Disappearing into the heavens

Some years ago I witnessed a dinosaur attack. There was a flash of brown, then a thud. It was over in a second. Sharp powerful claws gripped its prey, pinning it against the ground. Then it began to feast. I never saw it coming. The wood pigeon never saw it coming.

The beautiful light grey bird was bobbing along quite happily in my garden, picking up seeds fallen from my bird feeder. I was watching it move: that classic bob of the head in sync with those scaly legs and claws. Then, out of nowhere, a blur. A sparrow hawk had shot out of the sky, landing on the pigeon, flattening it to the ground. Perhaps stunned, perhaps not, the pigeon had no chance. The sharp curved, super sharp beak of the sparrow hawk began to pluck away feathers so it could gorge on the flesh beneath.

The reign of the dinosaurs has never left us. Humans have witnessed similar dinosaur killings for millennia. But none on such as scale as this beast you are about to read about.

The beautiful Eurasian Sparrow Hawk (Accipiter nisus). (Image by Christian Knoch)

The beautiful Eurasian Sparrow Hawk (Accipiter nisus). (Image by Christian Knoch. Public Domain.)

Birds, the only surviving group of dinosaurs, total nearly 10,000 different species. Aside from fish they are the most successful group of vertebrates, living on every single continent. And they are incredibly diverse. Some have lost use of their wings, to return to land living. Others have enormous webbed feet and become expert swimmers. Sharp beaks tear flesh. Thick beaks crush nuts. Thin beaks pluck worms. Elaborate feathers seduce. This is an amazing group of animals.

Over the last 66 million years, since the extinction of their relatives, there have been some spectacular species. None more so than the giant flightless birds. There was the long reign of the giant terror birds, who stomped on the planet for over 60 million years. There was the frightful European Gastornis, from around 55 million years ago to around 35 million years ago. Big birds even roamed Australia. These were all very big. And all would have been bloody terrifying to see in the flesh. But none would have killed as that sparrow hawk did.

A giant bird (Image by Jan Freedman)

The American Terror Birds were enormous. (Image by Jan Freedman)

There were giant fliers who may fit the bill (excuse the pun). A giant relative to the buzzard, mis-named the Woodward ‘Eagle’, was massive compared to today’s buzzards (or eagles) alive today. The enormous, aptly named Monster Birds would have dwarfed condors alive today. These were both gliders; hovering on warm thermals, searching for that carcass. One extinct giant hunted like our sparrow hawk. Only this beast’s prey was much, much larger than wood pigeons.

New Zealand was home to just a small number of mammals, all of which were bats. This left this dramatic landscape open for other groups to exploit and exploit it the birds certainly did. There was the wonderfully named Mysterious Starling, the Laughing Owl, the Long-billed Wren, the Stout-legged Wren, and even a species of penguin. Isolated for millions of years, the islands of New Zealand were evolutions’ aviaries. With no mammals on the islands (except for three species of bat), birds had free reign of many new niches. There were also many species of Moa: huge flightless, grazing birds that only became extinct in the 1600s.

A reconstruction of the upland Moa. (Megalapteryx sp.) from Baron Rothschild’s book “Extinct Birds”. (Public Domain)

A reconstruction of the upland Moa. (Megalapteryx sp.) from Baron Rothschild’s book “Extinct Birds”. (Public Domain)

Carnivores evolved alongside the herbivores: large harriers (Eyles Harrier), and several types of hawks. Yet, none of these came close to the ultimate New Zealand carnivore: Te Hōkioi.

“This bird, Hōkioi was seen by our ancestors. We…have not seen it – that bird has disappeared nowadays. The statement of our ancestor was that it was a powerful bird, a very powerful bird. It was a very large hawk. Its resting place was on the top of mountains; it did not rest on the plains…Its colour was red and black and white. It was a bird of (black) feathers, tinged with yellow and green; it had a bunch of red feathers on top of its head.” (Maori Legend)

Around 700 years ago, the first humans settled on New Zealand. They saw this bird while it was alive. And, today it lives on in their stories.

