The Significance of Birds in Oceania

Explore the role of birds in material culture, society, and cosmology

By Museum of Ethnography

Portrait of a Papuan New Guinea woman wearing a feather and fur headdress (1979) by Greenwood, MarianneMuseum of Ethnography

Liminal creatures that traverse the land, sky and sea, birds played, and in certain societies continue to play, a vital role in how Indigenous peoples negotiated and mediated relationships with the natural world, with ancestors, gods and spirits, and with each other. Focusing on objects from the National Museums of World Culture collections, this exhibition explores the role and significance of birds in material culture, society and cosmology in Oceania. The exhibition considers the value placed upon feathers, the symbolism of birds and the display of their images on objects in many cultures across the globe. Although some objects were intended to be functional, were made for specific use or to convey specific meanings, their artistic and visual properties also make many of them striking works of art.

Studio photograph of an Aboriginal man (1890/1910) by Kerry, Charles [?]Museum of Ethnography

Dance and performance

Colorful and beautiful, feathers from multiple species were used to decorate the human body. Plumage, tails, and occasionally even bird beaks were combined with other materials to create dazzling headdresses and costumes that physically enhance and accentuate the aesthetics and symbolism of the wearer. Dance was, and continues to be, a prominent socially unifying activity within Melanesia.

Dhari, a crested headdress from Torres Strait Islands Dhari, a crested headdress from Torres Strait Islands by UnknownMuseum of Ethnography

Dhari are a crested headdress that were worn by men during warfare or ceremonial dances.

Made of a framework constructed from cane and coconut fibre string, dhari were decorated with feathers from various birds, including frigate birds, Torres Strait pigeons and cassowaries.

Today, other materials can be used to decorate the headdresses. This dhari has been painted in blue and red.

While the basic shape of dhari is the same across the Torres Strait islands, some regional variation in terms of design and decoration. This ubiquity of dhari in Torres Strait Islands culture and society has led to them becoming an emblem of national identity and they feature on the Torres Strait Islands flag.

headdress, head decoration headdress, head decoration by UnknownMuseum of Ethnography

This headdress, one of the few of its kind, would have been a valuable heirloom, one that indicated the status and wealth of its owner. Rooster feathers, as well as those from other birds, and whale ivory were important and valuable materials for Marquesan Islanders. Black, iridescent tail feathers and plumage from roosters, along with their red coloured neck feathers, were used to decorate various types of headdresses.

As such, roosters were highly prized and well cared for. Each rooster had two long tail feathers which, when plucked, would grow back. Some Marquesan headdresses have so many rooster tail feathers attached that it could take several years to acquire the feathers needed to decorate them. Prestigious ornaments like this were worn by male or female dancers at ceremonial events or various festivals.

Worn on the top of the head or across the temples, this crescent shaped headdress comprises finely trimmed cock feathers have been carefully tied into small bundles. The bundles have been bound onto a fibre base and arranged so that the feathers fall in the same direction, creating a lustrous surface to catch the light when the headdress was danced. Where the main body of the headdress meets the ties, through which the headdress is secured to the head, small red and green coloured feathers have been added along with decorative stitching of fine coconut fibre cord.

These ties are further embellished with eighteen small whales’ teeth, one of which has split. Whale ivory was a rare and highly prized material in Marquesan society. When European traders and whalers began to visit the islands more frequently in the early to mid-nineteenth century, whale teeth became a favoured trade item leading to an increase in the availability of ivory.

Cape, cloak from Hawaii Cape, cloak from Hawaii by UnknownMuseum of Ethnography

Power and display

Status and position within many societies in Oceania was made visible through dress and personal ornamentation. Only chiefs or those from the ruling class were entitled to wear emblems of rank and prestige. This included feathers from certain birds. Feathers could also be paid as a form of tribute to chiefs.

Feathers (hulu manu) were one of the most prized belongings for Hawaiians. Featherwork objects such as cloaks, capes, helmets, standards and god images were among the most precious and high ranking of objects made and used by Hawaiians.
They were made for, used or worn only by the ali‘i (chiefs and nobility). Royal featherwork embodied the connection of the ali‘i to the gods, to the mountain forests where the native birds came from and materialised their ownership and control over this domain and its precious resources.

Cape, cloak from HawaiiMuseum of Ethnography

Feathers were considered sacred and only the ali’i (chiefs and nobility) had access to them. As such, they were a very precious resource. Their colour, red and yellow, was also considered sacred in Hawai’i. Specialist hunters caught the birds and plucked their feathers. Depending on the number of feathers taken from each bird, some were released while those from whom many feathers were taken were killed.

