North Island Moa (Dinoris novazealandiae), high-class Māori in kakapo and kiwi feather robe, and Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei)

The Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei) was the largest known raptor to exist - while there were larger birds that existed, no larger birds of prey have been found in the fossil record so far. It was huge, large enough to easily take away a small human child, and create a significant injury threat to even the largest adult humans.

When the Polynesian people known as the Maori arrived in New Zealand, around C.E. 1250-1300, the Haast’s eagle and moa would have been dangerous and defining creatures in their lives. While the moa was not a big meat-eater, it could kick (and possibly kill) a human more easily than an ostrich can, and would not have hesitated to do so, if threatened.

However, with their already-advanced spears and javelins, and their ingenuity with hunting and shelter-building, the Maori easily overcame the threat of the moa - by 1400, the giant bird was no more.

Unfortunately, with its primary food source gone, the Haast’s eagle also went extinct, shortly after the moa. Today, birds like the kakapo, kiwi, taiko, and takahe, are all critically endangered, because of human influence and habitat destruction. New Zealand’s island environment, with its few airborne predators and unusual evolutionary pressures, has lead to extremely specialized birds, and they unfortunately adapt poorly to a modern world that has feral cats, rats, and poachers. While conservationists attempt to protect them from the pressures of non-island life, there is little telling what the future holds for them.

Images:

Extinct Birds. Lionel Walter Rothschild, 1907.

A History of the Birds of New Zealand. Walter Lawry Buller, 1873.

"Ancient DNA Tells Story of Ancient Eagle Evolution". Art: John Megahan, 2005.

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