The melancholy call of the morepork is a familiar night-time soundtrack in New Zealand. The morepork is named for the sound of its call, and for the same reason is also known as the ruru to Maori, and in Norfolk Island is called the boo-book (say each of those names out loud to understand why).
Ruru are one of New Zealand's three remaining birds of prey and one of the few native bird species that have adapted to human colonisation. In particular, ruru have done well out of the smorgasbord of introduced rodents.
Owls are amazing birds, due to their adaptations as night-hunters. They have soft fringes on the ends of their feathers which makes them the original stealth jets, flying silently through the forest. They also have forward-facing eyes, giving them binocular vision - perfect for swooping on prey.
The big yellow eyes of the ruru were probably an inspiration to Maori carvers, and the style of carvings in meeting houses with wide open eyes are thought to be motivated by them. So too are the wide open eyes given during a pukana in Maori haka and performances. In Maori mythology, ruru are considered to be wise and represent protection or a warning.
There is certainly something other-worldly about ruru. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to visit Waipoua Forest in Northland at dusk. As we walked down toward Te Matua Ngahere (thought to be the oldest living kauri tree), a ruru swooped past us at great speed, and then soundlessly and perfectly circled around this grandfather tree and flew up into its crown. It certainly felt as though that morepork was some kind of royal sentinel to me.
Speaking of royals, the last time I saw moreporks was in broad daylight on Kapiti Island, where I just happened to be on a one-and-a-half-hour walk, alone with (wait for it, there's some big-noting about to occur) HRH Prince William (pic here for proof). In fact, I would have missed them completely, so caught up was I in blathering on about our amazing native wildlife, until, passing under a low-hanging branch, the Prince said "What are they?" and pointed up at three moreporks just centimetres above our heads! It was a mother and her two almost-fledged chicks. I was stunned that he had spotted them, but he assured me that he too was a "nature-nerd" and that it was all about simply "tuning in" to nature. My love for the monarchy was cemented from that moment.
New Zealand was also home to another owl, the whekau, or laughing owl, which became extinct relatively recently, due to habitat destruction and introduced predators. Nobody has seen the whekau since 1914, but the occasional reports of its unique call have been made up until the most recent one in 1985, when a group of American tourists were terrified out of their wits by "the sound of a madman laughing". One possible explanation for this could be a whekau, though it seems unlikely.
When was the last time you saw a morepork? Or do you only hear them? Do you think there are more or fewer around now? Does that beautiful, haunting cry still give you the shivers?
Sometimes our native ruru does it really tough - predators and habitat destruction continue to be a problem. But there are plenty of people who love ruru and want them to thrive. Check out the amazing dedication of the folk here at Wingspan who raised Whisper the morepork from an egg to a healthy adult morepork.
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