Was the Long-tailed Cuckoo an ancient navigators’ guide?

Saturday 15 March 2014 | Published in Features


The Long-tailed Cuckoo (Karavia) winters in tropical Polynesia and migrates to New Zealand in October and November to breed by duping other birds to incubate its eggs and raise its young.

Part 1 last week discussed its behaviour in the Cook Islands and in New Zealand and the long time it took to prove it was migrated long distances over the ocean. This part discusses its Polynesian names, the likelihood that its migration helped ancient Polynesians discover Aotearoa, and alternative bird omens of New Zealand.

Polynesian names

The initial Polynesian culture developed in the Fiji, Samoa and Tonga area starting about 3,000 years ago (1000 BC). After 2000 years, around 1000 AD, they began to explore eastward to find and settle the Society Islands; continuing eastward, they soon settled the Tuamotu, Marquesas, Pitcairn and Rapanui. Around 1200 AD they probed north from the Marquesas to discover Hawai‘i. At a similar time, from the Societies and Rarotonga, they persisted to the southwest into difficult winds and cold seas to discover New Zealand.

As each new community formed, their inherited language and culture changed by varying degrees. Sometimes known plants and animals were given new names, but more commonly earlier names were maintained with a new pronunciation which was later preserved in the written language. Such words are called cognates; a good example is Cook Islands Rupe (Pacific Pigeon), a cognate of Samoa Lupe, with R replacing L.

Linguistic research shows that the ancient name for our cuckoo was Kleva; this name survives unaltered in Tonga, Tokelau and Pukapuka. The name survives as cognates throughout most of Polynesia: ‘leva in Samoa with glottal for K; K‘eva‘eva in Marquesas with glottal for L; Krevareva in Tuamotu with R for L; and in Tahiti ‘revareva, with glottal for K and R for L. See illustration.

In the Cook Islands, except for Pukapuka, the traditional Polynesian name has been replaced by new names: Karavia (Rarotonga and Aitutaki), ‘Aravi‘i (tiu), Ptangaroa (Mangaia), ‘tangaroa (Ma‘uke), Koekoe (Penrhyn) and Kokorove (Manihiki, Rakahanga and Palmerston). It is not known when or why there was a widespread development of new names in the Cook Islands.

With the Cook Islands as an ancient stepping stone, the situation in New Zealand is interesting. The Mori arrived with the traditional cuckoo name, Kleva, as the cognate Krewarewa from tropical Eastern Polynesia, but they applied it to the New Zealand Falcon, which is superficially similar to the Long-tailed Cuckoo. For the cuckoo, the most used Mori name is Koekoe, probably a cognate of the now forgotten ‘‘ea, a name for the cuckoo in the 1851 Davies’ Tahitian dictionary. Tongareva probably got its Koekoe from the same source.

Other New Zealand Mori names include Kawekawe, Kaweau, Kawekaweau and Khoperoa. The name Kaweau is also the name of the Tuatara Lizard and the three related names might be derived from the ancient belief that the cuckoo turned into a lizard during the winter. The name Khoperoa might have been obtained from an unrecorded Tahitian name hope-roa meaning "long-tail", combined with the Tahitian prefix k.

The navigators guide to Aotearoa?

One of the best known "traditions" of the discovery of Aotearoa was published in 1913 with a translation by Percy Smith in the "The Lore of the Whare-wananga, Part 2, Chapter 3" which was recorded in about 1865 from the traditional teacher Te Matorohunga. It recounts that a Tahiti chief, Kupe, discovered Aotearoa in his waka Matahorua, accompanied by his friend Ngake in a second waka. They were chasing a troublesome giant octopus belonging to an uncooperative man, Muturangi. It led them to the North Cape of Aotearoa and down the eastern coast until they killed it near the South Island. They explored both islands and returned to Ra‘iatea and Tahiti. There is no known Mori or other Polynesian oral tradition suggesting that the Long-tailed Cuckoo was migratory, or implicated in the original discovery of Aotearoa. This hypothesis was first suggested by Percy Smith in 1907 commenting as the editor of the Journal of the Polynesian Society on an article by Taylor White, which suggested in general terms that navigators at sea would sometimes notice migrating birds and could easily sail in the same direction. Smith commented: "We think there is a great deal of probability in Mr. Taylor White’s theory, and would suggest that it was the flight of the kohoperoa, or long-tailed cuckoo, that first induced the Polynesian voyagers to come as far South as New Zealand. The kohoperoa winters in the Islands from Samoa to Tahiti." (JPS 16:92)