Hōkioi was an Eagle. An enormous eagle. The heaviest eagle so far discovered. Outrageously enormous claws first excavated in 1871, gave this beast the name Harpagornis moorei: ‘harpa’ meaning grappling hook, and ‘gornis’ meaning bird. (The species, moorei was given after the landowner were the fossils were first found, George Moore.) Harpagornis, also called Haast’s Eagle after its discoverer, was huge. Females weighed up to around 15kg and males up to 11.5kg: compare this to just a meagre 4kg for a male and 6.6kg for female golden eagles. With wingspans of just 3m, just a fraction longer than a golden eagle, you may think that Harpagornis was oddly disproportionate. It was, however, perfectly endowed for its lifestyle. It was a hunter. An active, surprisingly agile hunter.

Just like a sparrow hawk, Harpagornis flew through forests and scrublands, with relative ease. With a shorter wingspan, it would be able to manoeuvre with relative ease when it went for the attack. Incredible fossil remains tell us what the Haast’s Eagle was preying on. Several Moa pelvis remains have very large holes in them: holes made by the powerful talons of Harpagornis. From high up vantage points, Harpagornis would launch itself, gliding effortlessly through forests. It would land with such a force that its claws pierced through the Moas’ bones. This makes my sparrow hawk look like a pussy cat.

Enormous holes in the pelvis of a Moa. Made by the gigantic talons of Harpagornis.

Enormous holes in the pelvis of a Moa. Made by the gigantic talons of Harpagornis. (Image from Holdaway & Worthy, 2008)

This bird got big quick. It evolved from smaller eagles around 1 million years ago. It’s a classic example of Island Gigantism, where animals isolated on islands have abundant food allowing them to grow to pretty big sizes. (The dodo is a good, if not often recognised, example of this.) With little competitors, and prey as huge as the Moa, these raptors were able to grow to extraordinary sizes.

Harpagornis was

Harpagornis was a massive eagle. Humans would have seen them in action.

What is truly fascinating, and is true for so many of our Twilight Beasts, is that humans saw them alive. The Maori may have watched in awe as Harpagornis took down a Moa: a true clash of the Titans. This magnificent bird was captured by the Maori in cave art, showing significance in their lives.

from ‘Cave of the Eagle’, in the Canterbury district.

Beautiful cave art from ‘Cave of the Eagle’, in the Canterbury district, New Zealand. (Image by Amanda Symon, Ngai Tahu Maori Rock Art Trust. Reproduced with permission.)

Even the name, Te Hōkioi, gives us a tantalising glimpse of what this extinct animal sounded like. It appears in Maori legend:

“Its rival was the hawk. The hawk said it could reach the heavens: the Hōkioi said it could reach the heavens to the hawk; there was contention between them.

The Hōkioi said to the hawk, “what shall be your sign?” The hawk replied “kei” (the peculiar cry of the hawk).

Then the hawk asked, “what shall be your sign?” The Hōkioi replied, “hokioi-hokioi-huu.” These were three words.” (Maori Legend)

Until just around 400 years ago, Harpagornis was swooping through the forests, like a gigantic sparrow hawk. It’s extinction is something familiar and obvious, but still something we fail to learn from today. As people began to settle on New Zealand, they expanded, altering the habitat as they went. The change in habitat hit the large flightless Moa hard, more so because they were also hunted by the Maori for food. The Moa became extinct around 1600. With their main food source gone, the Haarst Eagle vanished.

“They then flew and approached the heavens. The winds and the clouds came. The hawk called out “kei” and descended, it could go no further on account of the winds and the clouds, but the Hōkioi disappeared into the heavens.” (Maori Legend)

Around us the world is changing. Forests are vanishing. Habitats being destroyed. Oceans polluted. Climate is more erratic. Many species we know will be lost because of our lack of respect for nature. A species does not vanish alone. It is part of a complex web of life. When one species is gone, many, many more will sadly, silently, disappear into the heavens.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

A special thank you to Amanda Symon at the Ngai Tahu Maori Rock Art Trust for allowing us to use the beautiful rock art painting. Please do have a look at their website for more information about New Zealand’s incredible rock art.

