Perhaps one of the more intriguing mysterious creatures of New Zealand is one that actually really is known to have existed here, but which has long been thought to be extinct. The country was once home to massive majestic flightless birds called the moa, which somewhat resembled ostriches or emus, and the largest species of which, Dinoris giganteus, towered up to 12 feet in height and weighed over 500 pounds. The hulking birds were plentiful when the Māori, who called them the Tarepo, first arrived to these shores from Polynesia in around 1280 AD, but their numbers rapidly dwindled due to overhunting and forest clearing by these new human settlers, and by 1445 they were gone. By the time European explorers reached these lands in 1770, the moa was already long gone and merely a inhabitant of Maori stories, but the bones and remains of these creatures fascinated scientists, the creatures reached worldwide attention, and there has been speculation that these immense monstrous birds may survive somewhere in the wilds right up into the present day.
Many of the first sightings of supposed moas began shortly after they were first catalogued by Western scientists in the 1830s. European settlers, especially prospectors and ranchers, often reported coming across large flightless birds, with one sheep herder in the 1800s even claiming to have had his sheep dog attacked by a moa after it was chased and provoked by the dog. In the 1840s the Australian wildlife painter James Gould made his own report of what he described as “giant kiwis” about 4 feet in height and with unique spurred feet, which were actually characteristic of moas. It is a remarkable account, as Gould was a naturalist and well acquainted with the local wildlife. Many of these accounts were often written off as tall tales and flights of fancy, yet there were some reports over the ages that would seem to be more credible than others, and which garnered serious consideration.
One early report of a possible surviving moa comes from the year 1876, when a girl by the name of Alice McKenzie lived at Martins Bay, 30km north of Milford Sound, in Fiordland. She would claim that when she was 7 years old she had been walking along the bush line at a beach when she came across a very large bird with blue coloration that was placidly squatting by some brush. She said that she had actually been able to get close enough to touch its rump feathers, but that when she tried to catch it by tying it up the creature had issued a “harsh, grunting cry” and stood to its full height. It was described as being taller than she was, with no tail and legs as thick as her wrist, and this imposing bird went about chasing her off aggressively. She would in later years say of her encounter:
It was lying on the sand, sunning itself. I got nearer and nearer until I sat down on the sand behind it. I remember stroking its back. It had no tail. It just lay there, it was quite quiet. So I put my hand underneath it and drew out one of its legs. It took no notice of me. I started to tie the flax around it, I thought I’d tie it up. Then it got up and made a harsh, grunting cry and bit at me. And I ran as hard as I could over the sandhills towards the sea. I thought if I went down to the sea it mightn’t follow me into the water. I never looked behind, it never came very far with me. When I got home and told my father he came to have a look. But the bird was gone when he came. He saw its tracks where it had followed me from the top of the sandhills but it didn’t go over them. He had a foot-rule in his pocket and he measured [the tracks]. From the heel to the middle toe was 11 inches.
The sighting is considered to be fairly believable, as the girl had not been aware of the existence of the moa before this, and had written of the encounter in a matter-of-fact manner in her diary without any real hints that it was just a mad up fabrication. Sightings like this would mostly dry up in the 1900s, yet there have been sporadic alleged encounters with the Moa well into recent years, to the point that there was even a Japanese expedition made to New Zealand in 1978 to search for the creatures, but no evidence was found. Yet the sightings have continued on and off right to the present, with researcher Bruce Spittle claiming in his three-volume series of books Moa Sightings that there have been over 100 such sightings over the decades.
Perhaps one of the most well known of these comes from January 20th, 1993, when three friends named Paddy Freaney, Sam Waby and Rochelle Rafferty were hiking in the Craigieburn Mountain Range, which is part of the Southern Alps on New Zealand’s South Island. As the group paused for a rest in a clearing, Freaney, who was an experienced mountaineer, noticed an enormous bird around 6 feet in height and with reddish brown and grey feathers that stopped at the knees lurking in the bushes. He excitedly gestured towards it to his friends, and as they all looked the animal allegedly got spooked and started to retreat. Freaney, who was astounded by what he was seeing, had the presence of mind to get his camera ready, after which he actually chased it and managed to capture a shot of the fleeing bird, which also reportedly left wet footprints in the mud and across a rock that were also photographed.
The picture became the first ever photographic evidence for the idea of surviving Moas, and was widely debated, analyzed and discussed. Considering that Freany was a respected member of his community a seasoned mountaineer, and an former member of the British elite SAS squad his testimony was taken fairly seriously, and examination by experts has leaned towards the admittedly blurry and out-of-focus image not being noticeably faked in any way, and seemingly of an actual large bird of some type. Nevertheless, there has also been a good amount of skepticism aimed at the photo, with accusations that the neck is too thick for a moa and that it is merely a red deer, and Freaney spent the rest of his life scouring the region in the hopes of getting more evidence for the bird he knew he had seen. The only other signs of possible moa activity that could be found in the area was possible damage caused by the bird’s feeding habits, but no other photos have been forthcoming and the Freaney sighting remains inconclusive and oft-discussed. Interestingly, just a few months after Freany’s initial report, it was found that two unrelated German hikers had written in a hiker’s logbook of encountering a Moa in the very same area, lending it a bit more weight.
Another rather recent piece of moa news revolves around cryptozoologist Rex Gilroy, who had over the years claimed to have made quite a few amazing finds concerned with the supposedly extinct giant bird. He claims that in 1980 he discovered an actual leg bone of a moa in northern New Zealand, as well as a collection of footprints alleged to belong to the creatures in 2001 and again in 2008, which he managed to make plaster casts of. He has also claimed that in 2007 he found evidence of a moa nest in a tree stump. Gilroy has been very secretive of where these discoveries were made, and while he claims that this is for the protection of the rare birds this has inevitably led to skepticism surrounding his claims.
The ideas on what is going on with such sightings really runs the range. For some this is obvious hoaxing, for others it is perhaps misidentifications of the Astralian emu, which are bred on some farms in New Zealand. Skeptics have been quick to point out that before the official scientific documentation of the moa there had been no accounts from outsiders of encountering these creatures, only really taking off after the creature had made a footprint in the public consciousness. It has been noted that the areas where these creatures have been seen are very remote and unexplored, but it is uncertain if a large bird of this size could possibly remain so elusive for so long. We are left to ask, does the moa really survive? It is unknown, and as long as such reports come in the debate continues.