He Kuaka


In Spring the kuaka or godwit depart from their breeding nests in the great Siberian and Alaskan tundra and return to the rich feeding grounds provided by Aotearoa’s  tidal flats and coastal marshes. In ancient times this annual arrival of the kuaka was looked as a great event.     

For Maori the kuaka were birds of mystery. They feature prominently in our mythology. It was believed that they came from, or at least passed through, the ancestral home, Hawaiki.

Kua kite te kohanga kuaka?

Who has seen the nest of the kuaka?

Ko wai ka kite I te hua o te kuaka?

Who has ever held the egg of the kuaka?

In some tribal traditions the whakapapa of the kuaka starts with Karihi, grandson of Tangaroa. Karihi is the kuaka’s father and Kauitara the mother. These two are believed to be the parents of all sea birds that fly in flocks, like kuaka, tara, and torea. In the formative period of living creatures on this earth it is said to have been the task of the kuaka to fly to the furthest seas to call together all sea birds to fight for a share of the harvest of river fish claimed by land birds

Kupe is assumed to have followed the path of the kuaka on his journey to Aotearoa. The traditions of the Ngati Awa and Ngai Tahuhu hold that, when living on one of the small islands in the Pacific, they noticed that the kuaka migrated every year in a southerly direction, returning from the same point. From this evidence the ancestors of these tribes deduced that land was to be found in that direction and two canoes were outfitted for the voyage to what has become known as Aotearoa.    

Kuaka on the wing are known as “waka kuaka”. Their cries are loud as they fly along. During daylight the ancestors followed the course of the flight in their canoes by observing the direction of the flight. In the night they would listen for the cries of the kuaka on their way to the south above the fleet of canoes and so be guided by them

Ko te kaupapa waka kit e moana hoe ai ko te kahui atua kit e ranga rere ai

Whilst the fleet of canoes over the ocean are paddled, the flocks of gods are above in the heavens flying

Having completed their return journey from the north, a flight of around 12,000km, the kuaka arrive in Aotearoa  in great swarms of wh?nau clusters.

A saying composed by Tumatahina of Te Aupouri goes:

Te kuaka marangaranga, kotahi manu i tau ki te tahuna: tau atu, tau ra

The godwit flock has arisen; one bird has come to rest on the beach: others will follow.

These clustering flocks have been described as “hau te kapakapa  – the flapping wind”.

In some areas the gathering place of the kuaka is called “tahuna a tapu” a sacred sandbank.

As the numbers build they may be numbered in thousands and lend themselves to metaphors. This following saying about a thousand godwits in flight relates to a number of men working with adzes on the creation of a canoe and the flying chips they produce.  

Ka kite a te rere maramara! Me te pukai kuaka!

Like a godwit flock was seen a flight of chips

Another relates to the purposefulness of the kuaka

Ka ngau ki te turikakao te paringa o te tai, e tika te rere o te kuaka

The spinifex (seaside grass tuft) wanders along the beach like the incoming tide, the kuaka flies direct

Whilst the kuaka is generally seen as a harbinger of good things and the arrival of spring there are also darker metaphors.

Old lore holds that it was at Te Reigna that the forces of Tumatauenga rose like a flock of kuaka against the other gods in distant times. That departing place too is for the spirits of the dead as they follow the setting sun to the world of darkness and their future life in Hawaiki. Their soft murmurings as they take leave has been compared to the rustling of wings and the twitterings of kuaka as they set out, hence this proverb

Me he kahui kuaka

Like a flock of kuaka are the people at Te Reigna


Te Reigna – rarangi mai ra te rangai kuaka/ kia tau hikohiko he pai tu waho

Flocks of godwits are gathering / moving restlessly on the seaward cliffs

When a flock of kuaka would be continually rising in the air and then settling down again it was regarded as an aitua or evil omen, to any war party that observed this behaviour. Then the cry was

Ka hoki te taua, ka hokiu te taua.