Haast’s eagle (Harpagornis moorei) was the largest bird of prey that ever existed on Planet Earth – an enormous raptor with a wingspan pushing 3 metres (that’s 10 feet) and claws the size of a tiger’s (around 75 mm or 3 inches long). Actually they were basically flying tigers in a way – top of the food chain predators that hunted and killed another giant New Zealand bird – the moa. The largest moas were over 3 metres tall and weighed around 250kg, yet they were easy prey for Haast’s Eagle – enormous moa pelvis bones have been found with twin sets of claw marks in them – proof that Haast’s Eagle could take down anything that walked through the forests of New Zealand – including people.
The giant eagles must have terrified the first people to land on these shores, especially since there would have been nothing even remotely like them back in the islands of Polynesia. Those early settlers must have quite literally not known what hit them. I found a clip of a BBC documentary called “Monsters We Met” on Youtube that paints a pretty vivid picture of what life must have been like sharing a forest with one of these giant predators : Haast’s Eagle attack
This is a longer version of the clip, which for some reason is dubbed in Spanish and English at the same time – a bit distracting but you get the general idea :
Scary stuff! We all like to go out into the bush when we can and soak in the beauty and tranquility of New Zealand’s wilderness, but 700 years ago, when people were living at Wairau Bar, the forest must have had a very different atmosphere – people would probably never go anywhere in the bush by themselves, and must have always felt like any second one of these flying monsters was going to swoop down and smash into them at 80 kilometres an hour with eight razor sharp claws.
Actually there’s a story about these giant eagles in the Wairau Bar area that has been passed down through the generations of the Rangitane people. Richard Bradley, the Rangitane representative here at the excavations, told it to me:
When people first arrived in this area, a terrible flying taniwha called Ngarara Huarau began to attack them and carry men women and children off to their deaths. A chief named Rongoimai Papa was determined to kill the monster, so his people could safely settle in the area. Rongoimai and a group of his warriors hid in a cave in a small bay just around the coast from here, and enticed the taniwha/giant eagle into landing in the narrow cove. Once it was on the ground (presumably feeding on some kind of bait they had left) the warriors charged out of the cave and Rongaimai broke the taniwha’s wing with his mere (club). Once the creature was crippled, it was swiftly beaten to death, and when its belly was slit open all the taonga (treasures) of the people it had carried away were revealed. It’s feathers were ripped out, and they turned into a special kind of eel found only in this region. With the dangerous monster vanquished, Rongoimai was able to safely build a pa and people could once more walk around without fear of attack from the sky.
If you’d never heard of the giant Haast’s Eagle, you might be tempted to dismiss this story as just a myth, but like many of these old Maori stories, there is no doubt an element of truth to it. When the first people arrived in New Zealand, around 700 years ago, there WERE flying taniwha that killed and ate people! And I would think the only way to kill one would be to get it on the ground when it’s at it’s most vulnerable. What makes this story even more amazing is today we found a taniwha bone!
You can imagine that the remains of these flying taniwha were considered valuable items – by possessing the fearsome creature’s bones, a person would absorb it’s power and mana. The bone we found is part of the ulna, or wing bone, which has been deliberately snapped off and begun to be crafted into an awl – a tool for punching holes in things. Bones like this were found at Wairau Bar during the original excavations in the 1940’s, all similarly crafted.
I’m secretly hoping we’ll find something like a claw, or even a skull, but I’m not holding my breath. Like all large predators such as tigers or Great White sharks, Haast’s eagle was probably never very common – by one estimate there were only around 1,000 of them when people arrived on these shores, and they only ever lived in the South Island. Once an even more efficient hunter arrived in New Zealand – the human – and began to compete for the eagle’s main food, moas, the flying taniwha quickly became extinct, fading from the physical world into a realm of myth and legend.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Haast’s Eagle (and you should be!) try here, here and here. Only three complete skeletons have ever been found, all in natural rather than cultural sites – Te Papa and Otago Museum both have them on display.
PS keep an eye on the TV news tonight – we’re having a media open day, and there will be crews from TV1, TV3, Prime and Maori TV filming at the excavation site.