Rangatira of the Bush


Kākā - Nestor meridionalis septentrionalis

North Island Kākā

Bush parrot

Once very common throughout the kauri region, kākā is now extremely rare in kauri forest, where it feeds of almost everything from fruit, seeds, insects and leaves to kauri cones that it breaks apart with its strong beak in search of seeds, using the beak also as a tool to get at wood boring lavae in rotting longs and under bark. It also gathers nectar from flowers using its brush tongue. A voracious eater, it was also eaten by Maori almost as enthusiastically as they ate kūkupa (pigeons). Best eat after being preserved in fat (tutu), they were usually trapped in specially designed kākā snares that often used tame kākā as decoys.

The earth red feathers of kākā were also highly prized for making cloaks and adding an element representing wairua to sacred items such as war canoes (waka taua). Kākā feathers were also fixed to tools such as adzes (toki) and ko (digging implements) to add strength and power to them, as well as to weapons like taiaha.

Considered to be manu rangatira (chief of all birds), kākā were also believed to be carriers of sacred stones (whatu kura) from either Hawaaiki or heaven. These stones, small, often reddish coloured pebbles, were highly valued by tohunga wairua (priests). The stones were also known as ōkākā and brought the mana of heaven/Hawaaiki to areas in which people lived. Other, smaller pebbles carried by kākā in their crops were believed to be the seeds of magical plants growing in heaven. Known as manatawa, these small stones were swallowed by tohunga or their pupils in order to increase their special powers.

Kākā were also kept as pets, when they would be taught to speak and do others tricks. Often they were secured to their domestic perches by beautifully made pounamu (greenstone) leg rings. In rare instances, the birds were so highly valued that they were kept in cages of greatest mana, made from the rib bones of an ancestor (tupuna). They were common pets in most villages in the areas where kauri grew, serving as early warning systems against raiding parties as well as decoys for kākā hunting and, in some cases, as intelligence gatherers. In a society where asking unknown visitors their names on arrival was considered bad form, kākā trained to ask , “ko wai to ingoa?”, (what is your name) provided a clever way around protocol.

Adult males are often larger than females, although their plumage is similar, and the males have longer, more curved beaks. The grey feathers on their foreheads giveskākā an air of maturity, and may be one of the reasons Maori considered them to be wise and bearers of mana. Otherwise the mature birds are dark brown with grey or olive green highlights. There is a splash of earth red behind the eyes and the lower rump and upper tail feathers are crimson., with red bellies and under the wings. Colours vary with individual birds, which can have elements of yellow, green and more areas of red.

While usually associated with a harsh parrot squawk, kākā also have a melodic song based on a rich, resonant whistle that rises and falls in note high amongst the trees. Feeding birds also make low, humming sounds. These calls are often heard at night, as kaka are often nocturnal.

A slow breeder, kākā lay up to 5 eggs between September and March, often using hollow trees for shelter. Incubation takes more than 3 weeks and the fledglings are fed by both male and female kākā until they leave the nest at around 10 weeks.