Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Masterpieces of Old Polynesia - The Beasley Pae Manu or Maori Bird Perch

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Harry Beasley, the former owner described this piece as an example 'of the highest workmanship of the Maori' which is very true. The purpose of these rare objects which is as a perch for a tame bird is interesting, the main question being why were they carved in such a superb manner if they were just a bird perch for a pet? Below is the very well researched catalogue entry from the Frum Sale at Sotheby's and begging your patience we promise to have more to say following this description.

This extraordinary and enigmatic bird perch is amongst the rarest of all Maori taonga, or treasures and belonged for many years to Harry Beasley, the great English collector of Pacific art, who evidently found it as puzzling as it was impressive . Birds; chiefly the kereru (pigeon), kaka, and the tui were greatly valued by Maori as food, but also for their feathers for use in wonderful feather cloaks. Tui and kaka were also highly prized as affectionate pets, which could be taught to repeat phrases and to welcome visitors. It was customary to name these tame birds, sometimes after an ancestor.

The methods by which Maori captured birds were varied, and have been discussed at length in the literature, notably in Elsdon Best's Forest Lore of the Maori. The most familiar form of snare or perch was the mutu kaka, which is well represented in collections (see The Maori Collections of the British Museum for an example from the Beasley Collection). In contrast, the offered bird perch is an extraordinarily rare object, being one of only six or seven of its type recorded. Beasley (1924) discusses this perch and two others, in the Otago Museum, Dunedin and the Auckland Museum (Barrow dates the latter to the 18th century; An Illustrated Guide to Maori Art, p. 74). Two further examples, formerly in the Oldman collection, are now in New Zealand, together with a third, which has a bowl only at one end. One other example in the corpus depicts similar figures at either end. That perch, now in the the Musée du Cinquantenaire, Brussels, arrived in Europe in the 1850s, but is not as old or as sculpturally successful as the perch offered here.

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Unlike some other enigmatic Maori prestige objects (the so-called latrine handles for instance - which have also been identified as bird perches, the description 'bird-perch' is unanimously accepted. The identification of the Beasley perch and its function as such was confirmed by H. D. Skinner, in part on the basis of the history of the related example in the Otago Museum, Dunedin, which had belonged to Tutohoto, a Maori tohunga, or priest 'who was connected with the Ngatitawhaki [...] a people famous for their skill in bird-hunting.' (Man, p. 65). The existence of these objects is also earlier noted by Hamilton, who records that 'carved perches (paekoko), with receptacles at each end for food, were sometimes elaborately decorated.' (Hamilton, 1898 p. 218). Unfortunately he provides no further information on these objects, and details of how they were used are limited and speculative.

Beasley suggests that the bird perches were 'used for hanging up about the houses' (Man, p. 66), whilst also noting that none 'show any beak marks, such as one would expect to find where a Kaka or Tui bird had been fastened' (1924, p. 65). The objection is, however, dealt with by Hamilton, who states that 'to prevent the tame birds destroying their perches [...] their bills were blunted by being burnt.' (ibid., 218). Descriptions of the 'cages' in which tame kaka and tui were kept do not mention the use of pae koko in a context such as Beasley suggests, and it is also possible that they were used in the capture of birds, perhaps alongside mutu kaka snares. Maori used tame birds, known as mokai, as decoys to help attract wild kaka and, less frequently, tui. Best records how a decoy bird would be tethered to a perch by a bone or nephrite leg ring, or kaka poria (a prestige object in itself), and incited by the fowler to cry out. Wild kaka, which are naturally curious and sociable, would be attracted by the cries, and could then be caught when they alighted on the mutu kaka snares, which were baited with berries. The same principle was used in the capture of tui. This theory would in part account for the rarity of the pae manu or pae koko bird perch in comparison with mutu kaka, since only one tame bird was needed to attract the wild kaka or tui, but several snares were needed to catch them (see T. W. Downes' Bird-Snaring, Etc., in the Whanganui River District, 1928, p. 21, fig. 18, for an illustration of the method in which mutu kaka were used; the use of a bird perch also seems plausible in this context).

