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The Owl Who Called Its Own Name
by Jen Longshaw

Morepork

"Tangi a te ruru re kei te hokihoki mai e, E whakawherowhero re i te putahitanga. Naku nei ra koe i tuku kia haere, Te puritia iho, nui rawa te aroha. The morepork's cry keeps coming to me, It is hooting out there where the paths meet, I was the one who allowed you to go, My great love did not detain you".

Associated most often with the night and the spirit world the haunting call of the Morepork sent shivers of foreboding down the spines of the early settlers of New Zealand as well as the Maori who revered it as an ancestral spirit. When it appeared near a dwelling it meant that someone had died. Often families would develop a close relationship with a particular bird, especially if it sat nearby or tried to enter their house.

This small brown bird is now the only surviving native owl within New Zealand. Known also as "ruru" in Maori it weighs only 250g and is 27.5 cm length with a wingspan of 20.5 cm. Its large fierce eyes look straight ahead yet it can swivel its head around 250 degrees. Found in forest, farmland, plantations and urban areas throughout New Zealand and the adjacent islands it is known by its more common name due to its unusual call of "morepork, morepork". This call is often cried 5-10 times along with a sharper "cree cree".

The Morepork feasts on insects such as wetas, moths, spiders, beetles, and huhu grubs as well as eating small mammals such as rats and mice, little birds such as the house sparrow, and lizards. They are silent when they fly to catch their prey thanks to downy edges on their wings allowing them the element of surprise. They eat their food whole and afterwards cough up a "pellet" which contains residue of their meal such as bones or feathers. These pellets can often be found on fence posts and branches.

The breeding season for the ruru is October-November (spring in New Zealand). They usually nest high above the ground in hollow trees but have also been found in burrows on the ground, especially on outlying islands. The female lays 2-3 round white eggs and incubates them for 31 days. After hatching the chicks are covered with a fluffy white down but at ten days this is replaced with that of a darker brown colour. The young leave the nest at the age of five weeks.

From ancient times till today the Maori have incorporated the Morepork's intense staring eyes into their carvings. This stems from the myth of Rongo, a man who built a carved dwelling from knowledge gained from a house in the sky. He buried a tapu sacrifice near the rear wall of this building; this was "Kou-ruru" or the Morepork. In remembrance of this event the bird is now immortalized in the organic swirling artwork decorating the buildings of the Maori "Marae" or meeting place. For many New Zealanders the countryside would not be the same without the call of this nocturnal visitor, this small brown owl who calls its own name.

Click here to hear the owl who calls its own name.

ŠJen Longshaw 2001-2007 Please do not copy in any manner, print or electronic, without permission from the author.


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