7:00 am. The birdcall on National Radio. But not today. Today it is an imitation of a birdcall, the call of the extinct Huia. Uncannily reincarnated, a whistling ghost, eerie, praeternatural. It is the sound of absolute melancholy. A poignant, distant call. Neither wholly avian, nor human. An aural moment of the ache of loss.
The loss of the Huia is part of a lamentable legacy, an extinction which was predicted. They saw it coming. Sir Walter Buller wrote of the Huia in 1870 that “Erelong it will exist only in our museums and other collections.” And so, because extinction was imminent, Huia were killed in order to make them into the specimens for museums and private collections. Anticipation of their end only hastened it, a rush to get the remaining birds.
The Huia was like a fetch – the ghost of one living who is about to die, lingering at the edge of things. Buller’s belief in the impending demise of New Zealand’s native avifauna was fatalistic. The birds, it was said, couldn’t be expected to compete against the more robust species being imported from the northern hemisphere. In the chilling logic of the survival of the fittest, the loss of Heteralocha acutirostrisa, et alia, was inevitable. Buller’s Birds of New Zealand, published in 1888, was already conceived of as an archive of all native birds, recording them in readiness for their inevitable extinction. He painted them, like still lifes, in that French sense – they who call still life painting ‘nature morte’. Nature dead. As many Huia as possible were shot and stuffed for sale as curiosities to the Victorian English. For their trophy cabinets. Or maybe atrophy cabinets, containing disturbing representations of a species wasting away.
Later, it’s 1902. T.V. Saunders is bush-bashing up the back of Lake Wairarapa, up ahead of him are Heta Te Miha and Aporo Hare. They’re hunting Huia. For three days they crept through the bush, whistling, waiting for the response. And then, an answer, the flutter of wings and the distinctive, otherworldly call of the Huia, whistling back. It took them a week, to find and kill six Huia. These half dozen Huia weren’t for the taxidermist, the hunters only wanted only the tail feathers. These were the taonga, the headdress for the rangitira.
Seven years later, and Henare Hamana is up in the Ruahines. Gregor McGregor and Augustus Hamilton, the director of the Dominion Museum, are leading the search party. Henare Hamana, who they called Harry Salmon, has done this before. He knows how to call the Huia. This time the hunt is not for specimens for curiosity cabinets. Nor tail feathers. They are looking to see if there are any left. They thought they heard them calling, but they found no signs. The eerie whistling was still reported in years to come. In 1910 at National Park. In 1924 up the Mohaka, and there again in 1930. People said they saw them. In 1950 someone in Te Kuiti said they’d shot one. They thought it was crow. But, the official date of extinction remains: 1907.
Fifty years after the 1909 expedition in the Ruahines, Henare Hamana made his recording of the call of the Huia. The same one that haunts the radio waves this morning. This sorrowful whistling, the ghost of the bird which was said to resemble “the nightingale entirely clothed in black”. This bird which, when its partner died, would pine to death from grief. A mournful descendent of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s nightingale, his ‘Most musical, most melancholy’ bird. An echo of the call of Edgar Allan Poe’s Raven, Nevermore, nevermore. Poe asked himself when he wrote The Raven, “what is the most melancholy thing?” Death was his reply.
“Once more, farewell,
Sweet Nightingale! once more, my friends! Farewell”
(Henare Hamana's whistling to accompany the above Huia image obtained from DOC)