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Whilst its exact use may forever remain a mystery, the sculptural quality of the Beasley bird perch is beyond question. It is executed in the manner characteristic of great Maori carving of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, in which elaborate surface decoration remains subordinate in importance to sculptural form. This is evident in the exceptionally fine modelling of the wheku figures at either end, with their large mask-like faces, arms holding the body, and tensed legs raised to the chin; the manner in which the arms and legs were executed particularly impressed Beasley (Man, p. 66). Interestingly it seems this style of wheku figure is otherwise found only on whip-slings, kotaha, from the east coast of the North Island (cf. Mead, Te Maori, 1984 p. 215, no. 123). Neich has attributed these kotaha more specifically to Poverty Bay (Maori Collections, 2010, p. 75). The stylistic similarities, as well as the association of bird-snaring with the area, support a similar geographic attribution for the Beasley bird perch.

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The Beasley Pae Manu or Maori Bird Perch made 433,000 euros in the Frum Sale which considering its quality seems to me a bit light, but I can never follow the logic of Polynesian Art Collectors. But back to the question of the quality of this carving and the fact that it is a bird perch for a pet, the above image appears to show kokowai or red ochre in the grooves of the carving detail around the mouth. This is what I would expect to see as an explaination as to why so much pains taking effort was pored into a bird perch, for the red ochre signifies a tapu or sacred object, the heads up being contained in the catalogue description with the words 'It was customary to name these tame birds, sometimes after an ancestor.' The calalogue provides a further hint with ' Tui and kaka were also highly prized as affectionate pets, which could be taught to repeat phrases and to welcome visitors.' Now tui especially are fabulous imitators and below is a link to a Youtube video and a tui called Woof Woof, a bird with a permanent wing injury, who lived at the Whangarei Native Bird Recovery Centre in New Zealand.

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Amusing though Woof Woof is, this gift of tui to almost perfectly imitate human speech, must to Maori have seemed semi-devine. And this explains 19th century images of Maori Pa where kaka were shown not only well feed but on their own special perchs with bark sun and/or rain shades. Maori of course like all Polyneasians were ancestor worshippers, so anything related to an ancestor was likely to be treated with gravitus. It is entirely possible that the named bird was considered a living embodiment of the dead ancestor which would be entirely in keeping with Maori thought. A tantalizing question mark hangs over the tui and kaka gift for human speech, what did these birds get taught to say? In this context a great ancestor living on through a bird gifted with speech would definitely justify a such superb object on which to perch.

Maori are also a race of orators, quite as much so as any ancient Roman, and it is possible a famous and remembered phrase of the dead ancestor was taught to the bird. Both kaka and tui were as the cataloger suggests a favoured food, yet it is interesting that a bird could be food and in another context the living embodiment of a great man now dead. This duelality is again very much in keeping with Polynesian thought. We will now propably never know the truth of the role played by captive birds, but even the hint we have teased out gives the reader an insight into the Polynesian World. It is complex and this ability that all indigenous people seemed to possess of holding two opposing ideas in their heads at one time, runs counter to our thought processes, but certainly there is as this little revalation on a simple bird perch shows a poetry and richness that makes our thinking seem sterile and unimaginative by comparison.

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Maori Pounamu Kaka poria (bird leg ring)

There is one last aside that we could make to this little musing on a bird perch. In Museums all over the Western World Polynesian Collections contain Maori bird leg rings designed to be placed on the birds leg and to thus tie the bird to its perch. These are common, very common, yet no writer has asked why so many have survived. They are made of pounamu or nephite jade from the rivers of the West Coast of the South Island, a material that was prized by Maori and traded throughout the entire country. It is also the hardest stone worked by Polynesians so even an object like a bird leg ring required days or months of effort. The bird leg ring is usually thought of in conjunction with Maori bird trapping and spearing techniques; a decoy bird being used to lure other birds to their deaths. Yet why has no writer asked why they were made of such a valued and precious commodity? Why of a material that took such predigious hours of labour to produce. It is true that they would have been be durable, but a little thought suggests that the leg ring was only as effective as the flax cordage that bound the ring to the perch. In my own experience a year or less exposed to the elements will see most flax cordage degrade to the point of breakage.

These questions remain unanswered, but as we can see insight into the minds of Polynesians creates a glimmer of light that shining even weakly illumiates a world that has much to say about humanity in its many and various forms, forms so different from our own, yet not as different as we imagine.

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