury resident Charles Darwin discusses in his works on evolution. You can find out more about Darwin in the Shropshire Gallery.
Fossils show that Huia originally lived across pretty much all of New Zealand’s North Island. However, from around the 14th Century their range began to shrink and the Huia disappeared from the west. This was caused by the arrival of the Maori and later European settlers. Both groups hunted the Huia and cleared the forest it lived in, to make way for things like agriculture.
In Maori culture, Huia were considered sacred, and the wearing of their skin and feathers was reserved for those of high status. This is why during the Duke and Duchess of York’s visit to New Zealand in 1901, a Huia feather was placed in the Duke’s hat as a token of respect. The wearing of a Huia feather in your hat then became very fashionable in both New Zealand and England. Hunting of the Huia increased to meet the demand of the fashion market and as a result the Huia population shrank.
As the Huia became rarer, their skins and feathers became ever more valuable, and collectors and museums were very keen to get specimens before they disappeared completely. Our taxidermy of a Huia was purchased at auction in the mid-20th Century by former curator of Ludlow Museum, John Norton. We don’t know when, where or why the specimen was originally collected, but it seems likely that it was taken to add to a private collection at a time when Huia were at risk of extinction.
This Huia isn’t the only bird we have in the collection that is thought to have gone extinct due to human factors. Also on display at SM&AG are a Passenger Pigeon and even a Great Auk (sort of…).