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Once In A Blue Moa

Posted by: Loren Coleman on February 7th, 2007

bluemoa.jpg

Did a young girl from a pioneering Fiordland family have the last human encounter with a moa?

It has gone down in history as one of the most puzzling rare-bird sightings and it happened in the remote south-west corner of New Zealand.

What was the big blue bird that pioneer Alice McKenzie saw at Martins Bay, 30km north of Milford Sound, in 1880? Experts are still debating nearly 130 years later.

Did a species of moa, such as the little bush moa, survive human predation and live on in the Fiordland wilderness 400 years after they were thought to be extinct?

Or was McKenzie, whose meticulous diary jottings of everyday life have been hailed as a valuable historic record, genuinely mistaken over her blue “moa”?

alice.jpg

Forty-four years after her death, McKenzie’s memory is being defended by her Christchurch granddaughter, Alice Margaret Leaker. She has compiled a new edition of a book her grandmother wrote, first published in 1947. The new edition of Pioneers of Martins Bay, published by Arrowtown’s Lakes District Museum, delves further into “moagate” and responds to the critics who say McKenzie was wrong.

It is a huge claim for anyone sober to say “Nana saw a moa” and Leaker chooses her words far more judiciously than that.

“I believe that she saw what she said she saw. What she has described sounds very like what we now know the bush moa to be,” says Leaker, 61.

Her maternal grandmother was born in Hokitika in 1873 to Daniel McKenzie, a Scottish journalist, and his Irish wife, Margaret.

Alice was about five when the family settled on a farm near the beach at Martins Bay. She never went to school, but left behind journals recording daily realities facing pioneers in the 19th century, poems and the legacy of her book.

It was in 1880, when Alice was seven, that she says she saw a large blue bird under flax where the bushline met the beach. This was not a flash of a bird retreating into the scrub. It was a full-on encounter, with Alice describing touching the bird’s curved rump feathers and stretching out one of its dark-green, scaly legs.

It was only when Alice tried to tether the bird with flax that it let out a “harsh, grunting cry” and chased her for a short distance.

McKenzie described the bird as being pukeko blue, with legs as thick as her wrist and no noticeable tail. When it stood up, it seemed as tall as she was.

She caught another glimpse of the bird in 1889, then nothing.

In Pioneers of Martins Bay, McKenzie said she believed for a long time that the bird must have been a takahe. But when the takahe, thought extinct, was rediscovered in 1948, McKenzie said the description was very different from the bird she had seen. She went to the Otago Museum in Dunedin to see a mounted takahe and found it much smaller – with red legs and beak.

McKenzie died in 1963 in her 90th year, after a series of strokes.

Leaker’s life overlapped with that of her elderly grandmother when McKenzie lived with the extended family in Dunedin.

“I would say she was a very truthful, good person. A Godfearing person. I could never imagine that she would have been the kind of person to make something up for attention,” says Leaker. Although she never got the chance to talk to her grandmother about the sighting, Leaker remembers being fascinated by adults discussing it.

“It’s not until you grow older that you come to realise how important it is. And wouldn’t you love to have someone back for a couple of weeks so you could talk to them?”

However, critics such as respected author John Hall-Jones are far from convinced. In his 1987 book, Martins Bay, he felt a strong need to “correct” McKenzie’s claim to have seen a moa.

“Indeed, it is paramount to do so, for if it was true then it would be the only documented case of a European having seen and actually touched a living moa. And it would be the first report of a moa, dead or alive, with navy-blue feathers”.

Hall-Jones further pointed out that the moa story only came to light in the second edition of McKenzie’s book, published in 1952, when she was 75.

In 1946, McKenzie had written to an Otago University professor claiming to have seen a takahe, before their rediscovery.

Hall-Jones ventured that McKenzie may have seen a blue white-faced heron, which, with its long legs and large feet, would have looked huge to a child.

“Above all, it must be remembered that we are depending on the observations of a child aged seven, first reported at the age of 69 and altered significantly at the age of 75,” wrote Hall-Jones.

Today, Hall-Jones is holding firmly to his view. “She’s got her view and I’ve got mine. The archaeologists and ornithologists agree with me over it, too. I don’t really want to get involved in a showdown.”

The need to respond to her grandmother’s critics, and preserve history for her own three sons, prompted Leaker to produce the new book.

