By Natasha Frost May 12, 2019
When New Zealand’s first settlers arrived in the country in around 1300, they found a series of islands with lots of seafood, not much by way of edible plant life, and some of the most extraordinary flightless birds the world had ever seen.
Over millions of years, New Zealand had developed a unique ecosystem. It has almost no native mammals and is instead home to a vibrant array of avian life—at most recent count, some 378 species, many of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Without the risk of mammal predators, a striking number are shockingly defenseless, and spend their lives trotting sweetly—and vulnerably—along the forest floor.
Moa should not have been at risk. These enormous birds stood twice the height of an adult man, and weighed nearly three times as much. They had few natural predators, beyond the now-extinct Haast’s eagle, with their size weapon enough against almost anything. But they were slow, unwieldy, and possibly quite delicious. With few alternative sources of food, New Zealand’s newly-arrived Maori people quickly grew accustomed to killing and eating them. Within a century, the birds were gone forever.