Friday, June 4, 2010

Moas and me… moas and I? Whatever

 My first moa experience was an excavation on my uncle’s farm in North Canterbury. This was only a few miles from Pyramid Valley, the most famous moa site of the time. We dug down into a patch of sand that had a spring rising from it and we found moa toebones and other small bones which would have been from kiwi, Native goose and things like that but I don’t think we bothered with them, just the impressive toes. The site was a bog in prehistoric times, trapping the big birds as they came to drink or feed on swamp plants.

Moa bones are quite common. I often see scraps of bone in sandhills or old midden sites and a few times I have picked up bigger ones. We found part of a skeleton in sand dunes at Colac Bay a few years ago and I helped dig bones from a paddock at Dunrobin after the farmer had cut a trench for a drain and started scooping them out.

I’ve never found a skull. I guess that if the bird gets mired it’s the head and neck that get eaten or weathered away first, leaving the leg bones underground. The bones survive if they are buried in a swamp or desiccated in a cave or in dry sand. You also get bits of eggshell with the bones, and the gizzard stones which the bird swallows to help grind its food. The stones wear against each other and they can have distinctive flat sides. You can make a gizzard by filling a screw-top container with pebbles and bits of fruit. Give it a vigorous shake and drink the goo. I guess you could hear moas coming by the rattling.

A school in Central Otago found so much eggshell they packaged it up and sold it as curios. One scout troop all had woggles made from slices of moa legbone. It’s very hard and polishes up nicely. Someone is making the ivory parts on bagpipes from moa bone. Talking of bagpipes, I wonder what the screech of the moa was like? Back in the old days Scout patrols had prescribed calls. The Wolf Patrol had a howl, the weasels went “eeeeeeee” and the moas’ war-cry was “pee dunk, pee dunk, pee dunk.” I can’t imagine what that sounds like, probably more a noise you would get out of the tuba than the bagpipes. I wonder what the Parrot Patrol had for their call? “Who’s a pretty boy then? Who’s a pretty boy?” The only Moa Patrol I remember was an ad-hoc one formed at an overgrown campsite. It
 was actually the Mower Patrol but they didn’t know that until too late.

At Colac Bay ~1985

I was given some actual feathers which were found in a cave. They are very rare as are any of the soft tissues. Otago Museum has a dried leg from Central Otago and Southland Museum has a skeleton held together by dried sinews. It was found in a cave at Lake Echo not far from Te Anau.

What of the possibility that moas survived into European times? Zilch. Research has shown that they were gone within a couple of hundred years of humans getting to New Zealand. They could obviously stand no hunting pressure whatsoever. Research has also shown that they are not Moa’s Ark relics at all. We had imagined their ancestors waving goodbye to their Australian cousins when we parted 80 million years back. Instead, their origin is much more recent and they are descended from flying birds that reached New Zealand only a few million years ago so despite their similar appearance, emus and moas are an example of convergent evolution. This finding is one more piece of evidence to support the theory that New Zealand was totally under water about 25 million years back, and that all terrestrial life colonised since then. This is tricky when it comes to the tuatara and native frogs though.