Thursday, March 29, 2012

Feather theft

I have long known about the extinction of the passenger pigeon, but had never heard of the huia (photos here), which met a similar fate in the early 20th c. This New Zealand bird was considered sacred by the Maori and its feathers were worn only by people of high status. The huia's extinction was entirely the result of outside influence: 1st, deforestation of their habitat by European settlers creating pasture for agriculture, and 2nd, overhunting to meet the demand by museums and private collectors for mounted specimens. Now the taxidermied birds are at risk. Just as natural history museums are coping with rhinocerous horns being stolen from their exhibits (see Indoor poaching and Rhino horn redux), there is word that feathers of the extinct bird have been plucked from a 125-year-old specimen at the Dannevirke Gallery of History. “When it was discovered I just felt sick to the stomach. I was absolutely devastated. There are very few that are in such good conditions are these ones were,” says staff member Pat Mills. “It's part of our heritage, our history, it's something we can't recapture so we're hoping someone out there has a conscience or someone knows who has taken [them],” says Senior Sergeant Sue Leach, noting that the police may test the DNA of the remaining specimen so that a match can be made if the stolen feathers are recovered. The value of the birds is intrinsic, but their feathers have sold for extraordinarily high prices. In 2010, a single huia feather sold at auction for $6,787 (£3,800, NZ$8,400). If the feather thieves had hit the Auckland Museum, their haul may not have been worth as much...

IMAGE: Oil painting by Czech artist Gottfried Lindauer (1839-1926) of a highborn Maori chief adorned with 7 huia feathers and a shark's tooth earring. (See also the paintings of contemporary New Zealand artist Jo Ogier.)

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