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New Zealand’s man-eating bird was real

In New Zealand, an old Maori legend once spoke of a large, man-eating bird.

Christened Te Hokioi after the sound of its bird-call, the creature was described to New Zealand governor Sir George Gray as black and white with a red crest and wingtips colored a yellow-green hue. Stories of the Te Hokioi were passed among the Maori by word of mouth with various depictions of the beast in rock drawings. It was not until a study was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology in 2009 that the Te Hokioi became more than a mythical being.

Researchers with the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch and the University of New South Wales in Australia re-examined the skeletal remains of Haast’s eagle (also known as Harpagornis moorei) to determine that it was likely one in the same with Te Hokioi.

Discovered in the 1870s by Sir Julius von Haast, the eagle was originally considered to be a scavenger akin to the vulture. The assumption was based on a similar bill structure to that of vultures, including the existence of nostril hoods to keep flesh from blocking the bird’s ability to breathe while digging into carcasses.

The researchers used modern instruments such as CAT scans to conclude that Haast’s eagle had a pelvis strong enough to deliver a killing blow while diving at speeds close to 80 kilometers per hour. Not only that, but the female eagle shared similar dimensions to that of the Te Hokioi of legend, including a wingspan of up to three meters and a weight that could reach 18 kilograms.

Although its talons were equivalent to that of a tiger’s claw, the bird’s ability to kill and eat a man was met with skepticism by some. Still, it was a dangerous creature. “It was certainly capable of swooping down and taking a child,” said Paul Scofield, curator of vertebrate zoology with the Canterbury Museum.

Based on fossil findings, it is believed that the eagle preyed mainly on moa, large flightless birds whose bones were located in areas that also showed signs of Haast eagle activity.

Since New Zealand was isolated from other continents during the Cretaceous, it had no native land mammals. Instead, birds filled the roles assigned to mammals elsewhere—Scofield said that the eagle was the country’s equivalent of a lion. Haast’s eagle is thought to have died out after humans arrived to the island 1,000 years ago and began hunting their food source, the moa.

Finding Haast eagle bones remains difficult since there were never that many of the bird to begin with. It lived exclusively in the country’s South Island.