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Battle of the Birds

Winner Sir Julius Vogel Award
Best Youth Novel, 2012
Best Books of 2011, Dominion Post

Annie's family has moved to Wisconsin, and with her only friend away in Florida for the holidays, 11 year‐old Annie faces a long, boring summer. She lies on an eagle‐shaped hill and daydreams of home. Imagine her shock when the eagle breaks free from the earth and flies her home to New Zealand! But it's not a New Zealand Annie is familiar with, and when she and her new friend Moana almost walk smack into a giant moa, Annie realizes why. The eagle has flown her back to New Zealand, but she's arrived a thousand years too early, and right in the midst of a battle between the birds. However, Annie's visit isn't entirely unexpected...she can speak the language of the birds and is part of an ancient prophecy. Now she must mediate in a battle between the great bird chieftains: the violent and vengeful Te Hokioi and the thoughtful philosopher, Moa. Suddenly, Annie's summer doesn't look so boring after all

The battle scene is one of the best I have read. — Barbara Murison

Books as lively as Battle of the Birds inspire young readers with a life-long passion for books. — Dominion Post

Frequently Asked Questions (by Kids)​

Why did you set your story in the past?

One of the reasons I liked the idea of hurling Annie 1000 years into the past is because it’s thought that the American effigy mounds date back to around 350AD to 1300AD (although little is known about the reasons for their construction) and similarly little is known about New Zealand and the people living here at that time. I felt this gave me an excuse to be creative and make things up!

Free Downloadable Teachers' Notes

Can you really buy Marmite in the United States?

Yes! When my family lived in Wisconsin, we discovered a store that sold products from other countries, and they stocked tiny little jars of Marmite. Unfortunately, a jar cost several dollars and we would use one up in just a few days.  Luckily, we didn’t have to share our precious Marmite with our American friends and neighbours because they didn’t like it at all. When we offered them some to taste, they’d pull faces, as if we’d asked them to taste an earthworm!

My family has visited Rotorua. We saw some some geysers and some bubbly mud, but not the Pink and White Terraces. Where are they?

Once considered the eighth wonder of the world, the Pink and White Terraces were waterfalls of thermal water that cascaded over beautiful staircases of crystallised silica. These stunning waterfalls attracted many people to New Zealand. Tourists used to visit the town of Te Wairoa to bathe in the therapeutic warm water pools of the Pink Terraces (Otukapuarangi).  However, it’s true you’d have trouble locating the pools for a soak and a photo now. During the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886, the Pink and White Terraces were destroyed, buried under layer of ash and debris beneath Lake Rotomahana. What a huge loss! However, you can still visit Rotorua’s Buried Village museum and archaeological site, where you can learn more about the Pink and White Terraces and the eruption that destroyed them.

Below: The Pink Terraces, 1884, by Charles Blomfield (1848-1926).

I think you made a mistake. You said that the moa incubating the egg was a male.


Good observation! I did write that Annie and Moana came across a male moa incubating an egg. This is because in 2010 scientists had discovered male DNA on the outer shell of some ancient moa eggs. This suggested that it was the lighter male moa (females were sometimes twice as big as males) who were responsible for incubating moa eggs. The scientists also used DNA evidence to compare how tough various moa eggs were. They learned that eggs from the largest species of moa were the most fragile and concluded that heavier female would definitely have crushed these delicate eggs. And here’s another interesting fact. Did you know that in other birds from the ratite family - like the kiwi, the cassowary and the emu - it’s also the male who incubates the egg?  So that’s why the first moa Annie and Moana encounter in Battle of the Birds is a male. (See Huynen, Gill, Millar and Lambert, 2010. In Proceedings of National Academy of Science.)

My grandmother has karaka trees in her garden. Are the berries really poisonous, or can I eat them?

Just the kernels are poisonous. The fleshy orange fruit (kōpīa) can be eaten, although they have a powdery texture and are sometimes bitter. In the past, these berries formed an important part of the Māori diet, although the Māori were careful to steam and soak them, sometimes for up to several weeks, to prevent poisoning by a dangerous alkaloid toxin. And it’s little wonder they took such care when you learn that the consequences of eating the toxin include violent convulsions, disfigurement and death. These days, because of the risk, people prefer to avoid the karaka fruit. Have and apple or a Kiwifruit instead. Remember, always check with an adult before eating anything from the garden.

What are those funny lines over the Maori words for?

The flat lines over the vowels in some Māori terms are called macrons. These tell us how to pronounce the word. If a letter has a macron over it, then it means the sound should be longer. One way to think about it is to double the letter. For example, the word Māori is pronounced Maaori. It’s interesting that the Māori word for macron is pōtae meaning hat! 

