The huia was endemic to the North Island of New Zealand. The white-tipped tail feathers were a revered taonga (treasure) for Māori at the time of European arrival.
In pre-European times, only chiefs of high rank and their whanau wore the feathers in their hair. In a culture without money, tribes traded the feathers with other tribes for greenstone, sharks’ teeth and other valuables. So precious were huia feathers, that special boxes were created to store them, known as waka huia (a huia canoe).
Nineteenth century biologists prized huia for its beak, ranking it, along with the moa and kiwi, as one of the world’s most remarkable birds. It was the only known bird in the world which male and female’s bills differed radically in size and shape. Because the female huia had a downward pointing beak that was much larger than that of the male, pairs of huia were often killed and preserved in glass cases.
Huia began to succumb to the twin pressures of hunting and habitat destruction soon after the arrival of Maori in Aotearoa. Between 1891 and the early 1900s, it was open season on the bird for mounted specimens, which were in worldwide demand by museums and wealthy private collectors, and for their striking tail feathers for hat decorations. Legislation to stop the birds being hunted was passed in 1892, but it was too late; in the early 20th century the huia was extinct.