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The last huia

We have 19th-century ornithologists like Walter Buller to thank for specimens of now-extinct species like the huia.

In Te Papa's Awesome Forces exhibit, a pair of glass-eyed huia perch on sticks and peer blindly out of a museum cabinet filled with other native birds. It's both exciting and sad to see two of the country's few display specimens of this now-extinct bird, with its large black body, orange wattle and white-tipped tail feathers.

In camphor-filled metal cabinets in the back rooms of Te Papa - and at the Auckland, Canterbury and Otago museums - lie dozens of huia skins. These preserved, eviscerated birds, with beaks stretched out and wings tucked in, lie alongside skins from other extinct species like the laughing owl and Stephen's Island wren as well as skins from the rest of New Zealand's 360 native bird species.

We have 19th-century ornithologists like Walter Buller - the subject of Nick Blake's new play, Dr Buller's Birds, opening in Wellington this week* - to thank for specimens of now-extinct species like the huia. Walter Lawry Buller, a New Zealand-born magistrate and lawyer as well as an acclaimed ornithologist, started collecting birds from the bush around his Kaipara home as a teenager, and continued throughout his life. He is best known for A History of the Birds of New Zealand, first published in 1873. Aside from Johannes Keulemans's much-reproduced watercolour illustrations, the book includes Buller's vivid descriptions of the birds' habits and ecology - along with tales of his hunting expeditions.

Although Buller got most of his bird skins from dealers, he went on his own excursions in search of kiwi and huia. On an 1883 trip to a North Island mountain forest he described how "a pair of huias, without uttering a sound, appeared in a tree overhead, and as they were caressing each other with their beautiful bills, a charge of No. 6 brought both to the ground together". At the end of the three-day trip Buller had bagged 16 huia. Although it is astonishing today to learn that Buller shot huia, in the late 19th century this was accepted ornithological practice, says Ross Galbreath, Buller's biographer. Buller, like many naturalists of the day, believed that New Zealand's endemic species were doomed, destined to be superseded by "superior" exotic species. Collecting bird skins, therefore, was considered vital to the scientific description of the species and to ensure specimens were available for display in museums in New Zealand and Europe.

This is no excuse, however, for his later behaviour. Researching his 1989 biography, Galbreath discovered that Buller, despite publicly supporting plans for statutory protection of the huia and the creation of bird sanctuaries at Resolution and Little Barrier islands, was up to no good. In 1893, Buller had been asked by Prime Minister Ballance to organise an official expedition to find and trap two huia to transfer to Little Barrier Island.

"I was appalled to discover what Buller had done," says Galbreath. In the middle of the transfer, Ballance died, and Buller quietly diverted the birds to Lord Rothschild, the eccentric British banker and natural history enthusiast who kept kangaroos and kiwi in his garden and harnessed zebras to his carriage.

"Buller was a real rascal in some ways and quite desperate for recognition," says Galbreath. "He was ashamed of having been born in New Zealand and felt he had to prove himself as good as any English gentleman. And if something could help him get in with the nobility, he was right there." Buller's efforts paid off, and as well as gaining wide acclaim for A History of the Birds of New Zealand, he was awarded a KCMG and became "quite the London gentleman".

As for the huia, despite the 1892 amendment of the Animals Protection Act to include the endangered bird, it continued to fall victim to habitat destruction, introduced predators and collectors' greed for skins, not just for scientific study but for display in fashionable drawing-rooms and as a source of decorative feathers. The last sighting of the huia was in 1907 and the bird Buller described as "graceful" and "shy" with "beautiful plumage" is now extinct.

Thankfully, though, the ornithological collections made by Buller and other naturalists are not just languishing in museum cabinets. Bird skins held in New Zealand's museums are an important resource for ecological and taxonomic studies, says Te Papa's bird curator Sandy Bartle.

"We hold a number of type specimens, which are the individual birds from which descriptions of new species were made. The collections also give important information on where different species used to occur."

Museum specimens also provide baseline information against which to compare modern species, for example to track the increase in environmental contaminants such as heavy metals, pesticides and PCBs over the last century. Bird skins are also a source of genetic information. Massey University's David Lambert is contributing DNA extracted from museum bird skins to the Barcode of Life project, an ambitious international initiative that aims to "barcode" every species on earth.

So, could museum huia skins one day be used to extract DNA to clone the extinct species? Bartle thinks it's unlikely. "The DNA preserved in museum specimens is just not good enough to extract the entire genome." But Lambert says "never is a long time, and I am optimistic that it might be possible - in the very long term". In the meantime, we'll have to make do with Buller's book and those glass-eyed museum specimens.

*Dr Buller's Birds, Circa Theatre, February 25-March 25.