He Kai Rere Mai Tawhiti

Aug. 3, 2018, 1:45 p.m.

The kuaka bird (bar-tailed godwit) was once a staple summer food source for Tangata Whenua of Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kuri and Ngāi Takoto. Cultural harvesting of the kuaka is now illegal, and elders of Te Aupōuri would like to see an annual cultural harvest week authorised by the New Zealand Government as a way of promoting and sustaining intergenerational transmission of indigenous practices. The bird is eaten in other countries like China and Russia but the cultural practice was intergenerationally brought to an end in Aotearoa due to Government policy and law. 

In this video kuia of Te Aupouri, Tireiniamu Kapa and Karepori Kaipo, and kaumatua Heta Conrad speak about how the kuaka was a very important food source during their upbringing.

Thousands of kuaka arrive to Aotearoa's northernmost harbour, the Pārengareanga in August every year. Migrating from Russia in the far reaches of the northern hemisphere to Aotearoa. The round journey of 30,000 km flight is the longest any migratory bird makes in the world. Thanks to transmitters that scientists attached to birds, they know that this is the world’s longest non-stop bird flight.

After the mammoth journey the bird arrives scrawny and physically diminished, they have arrived to eat pipi (bivalves), the toke moana (sea worms) and other sea creatures, its only purpose is to replenish itself for its return journey. The birds replace their flight feathers, growing new ones so that they will be strong enough to last their next flight. The birds do not breed in Aotearoa but only visit to feed.

Although the kuaka was once part of the late summer diet of tangata whenua in Aotearoa, eating the bird is now outlawed in New Zealand. The return journey of the kuaka takes it to a halfway stop on the shores of the Yellow Sea between China and Korea, where there’s reliable estuarine feeding similar what Aotearoa has to offer, those grounds however are being threatened by massive reclamation projects. Many of the kuaka are eaten by humans in the countries they visit as they return north.

A Te Aupōuri have many whakatauki (tribal aphorisms)  that speak to the significance of the birth to the Te Aupōuri. One of whakatauki is ‘Kua kitea raini i te ohanga o te kuaka?’,  Have you ever seen the nest of the Kuaka? In this sense the whakatauki draws our attention to how the kuaka been revered with mystery. The kuaka nests in the Northern Hemisphere and not in Aotearoa.

Another tribal aphorism mentions the connection of the kuaka and the navigational pathways of our ancestral waka, that brought our people to Aotearoa. He kāhui kuaka ki te rangi - He kāhui waka ki te Moana. The kuaka is also associated with the spirits of the dead as they return to Hawaiki Nui, Hawaiki Roa, Hawaiki Pāmamao.

According to legend, it even gave the first voyagers to Aotearoa from Polynesia the idea that there was something down south worth travelling towards: they kept seeing it hurtling past once a year, as if it had somewhere definite to go and wasn’t going to stop till it got there.

While the bird is revered it has always been a food source too.


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