Several species of birds whose feathers were used are now extinct. This includes birds such as the ‘ō‘ō and mamo, from whom yellow and black feathers were obtained. Scarlet feathers came from the ‘i‘iwi bird, a species that is now endangered.

Cape, cloak from HawaiiMuseum of Ethnography

Feather capes and cloaks are called ‘ahu ‘ula in Hawai’i. They required tens of thousands of feathers in their construction and it could take several years to acquire the number of feathers required. Worn only the ali’i, they were also gifted to high ranking visitors to the Hawaiian Islands or were presented as gifts when Hawaiians went overseas. For Hawaiians, feather objects such as these are imbued with mana (spiritual power) and genealogical connections to both past and present.

breast ornament, gorget, collar breast ornament, gorget, collarMuseum of Ethnography

Carefully trimmed black and iridescent feathers have been used to decorate this taumi, a breastplate or gorget that was worn by high ranking chiefs and warriors in eighteenth century Society Islands.

breast ornament, gorget, collarMuseum of Ethnography

Taumi were worn in pairs, one on the chest and one on the back. Worn in this fashion, they visually give the impression of the head of the wearer emerging from the jaws of a shark. Ritually significant, taumi combine valuable materials from multiple domains – the land, the sea, the sky.

box box by UnknownMuseum of Ethnography

Wakahuia or treasure boxes served as containers for various family heirlooms (taonga). They were originally created to store the highly prized black and white tail feathers of the now extinct huia bird.

The figural handles at each end possibly represent manaia, a bird/lizard/human figure from Māori mythology often ascribed with protective qualities.

It was from these handles that the box was suspended from the rafters of a home or storehouse, from which the fully carved underside of the box would have been visible.

bag, bilum bag, bilum by UnknownMuseum of Ethnography

Usually made by women, a bilum is a netbag made from vegetable fibre, wool or yarn that are used in daily life to carry personal possessions, tools, produce, even babies. Feather bilums have feathers from different birds attached to one side of the bag.

bag, bilumMuseum of Ethnography

These feathers have been added in seclusion by males undergoing initiation rites. Worn on the back with the feather side facing out, the contents of the bilum, ritual objects associated with male initiation, were hidden from view.

bag, bilumMuseum of Ethnography

There are various classes of feather bilum, each associated with a different level of initiation. The highest stage of initiation was associated with the cassowary bird. The feathers that decorate this bilum possibly came from an eagle. The inclusion of many pig tusks suggests that the owner of this bilum was of an advanced level of initiation.

Portrait of a woman from Papua New Guinea wearing an elaborate feather headdress. (1979) by Marianne GreenwoodMuseum of Ethnography

Leisure and utilitarian

Feathers, plumes and skins were utilize in a wide range of objects. Elaborate carved and painted headdresses and masks bearing bird imagery and those decorated with vibrant feathers and plumes created glorious displays of colour, capturing the dynamic movement of birds in flight or engaged in courtship displays when danced. The skins of brightly coloured birds were also used in headdresses and as neck ornaments. Feathers were also used to decorate everyday objects such as fans.

Circular shaped pendant Circular shaped pendant by Unknown Solomon Island artistMuseum of Ethnography

Made of tridacna shell, this small circular shaped pendant has been engraved with various decorative patterns. The main engraved motif shows three frigate birds with a stylized representation of a bonito fish between them. The pendant has been pierced at the top indicated that it was made to be worn, most likely around the neck suspended on a cord.

Image missing

Frigate birds are closely associated with the annual arrival of large numbers of bonito, a type of tuna, to the seas of the eastern Solomon Islands. A valuable food source, the arrival of bonito marked a time of feasting and the period in which boys underwent initiation. Frigates would hover in the skies above the large schools of fish, indicating the presence to fishermen.

Image missing

Used to hold food during public feasts, the shape of this bowl stylistically references the body of a frigate bird. The bird holds a bonito in its beak while the ‘tail’ of the bird has an inverted frigate bird beneath it.

Portrait of a Papua New Guinea man (1979/1983) by Marianne GreenwoodMuseum of Ethnography

The objects included in this exhibition demonstrate some of the ways through which humans interacted with, exploited and utilised their avian neighbours. New information and objects will be added to this digital exhibition periodically, so check back occasionally for updates.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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