“Her (McKenzie’s) many accounts of these incidents have been very descriptive and consistent,” says Leaker.

“It is interesting to read her diaries and to realise how familiar the family must have been with the bird life that surrounded them at the time, even if they did not know them all by name.”

Leaker is aware that prevailing scientific opinion opposes her grandmother’s sighting because of the timing. “They really don’t believe that she could have seen one, but there are just so many accounts of sightings in the 19th century in New Zealand,” Leaker says.

She says a pending publication on moa sightings will cover reports such as McKenzie’s in a thorough and balanced way.

Academics contacted by The Press had little hope that McKenzie’s bird was a moa, but neither did they entirely rule it out. “It is not impossible,” says Canterbury Museum’s curator of vertebrate zoology, Dr Paul Scofield.

However, moa experts agreed it is “highly unlikely”. “The bottom line is that the conventional wisdom is (that) most moa became extinct within 100 years of the first human arrival in New Zealand in the 12th century,” Scofield says.

Evidence suggested a few small upland moa may have been living in the high country until about 1500, he says.

“Current evidence suggests that all moa were extinct by 1500.”

Scofield says the species McKenzie could have seen – the upland moa – was least like the description she reported.

“The upland moa had some very weird characteristics – for example, hairy legs – and it was only as big as a sheep, really,” he says.

The colouring of McKenzie’s bird pointed more strongly to the takahe, but there were other possibilities, says Scofield.

Unusually large, great spotted kiwis the size of turkeys were known to exist in the area at the time. Exotic birds like ostriches and emus were released in parts of New Zealand during the late 1800s because experts believed that native birds were doomed.

“That is also a possibility,” Scofield says.

Te Papa’s fossil curator, Alan Tennyson, says a pukeko-blue moa does not tally with any recovered moa feathers.

“The bright-blue colour would suggest something like a takahe, which probably were there at the time, but her description doesn’t really fit with a takahe, either,” he says.

“That’s the problem with these sorts of sightings. It would never be accepted as a definite moa. It obviously is an interesting sighting and it doesn’t sound like it’s fabricated. It sounds like she genuinely saw something there.”

Being so young at the time, Tennyson says McKenzie’s imagination may have influenced the sighting, especially if it was recorded years later.

With the passage of time it is almost impossible to solve the riddle of the blue moa, but as folk from Loch Ness know, that is what keeps a good legend alive.

* Pioneers of Martins Bay will be launched next Saturday at the Lakes District Museum, Arrowtown. The museum is selling the book direct for $29.99.Yvonne Martin

Source: Stuff Magazine, New Zealand, February 6, 2007. Thanks to The Anomalist.

About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


10 Responses to “Once In A Blue Moa”

  1. DWA responds:

    Having trekked to Martins Bay on the Hollyford Track (Ok, cheated a bit with a jetboat), I can say that it’s remote enough today that back then, who knows?

    It is interesting how quickly people will discount stuff that doesn’t square with what they “know” – instead of questioning how much they really know.

    I know it’s the province of science to guard as well as expand the body of knowledge. My saying I saw a dodo isn’t gonna make it real, scientifically speaking. But must they be such damn killjoys about it?

    I won’t even get started on what I think about people who tell you you didn’t see what you saw when they weren’t there.

    Oh. How many scientists were in New Zealand in 1500? Just asking.

  2. youcantryreachingme responds:

    Very curious.

    Another one for the list of rediscoveries we need to make :)

  3. Ceroill responds:

    Probably not many, DWA. But remember, to many scientists only a ‘highly trained observer’ can make a credible report of having seen anything. Also, that the only sort of person less believed than a small girl on a rural homestead would have been an indigenous person. The concept that ‘ordinary people’ (especially children and natives) might actually know what they’re talkinig about is alien to them.

    Once something has become ‘established fact’ (animal x being extinct for example) it becomes the responsibility of the witness of something contrary to that fact to demonstrate conclusively the veracity of their claim.

  4. DWA responds:

    Ceroill: as you say.

    It’s just that I’d appreciate it if scientists stopped accumulating so much dust, and left that brain open just a crack to let in a little light and air occasionally.

    If I were a scientist, and I’m not but if I were, knowing what I know now, here would be my comment on anything like this.