Further Reading:

Alcover, J. A & McMinn, M. (1994). ‘Predators of vertebrates on Islands.’ BioScience. 44 (1). pp. 12-18. [Abstract only]

Best, E. (1982), Maori Religion and Mythology. Part 2. P.D. Hasselberg, Wellington. pg. 563 [Full text]

Brathwaite, D. H. (1992).’ Notes on the weight, flying ability, habitat and prey of Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei)’. Notornis. Ornithological Society of New Zealand. 39 (4): 239–247. [Full article]

Bunce, M. et al. (2005). ‘Ancient DNA provides new insights into the evolutionary history of New Zealand’s giant eagle.’ PLoS Biology. 3 (1): e9. [Full article]

Haast, J. (1872). “Notes on Harpagornis Moorei, an Extinct Gigantic Bird of Prey, containing Discussion of Femur, Ungual Phalanges and Rib”. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute.  4. New Zealand Institute. pp. 193–196. [Full article]

Holdaway, R. N., M. E. Allentoft, C. Jacomb, C. L. Oskam, N. R. Beavan, and M. Bunce. (2014). “An Extremely Low-Density Human Population Exterminated New Zealand Moa.” Nat Commun 5. pp5436. [Abstract only]

Holdaway, R. N., & Worthy, T. H. (2008). ‘The Late Quaternary Avifauna’. In Winterbourne, M.J et al. ‘The natural history of Canterbury’. 3rd Edition. Canterbury University Press and Manaaki Whenua Press. Christchurch. [Book]

Perry, G. L. W., A. B. Wheeler, J. R. Wood, and J. M. Wilmshurst. (2014). “A High-Precision Chronology for the Rapid Extinction of the New Zealand Moa (Aves, Dinornithiformes).” Quaternary Science Reviews 105: pp.126-35. [Abstract only]

Rawlence, N. J., J. R. Wood, K. N. Armstrong, and A. Cooper. (2009). “DNA Content and Distribution in Ancient Feathers and Potential to Reconstruct the Plumage of Extinct Avian Taxa.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Series B. [Full article]

Scofield, R. P. & Ashwell, W. S. (2009). ‘Rapid Somatic Expansion Causes the brain to lag behind: the case of the brain and behaviou of New Zealand’s Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei).’ Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 29 (3). Pp.637-649.

Tennyson, A.; Martinson, P. (2006). ‘Extinct Birds of New Zealand’. Wellington, New Zealand: Te Papa Press. [Book]

Wood, J. R., N. J. Rawlence, G. M. Rogers, J. J. Austin, T. H. Worthy, and A. Cooper. (2008). “Coprolite Deposits Reveal the Diet and Ecology of the Extinct New Zealand Megaherbivore Moa (Aves, Dinornithiformes).” Quaternary Science Reviews. [Abstract only]



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1 Response to Disappearing into the heavens

  1. Holly says:

    Ayyy! I’ve loved Haast’s eagles since I was I kid and always love to see posts about them. If memory serves, though, you left off my favorite bit of your second inset quote! That “hokioi-hokioi-huu” was it’s cry, but only “hokioi” was a vocalization and “huu” was the sound of it’s wingbeats. That was the bit that really got me. The raptors I’ve worked with have surprisingly distinct wing beats, you can tell some species apart with only a little practice, but I never really considered it an identifying characteristic. That these eagles may have had wing beats so loud and commonly heard that people would think to point it out and include it in stories is lovely to think about. Suppose it makes sense with all the weight they were hauling on those short wings.

    Not to say you should have included that, staying on topic and what. I just wanted to gush. Thanks for the post!

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