by Reina Cottier.
She says about this amazing bird:
“The tui, majestic and proud,... a curious, highly
intelligent bird, is fascinating to watch, almost
letting you into their world – swooping, diving,
sitting oh so close,,... but then, protective,
fierce, swift,... and away. Like two birds in
one, as is their song, deep guttural clicks and
clucks, and then the beautiful melodic song
from another world.”
A small waterfall
on the Whangamarino Stream
near the Waikato railway is named “Te Ako-o-
te-tui-a-Tamaoho”, meaning ‘the teaching of
Tamaoho’s tui’. It is the place where Pouwhatu,
chief of Ngati Tamaoho of the Waikato area,
took his pet tui to teach it how to talk. The
name recognises both the effort of the man,
and the cleverness of the bird.
Maori believed that tui learn best when
surrounded by the sound of a waterfall. The
steady noise of the water created a sound
barrier, ensuring the bird wasn’t distracted and
would hear only his master’s voice.
Over many long days Pouwhatu taught his bird
to speak. The bird became a prized pet of the
tribe, and could recite karakia (prayers), songs
and several long speeches.
Another tribe, Ngai-Tauira, also owned
a very remarkable tui which was said to
possess more than human intelligence.
not only learned to repeat
the most powerful karakia,
but was believed
to possess special spiritual abilities,
bewitching others on command.
prized bird was coveted and eventually
stolen by another tribe. Discovering their
loss the Ngai-Tauira pursued the offenders
and many were slain in the battle. The few
survivors fled to Hawkes Bay.
A children’s book,
Tane Miti Rangi, te manu
, tells the fate of this sacred bird, who,
with his wisdom and prayer helped provide
for the people of the Ngai-Tauira tribe.
TWO TaLKing TRiBaL Tui
ecent studies indicate that our native
songmaster is actually one of the most
intelligent birds on the planet. And, as a
delightful part of our daily lives, could the tui
even be beating out our national icon – the
kiwi – to be our most beloved bird?
Easily recognisable, it appears fundamentally
black, yet the feathers move through a
spectrum of iridescent colours – indigo,
purple, blue, turquoise, green and blue with
two white tufts of feathers at their throat
and a distinctive cape of white feathers over
the top of its wings giving it the cloak-like
effect – all a challenge for artists to capture
as the qualities and light of the feathers are
These reminded early European settlers of the
English clergyman, dressed in black cape with
a white neck scarf, leading to its name, the
‘parson bird’. The English parson was often
said to have a beady, watchful eye, which the
tui also appears to show when he’s monitoring
you from his vantage point in a tree!
SINGING UP A STORM, AND TALKING TOO!
The musical range of tui is unlike any other in
our forests and suburbs. It fills the landscape
with a depth of different tones and sounds,
often beyond the range of the human ear, all
made possible by their ‘double’ voice box. An
Auckland study into the native call of the tui
has revealed its song ranks as one the bird-
world’s most complex.
Their intelligence and ability learn new sounds
allows them to continually adapt to the
changing sounds of their environment. Master
imitators, they are able to copy the human
voice, cell phones and other birds’ songs.
Studies show their calls vary from area to area,
like a dialect, as well as between seasons and
sexes. Tui sing in our days’ dawn and are often
heard trilling well into dusk. Unlike other birds,
they are known to call and sing at night too –
particularly around a full moon.
Early Maori trained the Koko or Poe (as they
called tui), to imitate the call women made to
bring visitors onto the Marae. And some were
even taught to recite speeches (see below).
The bird was highly regarded by Maori, often
kept as pets in cages. They were featured in
many old stories, and several gained such
notoriety they were fought over. It was said that
on one occasion a talented tui was taught a
speech to welcome Sir George Grey, governor
of NZ, onto a marae.
Alas, both settlers and Maori ate tui too, which
contributed to their decline. In 1773 on his
second voyage here, Captain Cook described
the tui as “not more remarkable for the beauty
of its plumage than the sweetness of its note.
The flesh is also most delicious and was the
greatest luxury the wood afforded us”. And,
horrors! The bird’s skin was also used to line
ladies hats! Thank goodness for a law change
in the 1880s banning the hunting of tui, or we
might not enjoy them now.
While not endangered, tui numbers have sunk
to dangerous lows at times in our history. The
tui’s eggs (typically a clutch of 2-4 eggs to a
nest) and baby birds, however, are in danger
from many predators including opossum, stoat,
ferrets, rats and both feral and domestic cats.
However, unlike the wingless kiwi, the tui can
put up a delightfully strong defence.
Fortunately, effective predator control in
various regions around the country has
resulted in an increase in tui numbers
as with kiwi.
THe VaRiaBLe Tui
Inquisitive, territorial, friendly, solitary, socia-
ble, aggressive: tui (
) are described as all these things and
more. They are most grumpily protective when
chicks are in the nest, and also jealously guard
their territory and food sources, chasing off
other birds in speedy swoops.
Single birds will defend a defined feeding
territory but they are also known to band
together, chattering and flapping to chase
off magpies or hawks. When nearby nectar
sources quit blooming, a tui may travel 10-
20km to feed or for summer breeding.
Although the sexes are alike, the male is larger
and adults have a notch on the 8th primary
feather of their wing which is what causes
the distinctive flutter we hear as they fly by.
Another distinguishing flight pattern associated
with mating rituals is when they fly up in a
sweeping arch with a sudden swooping dive
bomb descent, with the wings held tightly
into the body. These take place between
September and October when they are also
singing high up in the trees in early morning
and late afternoon.
Of all our native wonders, the tui is surely one
of the most delightful, both a visual treat and as
music to the ear.