Does the pendant of Tūhua actually exist?

No, I made that up. However, the black obsidian or tūhua that Annie’s pendant is made of does exist. Found on Mayor Island (Tūhua) in the Bay of Plenty, this volcanic glass-like stone was highly treasured by the Māori people for making tools, weapons and ornaments. When the European came to New Zealand bringing metals, tūhua lost some of its importance.  

My family went to the Huka Falls. Is this the original name for the falls?

In early times, many of the places mentioned in the story may have had names that differ from our modern-day names. Since records from the period are limited to archaeological and oral histories (stories and legends passed on by word of mouth) I was unable to find an original name for the beautiful falls near Lake Taupō. However, I’m certain the falls would have been a significant landmark for the Māori people of the day. When writing Battle of the Birds, I decided to use the current names for places so readers would recognise them and perhaps choose to visit them one day. The Māori term huka, means foaming. I can’t think of a better way to describe the white froth that accompanies the flow of that tremendous body of water.

Below: The Huka Falls today.

Is Mauao the mountain at the beach?

It is. Mount Maunganui is a volcanic mountain of 232m standing with its feet in the water at the end of a peninsular. It’s Māori name is Mauao meaning ‘caught by the dawn light.’

Here is Mauao seen from Motiti Island.

My mum says that geese were introduced to New Zealand by European settlers. If that’s true then Annie’s friend Mergus wouldn’t have existed.

Your mum is right. In general, it’s agreed that modern geese were introduced to New Zealand Captain Cook arrived in 1776. But one of the great things about being a writer is that you can make things up! Often a writer will come across an interesting fact during their research, and then take it one step further. Numerous reports suggest that there might have been geese in New Zealand a thousand years ago. First of all, we have quite a lot of information about the Auckland Island Merganser, which is only recently extinct (in the past century). The ‘anser’ part of the word means the Merganser was part of the goose family, and closely related to ducks. There is also archaeological evidence of a giant prehistoric flightless goose in that lived in New Zealand around the same time as the moa and Te Hōkioi.  And in Monck’s cave (a cave near Sumner which survived intact for centuries before being uncovered by a landslip) swan bones have been found. Swans are also close relations of geese. The presence of swan bones alongside the bones of moa suggests these two birds could have existed in New Zealand at the same time. And finally, in the isolated islands of Hawaii there are a number of geese species which scientists believe arrived there 50,000 years ago. These birds could have been introduced to New Zealand by early Māori settlers arriving from their homelands in the Pacific.  So that’s why in Battle of the Birds Annie’s friend Mergus is a goose.

It was cool when Annie saw her friend Moa on a postage stamp. Could you show me the link to that stamp, please?


Here is an example of Annie’s friend Moa as he appears on the postage stamp. To have a look at some other stamps of New Zealand birds, including Te Hōkioi, go to

Effigy mounds do exist. There are several examples of effigy mounds in the grounds of Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin which was not far from where I lived. As well as a some cone-shaped mounds, a bear and a panther, there is also a large bird effigy as you can see in the map.


A conical effigy mound can be seen in the Edgewood College grounds, shown in the photo to the right taken by James Steaker, 2009.

Is there such a thing as an effigy mound or did you make them up?

About the Cover Artist
Vonnie Skerritt
Vonnie Skerritt

Well-known for her stunning atmospheric landscape paintings, Palmerston North artist Vonnie Sterritt jumped at the chance to create the cover art for Battle of the Birds, the story of a young girl carried back to a time when the flightless struggled for a place among New Zealand’s birds. “I just love books,” Vonnie says. “I’ve illustrated books of my own, dragons and things. I like fantasy and the fantastic, and that’s what appealed to me about Lee’s book. When I read the story, I wanted to find a particular part that entertained all the bird characters. I symbolised those characters, looking at each bird’s feathers and stylising them. And I thought the feathers should be bright, especially for children.” An art teacher, Central Region art advisor, and co-author of two books on teaching art to children, Vonnie has a keen understanding of the kind of artwork that appeals to children. When using a story for inspiration Vonnie says she takes a particular approach: “I put everything else away so I can focus on it and just live it. With a story, it’s important to reflect the right feel, personality, and atmosphere.” Local art lovers will be pleased to learn that this isn’t a permanent move away from her glorious landscape work: Vonnie simply thrives on new challenges. “I don’t like to be singular in my view of the art world. I enjoyed working on the cover of Battle of the Birds because the story involves fantasy and the fantastical, taking me out of the realm of derivative art.” 

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