The animal world is full of harbingers of doom—at least, according to superstitions. From the Tower of London’s ravens (whose departure would signal the fall of an entire nation) to the average black cat crossing your unlucky path, plenty of critters warn of woe. In Ominous Animals, we explore the lore—and the science—behind these finned, furry, and feathered messengers of impending calamity.
An agile gray bird with a chipper song flitters in and out of a hiker’s peripheral vision in the New Zealand bush. The bird—a fantail—often comes within a few feet of humans, earning it a friendly reputation. In reality, it’s looking for a feast. Fantails dine on insects, and swoop in to take advantage of the bug buffet humans and other animals stir up with each step. While the energetic, musical birds delight hikers and birders in the bush, it’s a different story if a fantail enters a human home. Some long-held traditions associate the birds with death.
There are dozens of fantail bird species throughout Oceania and Asia, but only one, Rhipidura fuliginosa, calls New Zealand home. R. fuliginosa is commonly known as the pīwakawaka, one of 20 regional Māori names for it. The adorable, gerbil-size bird is loved across the country, says Georgina Stewart, a Māori professor of education at Auckland University of Technology. Stewart is a member of the Māori iwi (kin group) of the far north of Aotearoa, the Māori name for New Zealand, and knows the fantail as tīrairaka.
“You hear that little peeping, and then see the tīrairaka jump around,” says Stewart. “It just creates a very lively happy feeling.”
As lively as a fantail’s presence is, the sight of it indoors is often thought to predict a death in the family. Fantails are even mentioned in some Māori funeral songs, says Stewart. “I think this speaks to the real depth of the relationship between [the Māori] and this bird,” she says.
But thinking of the bird merely as a grim omen is an oversimplification based on colonial-era misinterpretation of Māori traditions and language, Stewart adds. The bird is a much more complex figure. In one version of the Māori origin story, for example, it’s the fantail that foils the plans of the trickster demigod Māui to subvert the natural order of things. Māui had planned to cheat the world of death by reversing birth and climbing back up through the body of the goddess and guardian of the underworld, Hine-nui-te-pō. The fantail’s twittering woke Hine-nui-te-pō, who crushed Māui with her thighs, killing him, even as he crushed the bird in his fist—one of the traditional explanations for why the fantail has a broad but flat tail that appears squished.
The fact that the bird prevented Māui from thwarting death in the popular tale may also be the origin of the idea that a fantail’s presence in a home signals a death in the household, according to Stewart’s review of Māori animal knowledge, published in September in the journal Anthrozoös.
When Europeans arrived in New Zealand, they learned of the fantail’s association with death and ignored nuances in the bird’s overall significance. Such misinterpretations by outsiders were common in the past when it came to mātauranga, or Māori traditional knowledge, Stewart says. “There’s not a very huge Māori vocabulary, so that enabled Europeans to be very derogatory,” says Stewart. “But the reality is that the way Māori works, there are so many layers to every word.
While birds, as well as trees and humans, are all descendants of the god Tāne, and therefore related to each other, the Māori have always had a special connection with manu, winged animals that include birds as well as bats, butterflies, and other flying creatures, Stewart says. In mātauranga, manu connect the human and spirit realms. “Different birds were seen as being able, in different ways, to almost pierce the veil between the living world of humankind and those more obscure worlds,” she says. The fantail in particular has long been thought of as a messenger.
The significance of the message the fantail delivers varies, however. On TikTok, Reddit, and other social media platforms, people have shared a wide range of beliefs about the bird. In August, Samoan and Māori rugby player Shiray Kaka asked her followers what fantails symbolize to their families. Responses from people who self-identify as Māori described the bird as a sign of good things to come, an omen of death, or a deceased loved one stopping by—a tradition that’s similar to some regional North American beliefs about a crimson-colored northern cardinal showing up in your backyard. Where and how the fantail enters the home, its behavior, and many other details are sometimes interpreted as clues to the reason for its visit.
“Each time that you see them, it has its own meaning,” says Stewart. Whatever is going on in someone’s life, or what they’re feeling, impacts the message they receive, she adds. “[If] the person had recently lost a loved one and was thinking of them, and then that happened, they would probably take it that way,” she says. “It’s almost like you do a survey of your surroundings and attribute it accordingly.”
For Stewart, watching fantails in their natural environment has great significance. Their presence reminds her of a time before invasive species threatened many of the native animals of New Zealand.
R. fuliginosa has fared better than many other native New Zealand birds following the colonial-era arrival of invasive predators, such as cats and stoats, and loss of habitat. The fantail has survived thanks to its high reproduction rate—one breeding pair may have up to 16 chicks a year—and flexible insectivorous diet, says ornithologist Hugh Robertson, a principal scientist at the New Zealand Department of Conservation and coauthor of The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand.
Thanks to its adaptability, the New Zealand fantail is a common sight on trails, in gardens, and even city parks. Its ubiquity has given the bird a new role: helping to educate people about mātauranga. Stewart is developing resources that explore the intersection of science and Māori knowledge, and sees the beloved fantail as a way to connect those realms.
“There is vast Māori knowledge about manu, and it works better when we talk about specific things, like the tīrairaka,” Stewart says. Long seen as a messenger between the living and the dead, the fantail may soon be a symbol of communicating between different ways of understanding our world.