By Christine Cowling
As a child, growing up in New Zealand, I was a regular visitor at the Otago Museum in the city of Dunedin. I vividly recall gazing up in wonder at the carefully reconstructed model of a giant extinct native bird – the mighty moa.
There were nine species of moa (in six genera) with the two largest species Dinornis novaezelandiae and Dinornis robustus reaching as tall as 12 feet, with necks extended, and weighing approximately 500 lbs. Moa were wingless herbivores, their only predator (prior to the arrival of humans) was the Haast’s eagle. Genetic studies have determined that moa were most closely related to South American tinamous, and not the ratite group (containing kiwi, emu, and ostrich among others) as previously presumed.
Sadly, moa was hunted to extinction by the indigenous people, the Maori, presumably sometime between the late 14th century and early 16th century. Without documented records, it’s impossible to know exactly when the last of the moa died. However, in the 1840s, an artist visiting from Australia claimed to see birds with spurred feet which he described as one-meter tall giant kiwis. Is it possible a few moas were still around at that time?
Over the years, there were very occasional sightings of the elusive moa. Bernard Heuvelmans, a cryptozoologist, included a chapter on moa sightings in his book “On the Track of Unknown Animals” in 1958. In the 1960’s Ivan T. Sanderson, zoologist and cryptozoologist noted a few moa sightings on the South Island of New Zealand.’
One of the most interesting sightings occurred in the Craigieburn Range in January 1993.
Hotelier Paddy Freaney and two other witnesses claimed to spot a moa while hiking. Although they were able to describe the bird in great detail and managed to snap a photograph, the picture is too blurry to be considered good evidence. Freaney and his companions described the bird as 6 feet tall, it was about a meter off the ground with another meter (approximately 3 feet) of the neck and a small head. The bird was cloaked in gray and reddish-brown feathers.
Investigations and full-scale searches followed, and even an official government count to be sure all emus known to be in New Zealand were accounted for, but nobody found a live moa!
Some skeptics claimed the animal in the photograph was actually a deer. Rumors circulated that the three hikers had hatched a plot to create a hoax in order to encourage more tourists (and their wallets!) to the region. Bear in mind, Freaney owned a pub! Considerable doubt was cast on their story.
One might conclude it was likely a hoax … or was it? Months later it emerged that two German tourists spotted an enormous bird around the same time as the Freaney sighting, and they recorded the details in the logbook at the hiker’s hut they had stayed in.
Cryptozoologists, Rex and Heather Gilroy, claimed to discover moa footprints in 2008 in the Urewera Ranges of the North Island, and they produced casts as proof. The size of the footprints might suggest that scrub moa (considerably smaller than the giant moa) may still exist.
The mystery remains whether there are any live moa still living in the large and extremely remote forested areas of New Zealand. Although it seems unlikely that giant birds are strolling around in the bush, another New Zealand native bird, the takahē, which was presumed extinct since 1898, was actually rediscovered in 1948 prompting conservation efforts to ensure the survival of the species.
If the moa does still roam the wilds of New Zealand, I suspect the Fiordland National Park in the south-western corner of the South Island might be the best place to look for them. Fiordland is a huge area that contains several fjords (hence the name!), three of the deepest lakes in New Zealand, alps, valleys and dense forests, in other words, plenty of places to hide. Fiordland has never had a permanent population, so even if a colony of huge birds lived there, odds are slim that anybody would cross paths with them.
The search for evidence continues. Perhaps one day a lucky hiker will capture clear footage on a GoPro camera? One can only hope.