Art Work of the Week: Saddleback / Tieke

Tieke – the stuff of legend and reality

By Cushla McGaughey

According to Maori legend, the great Maui was thirsty after his battle with the sun, but Tieke refused his request to bring him a drink. Maui angrily seized the bird in his still fiery hand and flung it in the water.

To this day Tieke bears the scorch mark across its back and is well known for its habit of splashing vigorously in pools and streams.

The more prosaic facts are that the saddleback, along with the kokako and extinct huia, belongs to an ancient family of wattlebirds, unique to New Zealand. Wattles are two colourful, fleshy lobes either side of the beak, noticeably larger in the adult male.

Excessive hunting tragically led to the extinction of the Huia

The bright orange-red wattles of the saddleback hang down either side of the beak, but the blue wattles of the North Island Kokako lie flat, slightly overlapping, against the throat.

Saddlebacks have short, weak wings, but very powerful legs with strong claws. Rather than fly, they bound from branch to branch or run across the forest floor.

They are very inquisitive and, having no fear of predators, narrowly escaped the fate of the huia.

Instead, the few surviving birds were transferred to predator-free island sanctuaries such as Kapiti.