These creatures resemble something out of a Jim Henson’s Muppet Show.

A character not tethered to the real world. An unnaturally red solid helmet runs up from their beaks. The color red was associated with nobility and power by Māori in New Zealand, so the bird was held in high esteem and held as a chiefly pet because of its red beak and legs.

As chicks, they start out all black and fuzzy. They have spindly long worm-rimmed feet. Like baby Eskimos walking with snowshoes and learning to use their legs as if a puppeteer is controlling their every movement. Awkwardly getting accustomed to how to handle these massive feet, they bend at their stick-like legs where a knee goes backward. Adults develop dark blue colored feathers and some claim them to be a purple hue. Pukekos are pests and are also known as ‘swamp hens.’ Flightless. They let out loud and distinct territorial screeches.

Māori metaphor

Pukeko are known for their bold scheming and determination. In times past, they raided gardens for kumara (sweet potato) and taro. A stubborn, annoying person was compared metaphorically to the bird, and was said to have pukeko ears (taringa Pākura, using Pākura, another Māori word for the pukeko). They are known to steal eggs from each other and this is an indication of their character.

Mythology

In New Zealand, the pukeko is mentioned in the Māori myth “How the Kiwi lost her wings” in which several birds of the forest are asked to come down from the trees to eat the bugs on the ground and save the forest, but all give excuses except the kiwi who is willing to give up his colours and the ability to fly. The pukeko’s excuse is that it looks too damp down there, and he does not want to get his feet wet. The pukeko is punished for his reluctance and told he must now live forever in the swamps.

By one account, the pukeko is the spawn of Punga (the ancestor of sharks and reptiles – enemies of the people) but was claimed by relative (and high chief) Tawhaki. Tawhaki cut himself while cutting timber and so daubed the pukeko’s forehead with his own blood to signify their bond. So the mischievous pukeko gets his character from Punga and his noble badge from Tawhaki.

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