Exceedingly big birds

· science ·

Moas. Big birds — very big birds. I've just watched a BBC program with the dreadful title Monsters We Met. This seems to be the latest programme of a genre I call "We-spent-thousands-on-that-CGI-how-can-we-reuse-the-footage?". The programme itself was mostly not particularly good, unless you wanted to play the 'spot the re-used clip' game, but the moas caught my attention. To be honest, they couldn't really help but catch my attention, though — as we'll see later — they would have been better off if they were a little less conspicuous. The latin name of the largest of the 11 known species — Dinornis giganteus — is translated (with a bit of licence) on the BBC site as 'giant surprising bird'. No kidding. Dinornis giganteus measured 2m to its back, and could weigh in at a hefty 200kg.

And so to the reasons for their downfall: when the Maori people came to New Zealand, they found no native land mammals. Their only meat came from the dogs and rodents they brought with them, so you can imagine how they salivated when they saw the moa; drumsticks the size of cows' legs and giant eggs that would make omlettes like dinner tables. In the programme, they portrayed the moa as being totally unafraid of humans. This — like many assertions about the behaviour of extinct animals — is basically a guess, though probably an accurate one. New Zealand birds have no natural mammalian predators, and even today, many species are very tame around humans.

Picture the scene: the big, dumb moa is peacefully drinking out of a crystal clear river, when a bunch of Maori hunters start to approach slowly. Much like Douglas Adams' sperm whale suddenly winked into existence in deep space (and then winked out of it almost as quickly), the moa was probably still idly wondering what these odd creatures were called and whether they and their long pointy objects would be friends with it when they rammed said objects into its heart and killed it. From evidence of bone middens, it is estimated that the Maori killed about 500,000 moas in around 100 years. As the moas only laid one egg a year, this could only lead to one thing — extinction.

On a wonderful New Zealand website for children, I found this superb ode to the moa by W. Chamberlain, which says it all. You need to know that moa is pronounced more like 'more' than 'mower':

No moa No moa In old Ao-tea-roa Can't get 'em They've eat 'em They're gone and there ain't no moa.