"I read a book once about this guy who went on an expedition to find proof of the Yeti in the Himalayan Mountains. After two years there he left without a sighting or anything. But when people pointed this out to him he shrugged and said ‘In two years I never saw a Snow Leopard either and we know they exist’. Maybe that’s the same with your Moa. Maybe they were just too good at hiding. If they had survived to present day they must be fairly good at keeping out of sight."
Kelvin V.A. Allison - Ubasute
One of the first mystery bird reports that I can ever remember reading appeared in A New Dictionary of Birds (1964), edited by A. Landsborough Thompson – a weighty but thoroughly fascinating tome of a book purchased for me by my mother when I was around 10 or 11 years old, and which was the most comprehensive, encyclopaedic single-volume work on ornithology that I had ever encountered (even today, it is still inordinately useful). The detailed moa entry, written by highly-acclaimed New Zealand ornithologist Dr Robert A. Falla, contained a section discussing the possible survival of Megalapteryx, one of the smallest moas (often dubbed the upland moa), into the 19th Century on South Island. And in that section, the following brief but captivating item was included:
"Among reported direct observations by Europeans, one of the most arresting is that given in her later years by a Mrs Alice McKenzie who was born and spent her childhood at Martins Bay. Throughout her life she retained a vivid recollection of an incident when, as a child of seven, about the year 1880, she had been waiting for her brother who was mustering cattle. As she sat on a coastal sand dune adjacent to forest, she was surprised to see a large bird of dark bluish plumage standing close to her. It was about 3.5 feet in height, and her clearest recollection was of its large protruding eyes, broad beak, and powerful scaly legs which she remembered as being about the same thickness as her own forearm and wrist. After she had published this description in a book of reminiscences, Mrs McKenzie was cross-questioned by many people and interviewed for radio broadcast. She continued to give convincing and good descriptive answers."
A few years later, I read Dr Bernard Heuvelmans’s classic book On the Track of Unknown Animals (1958), which contained an entire chapter on the subject of putative surviving moas, but I was surprised and disappointed that this did not mention McKenzie’s famous sighting. Notwithstanding that strange omission, my own interest in her account has always remained keen, and finally, in my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), I documented it myself, by which time various intriguing new developments had taken place.
So here is what I wrote about the prospect of modern-day moa survival in general, and about this tantalising, controversial case in particular:
“In New Zealand, there seems little hope that any of the famous ostrich-like moas of the genus Dinornis (‘terrible bird’) still survive, but it may even now be premature to claim the same for at least one of their less familiar, smaller relatives. Apparently an inhabitant primarily of subalpine shrubland and montane forests, the upland moa Megalapteryx didinus is not generally assumed to have survived beyond the 1840s; indeed, some consider that even this extinction date is too recent.
“One of the most thought-provoking reports casting doubt upon such claims, however, is contained within the 1952, revised edition of Alice McKenzie’s book Pioneers of Martins Bay (first published 1947, but lacking this report). In it, she recalled her encounter in 1880 as a 7-year-old child at Martins Bay, South Island, with a strange bird that cannot be conclusively identified with any known species alive today. Able to walk straight up to it, she described it as a large bird at least 3 ft high, with navy-blue plumage, dark green legs with large scales, no noticeable tail, and three large claws on each foot. She endeavoured to capture it, and in response it attempted to attack her, so she ran home. When she returned to the spot with her father, the bird was gone, but its three-toed tracks remained. Using a measuring ruler, her father found that the middle toe measured 11 in from heel to tip, though the soft sand may have enlarged it a little.
“In 1889, she saw the bird again, and her brother spotted it once too. After the rediscovery in December 1948 of another supposedly extinct South Island bird, the famous flightless rail known as the takahe Porphyrio (=Notornis) mantelli, Alice McKenzie examined a preserved specimen, because its dark blue plumage suggested the possibility that the mystery bird she and her brother had seen had been a takahe. Indeed, in 1946 (two years before the takahe’s rediscovery), she had written to an Otago University professor actually claiming to have seen a takahe. After examining one, however, she then discounted this possibility, stating that the takahe seemed totally different in appearance from the mystery bird that she had seen in 1880 and 1889, noting in particular that the takahe’s legs were deep red, not green like her bird’s. Could Alice McKenzie’s mystery bird have been a living Megalapteryx? Some ornithologists are optimistic that it was, but others consider it to have been a takahe after all, or even, as proposed in 1987 by New Zealand author John Hall-Jones, a blue-plumaged white-faced heron.
Takahe (Dr Karl P.N. Shuker)
“Alice McKenzie died in 1963, but now, 44 years later [i.e. in 2007], her granddaughter, Alice Margaret Leaker, who is convinced of the veracity of her maternal grandmother’s testimony, has compiled a new edition of her book, in which she delves deeper into this longstanding controversy. Quite apart from the late date of the sighting, however, another problem when attempting to reconcile McKenzie’s bird with a moa is that none of the numerous moa remains so far recovered have included any blue-coloured feathers.
“During February and March 1978, yet another in a long line of modern-day moa hunts took place. Led by biologist Prof. Shoichi Hollie of Japan’s Gunma University and accompanied by Seido Hino (Director of Japan’s Nippon Television), a Japanese team of scientists converged upon South Island’s Fjordland, armed with a very sophisticated lure — a reconstituted moa cry on tape, created with the aid of computerised analyses of Megalapteryx throat structure using fossil remains. Tragically, however, as Prof. Hollie subsequently informed me, it failed to elicit any reply, and he now considers Megalapteryx to be extinct. This is also the opinion of Ron Scarlett, the Canterbury Museum osteologist with whom the team consulted upon arrival in New Zealand.
“Much of the Megalapteryx mystique and the continuing hope that it will eventually be discovered alive stems from another avian mystery. According to Dr Bernard Heuvelmans in On the Track of Unknown Animals (1958), the Maoris tell of an unidentified form of ‘giant kiwi’, termed the roa-roa, said to be the size of a turkey, and armed with sharp spurs on its feet. However, as I discovered from Ron Scarlett and from a number of works dealing with New Zealand’s avifauna, roa-roa is actually the name given to the largest of the known kiwis, i.e. the great-spotted kiwi Apteryx haasti of South Island.
“Even so, A. haasti never exceeds 2 ft in total length, and does not have spurs — but the well-developed clawed hallux on each foot of the small moas might well be mistaken for a spur by lay observers, and it so happens that Megalapteryx was indeed turkey-sized! Moreover, it is very possible that in life, this little moa superficially resembled an extra-large kiwi — its scientific name actually means ‘big kiwi’. In short, this suggests that the reclusive ‘giant kiwi’ is separate from A. haasti (the genuine roa-roa), but may be one and the same as Megalapteryx!”
Another name for this mysterious, unidentified ‘giant kiwi’ was the fireman – given to it by sealers from Foveaux Strait who often spent many months in South Island’s south-western fjords, living off the land. When some were questioned by Frederick Strange, a naturalist accompanying HMS ‘Acheron’ on survey there in 1852, they informed him that the reason why they called this bird the fireman was that its cry sounded like the noise made by the wooden rattle carried in those days by New Zealand firemen on duty. Rather than attempting to lure into view a living Megalapteryx using a sophisticated computer-reconstituted version of its cry, perhaps, therefore, Prof. Shoichi’s team should have simply used one of these rattles!