Object 533911 from the Te Papa collection

Object 533911 from the Te Papa collection


A record held by the Ngai Tahu Maori Trustboard Tribal Archive notes that, while called kōkako in the North Island, the wattled crow was called koka in a Westland greenstone legend. 

In Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Maori, based on a field project for Otago Museum in 1920 and published in 2009, our bird is again referred to as "the koka (crow)". 

However, listed first in H W Williams, Maori Bird Names (ca. 1910, and containing 100 species), both North and South Island kokako are noted to have the following alternative names: honga (onga), honge (onge) and pakara (manu-whakaounga). At 15 in the list, the tui is also referred to as koko, but koka is not mentioned. The Alexander Turnbull library in Wellington kindly directed us to that reference and also found, in “material from MS-Papers-7173, notes belonging to Williams, Herbert William (Bishop), 1860-1937: Papers”. Amongst the loose pages in this folder was a page entitled He Manu (“birds”). Koko is mentioned in this list of a birds beneath and linked to kokako and curiously linked to pikari, another name for tui in Maori Bird Names, as well as the tui itself.

We haven’t been able to find any other reference to the koka in other historical records (if you know of any, please let us know!) and suggest that it may have been a local name in the Otago and Southland area. Perhaps it's time to reclaim that name rather than be the poor South Island relation!

The 19th-century New Zealand bird authority, W L Buller, kept a South Island kōkako in captivity. He said its melancholy call in a high key sounded exactly like "Ko wai koe?" ("Who are you?"). "At other times it produced a short mellifluous whistle and every now and then a liquid bell-note, quite indistinguishable from the evening tolling of a tui," he wrote in the Manual of the Birds of New Zealand (1882). "It occasionally, but not often, sounded like a rich organ-note, short but of surpassing sweetness."

Here are some more quotes that help us understand the elusive and secretive ‘koka’.

During my research in 1884, at the West Coast, South Island, I did not find these birds so plentiful. … They are very tame, but, when disturbed, are adepts in the art of hiding, either under a limb in the fork of a tree, or between thick leaves.

Reischek, Notes on the Habits of some New Zealand Birds,1885.

We saw several yellow wattle crows. He also belongs to the ground bird in habit; is a beautiful deep slaty colour, with fleshy wattles of an orange hue springing from the angles of his mouth. These birds, according to Buchanan, have a singular habit of hopping along through the forest in Indian file fashion, crossing every stick and stone in exactly the same way. I have often observed the same habit when I met them in numbers behind Milford Sound.

Thos. McKenzie, ‘West Coast Exploration’ in Otago Daily Times, 1896.

This was our fourth season of search for the species. During two previous expeditions I had seen the bird; during each I had failed to find the nest. Now at Pegasus on all hands we heard of it. Indeed it was principally because of the Crow we had fixed our headquarters there…We were certain, therefore, that it bred in that part of Stewart Island, and by every open way searched for the elusive bird…In vain, trembling with hope and fear, we trudged the forest from daylight to dark; in vain we climbed the Remarkables (Gog and Magog); in vain we beat through the seaside scrub. We never heard or saw the crow. We never did get the nest.

William Herbert Guthrie-Smith, 1925

On going from the Tableland down the Karamea River we sat down for a spell and just in front of us there were a pair of crows sitting. They were eating the leaves and shoots of the young Rareakau and singing a little kind of song at intervals.

H. P. Washbourn, ‘Reminiscences of Early Days’ (Lucas & Son) 1933.

I had stopped to listen … when a Kokako appeared walking along a log which protruded from a thick patch of fern beside a patch of "ploughed" ground. I think it saw me immediately because it quickened its pace, flew from the end of the log to a sloping tree trunk a short distance below, and began to climb the trunk in a most peculiar way. With each rather ungainly step upwards, it appeared to hold on to the bark with its beak, look in my direction, take another step, hold, look, and so on until it reached the branches, when it hopped rapidly out of sight.

K. McBride, in Notornis 28 (4), 1981

Sir Robert Falla saw and heard kokako on Stewart Island. Based on his experiences with North Island kokako, Falla noted that: "They not only have a very limited home range per pair, but they spend hours lurking in dense shade (like moreporks diurnally), and do not flush readily. Furthermore their seasons and times of calling are intermittent and few. Against that, they sometimes emerge briefly, apparently out of curiousity.

In correspondence with Peter Child: dated 1970, on behalf of the Nature Conservation Council


Nature Notes: Our vanishing birds (The Evening Post, 1930)

Nature Notes: The New Zealand crow (The Evening Post, 1926)

Nature Notes (NZ Herald, 1921)

Excerpts from Potts (Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 1873)