In 1913 when he translated the well-known Kupe story, Smith wrote in his preamble: "the probable inducement to Kupe to undertake the long voyage from Tahiti to New Zealand, was the flight of the Kohoperoa, or long-tailed Cuckoo, which an observant people like the Maoris on seeing this bird coming year after year from the South West, and well knowing that it was a land bird, would immediately conclude that land of considerable size lay in that direction."

In his famous 1972 book "We, the Navigators" navigator David Lewis concluded that Polynesian navigators could have converted observed landbird flight paths into directions on their star compass, but cautioned: "I want to stress that the hypotheses about following migratory bird paths remain entirely speculative."

The Pacific Golden-Plover (Trea) is a conspicuous tropical island landbird on the shore and open areas. In April their departure northward to Alaska is very conspicuous: the birds gather into groups at staging areas and then depart northward in large groups; afterwards there is a dramatic decrease in the number of plovers. It is widely accepted that the plover’s northward migration inspired the early Marquesas navigators to persist northward until they found the islands of Hawai’i.

In contrast to the departure of the plover, the October-November departure of the Long-tailed Cuckoo is very inconspicuous; they leave alone or in small groups without any fanfare, and there is no apparent dramatic decrease in their numbers. Furthermore, the recent evidence showing that many Eastern Polynesia cuckoos drift westward after June and go to Aotearoa from around Tonga, means there are much fewer birds flying direct from the Cooks and Societies to New Zealand than previously thought. In contrast to Smith’s idea that they were commonly seen returning to the tropics from the southwest, their return is even more inconspicuous than their departure. I conclude that the use of the flight path of the Long-tailed Cuckoo to find Aotearoa is very unlikely, but not impossible.

Other guides to Aotearoa

Although the direction of migrating cuckoos would have been difficult to detect, there are other birds migrating across tropical Polynesia to New Zealand around November that were more easily observed because of their great numbers.

In November 1985 I was on the Ravakai from Penrhyn to Rarotonga when for more than a day small petrels, similar to Cook’s Petrel, were flying past on a somewhat similar course. There is no petrel nesting in large numbers in the Southern Group, so it seemed likely they were heading to New Zealand.

In recent years, mainly using electronic tracking, the circum-Pacific migratory paths of Sooty Shearwater (Titi, Muttonbird) and Cook’s Petrel (Titi) have been mapped in detail. These birds and other related birds undertake indirect loop paths from New Zealand to their favourite feeding grounds off Peru, Southern California, Alaska and Japan. However, when they fly back to New Zealand in October and November they fly along remarkably straight flyways across Polynesia.

The flyway from Peru used by Cook’s Petrel is probably too far south of tropical Polynesia to have alerted navigators of land to the southwest.

The flyway from Hawai‘i is used by an immense numbers of Sooty Shearwaters, Cook’s Petrels and other birds. This popular flyway is west of the Cook Islands, past Samoa and Tonga to New Zealand. Despite the immense number of birds using this flyway, it might not have been known to navigators in the Southern Cooks and Societies.

The flyway from California used by the Sooty Shearwater, which passes through the Cook Islands, has distinct possibilities of being a signpost to New Zealand for ancient navigators. Even today, many thousands of birds use this route. In the ancient past, before petrels and shearwaters were decimated by people and introduced predators, the number of birds using this pathway would have been immense and they would have been a convincing omen of lands to the southwest. As Lewis pointed out, the navigator could interpret the direction into his star map and navigate in that direction when conditions were favourable.