In days long past, Rolleston was the site of a great podocarp forest, home to the moa. Here, Sir Richard Olwen stands with one of the first-ever moa skeletons found in 1879

Rolleston’s oldest residents

by Andy Bryenton

Long before the seat of the Selwyn District was established and Rolleston was named for its famous political patron, the area now occupied by the prosperous town was instead covered in a dense forest. Turning back the clock to pre-European times this land was the heartland of one of our most mysterious and speculated about native creatures, the moa.

It was not far to the north of Selwyn where the biggest cache of early moa skeletons was found, at Glenmark in the north of Canterbury. In the times before either the first sailing ships from Europe or the ancestral waka from Hawaiki reached these shores, the master of the forest was Dinornis giganteus. A three-metre-tall bird, which is classified as the biggest that ever lived. It weighed as much as a full-grown cattle beast and was predated upon by the largest eagle in existence — the Haast’s eagle, with a wingspan like that of a microlight aircraft.

There were nine species of moa in all, and strangely, though they resemble the Australian cassowary and emu, their nearest relative in evolution is a South American bird that can fly, the crested tinamou. That puts the moa in the family tree of the ancient ‘terror birds’ or phorusrhacids, which lived 1.8 million years ago and were big and mean enough to eat sabretooth tigers. By contrast, the moa, which roamed where Rolleston now stands were peaceful creatures, only using their size to browse in the canopy of the beech and podocarp forests of the pre-settlement era.

While most historians accept that the moa became extinct soon after humankind settled New Zealand, there have been tantalising glimpses during the years of what may be survivors of this giant species. None have been near the ancestral heartland of the biggest moa, as Selwyn and the plains have long since become crop and dairyland with nowhere for a three-metre tall bird to hide.

In the 1880s, eight-year-old Alice McKenzie of Martins Bay in South Westland recounted a tale of discovering a giant bird in sandhills near the sea. When she told her father, he came to look and measured its footprint at 11 inches long. West Coast publican and mountaineer Paddy Freaney claimed to have sighted (and wrestled with) a moa in January 1993.

However, the easiest way to see these giants today, sadly, is to visit the Canterbury Museum’s collection of their skeletons.