    “The evidence we have seems to mark this an unlikely occurrence. But unlikelier things have happened. Extinction being, of course, something that can never be proven, the book is never truly closed, whatever pronouncements to the contrary we may make for the sake of scientific convenience. I can’t consider one sighting report anything other than intriguing. But it remains, certainly, that. No one should expect me to be the first to tell her she didn’t see what she saw. After all, I wasn’t there.”

    Pretty all-purpose, don’t you think? No insulting the intelligence and the eyesight (both of which may well be better than yours) of people who may have seen just what they saw. Simply the recognition that, old lady, count yourself VERY lucky if you did. Science maintains its precious dignity, and doesn’t go around letting in all kinds of crazy crap. While reminding itself – and all of us – that the total of what we know will probably always lag well behind the total of what we don’t.

    Can’t get more scientific than that, I don’t think.

    That little crack gets stuff discovered by people who let light in. People named Jeff, for example.

  5. mystery_man responds:

    I am not familiar really familiar with the moa but what strikes me is how tame it was with the little girl. ” This was not a flash of a bird retreating into the scrub. It was a full-on encounter, with Alice describing touching the bird’s curved rump feathers and stretching out one of its dark-green, scaly legs.” Is this consistent with how one of these would have behaved? I would think that if it was this tame around humans, then everybody would have been seeing it on a regular basis. As for scientists accepting the little girl’s testimony, it makes sense to me a bit. A little girl would be more likely to exaggerate or misidentify an animal or just plain make it up. There is every possibility that she DID see a moa, but that just isn’t going to convince most scientists and in a way this is not always a bad thing. We can’t have scientists just believing everything they hear. There has to be, as Ceroill said, some veracity to the claim and in the case of an expert witness, their expertise is their veracity. Perhaps they should have done more than just discounted the sighting out of hand, but witness reliability is persuasive. If a bird expert made this sighting, their testimony would most likely be embraced with open arms. It’s unfortunate sometimes, but the way it usually is. I also often wonder what kind of rare or supposedly extinct animals common people have seen without even realizing it was anything special. It seems not only does someone have to have the luck to see it, but an actual expert has to see it and document it for it to be “real”.

  6. heinselman responds:

    While the history behind the McKenzie book is nice, it does not give a good sense of the event of interest here. After all the article was not really “aimed” at that, as such the brief outline of her event are not very detailed.

    I would suggest that interested parties either pick up her book, or get hold of a transcript of one of her letters.

    For example, Atholl Anderson put an extract from McKenzie’s May 1948 letter to North Otago historian GB Stevenson in his interesting 1989 article “On Evidence for the Survival of Moa in European Fiordland” (New Zealand Journal of Ecology, volume 12, supplement 1989).

    This extract brings out what she saw further, her reaction, and other events at the time. It also touches on the later incident. Not sure if Anderson’s article is online or not, but an extract of the reference letter can be read at :

    http://www.strangeark.com/blog/2007/02/alice-mckenzie-and-moa.html

    Craig Heinselman
    Peterborough, NH

  7. One Eyed Cat responds:

    I must note, ‘conventional wisdom ‘ has a known habit of being wrong.

  8. YourPTR! responds:

    I’ve read about this incident before and the general consenous was that she saw a takahe and mistakenly thought it was a moa. Which is still pretty cool as they were considered extinct at the time and remain very rare to this day. A takahe is much more likely and resembles what she claimed to have seen much more closely.

  9. Jeremy_Wells responds:

    Remember too, though, that she claimed to have seen another one again nine years later. Are the word and observational skills of a 16 year old more valid than those of a 7 year old? (I’d say yes and no, depending on the situation) But she emphatically stated it was not one of the rediscovered takahe, based on the red colorations of that species legs.

    Also, if no westerner is supposed to have ever seen a living moa, how do we KNOW there weren’t some dark blue individuals of some species or another? Surely the recovered feather evidence isn’t comprehensive.

    As for whether or not this bird would let a seven year old child actually touch it, perhaps such a docile nature was a contributing factor to their (supposedly) becoming extinct within a hundred years of human contact? Whatever it was, we obviously aren’t dealing with a flesh-eating “terror bird” here.

  10. Mnynames responds:

    Let’s not rule out the possibility that what she saw may have been highly unusual, even within the natural variation of your average Moa, or even that it may have been the last of a species never documented by science at all.



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