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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Clitonyx Albicapilla*, — (The White-Head.)

Clitonyx Albicapilla*,
(The White-Head.)

  • Fringilla albicilla, Less. Voy. Coq. i. p. 662 (1826).

  • Parus senilis, Dubus, Bull. Acad. Roy. Brux. vi. pt. 1, p. 297 (1839).

  • Certhiparus senilis, Lafr. Rev. Zool. v. p. 69 (1842).

  • Certhiparus albicillus, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terror, p. 6 (1844).

  • Certhiparus cincrea, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7465.

  • Mohoua? albicilla, Gray, Ibis, 1862, p. 220.

  • Orthonyx albicilla, Finsch, J. f. O. 1870, p. 253.

  • Orthonyx albicilla, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 101 (1873).

  • Certhiparus albicillus, Gadow, Cat. Birds Brit. Mus. vol. viii. p. 75 (1883).

Native names.

Popotea, Poupoutea, Popokotea, and Upokotea.

Ad. pileo undique et pectore superiore albis: dorso toto brunneo, supracaudalibus pallidioribus: tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus: remigibus saturatè brunneis, extùs dorsi colore lavatis, primariis paullò pallidiùs limbatis: pogonio interno flavicanti-albo marginato: caudâ flavicanti-brunneâ: pectore medio fulvescenti-albo: corporis lateribus brunneis, dorso concoloribus: subalaribus albis, brunneo lavatis: rostro nigro: tarso et pedibus plumbescenti-nigris, plantis pallidioribus, unguibus brunneis: iride nigrâ.

Juv. vix ab adultis distinguendus, sed coloribus dilutioribus et pileo brunneo lavato.

Adult male. Head and neck all round, breast, inner face of the wings, and middle of the abdomen white, slightly tinged with brown; sides of the body and flanks pale vinous brown; the whole of the back, rump, and upper surface of wings vinous brown, paler on the upper wing-coverts; quills blackish brown, the primaries narrowly margined on their outer webs with grey, and more broadly on their inner webs with yellowish white; tail-feathers and their coverts pale yellowish brown on their upper aspect, sometimes tinged with rufous, the shafts darker; paler on the under surface, with white shafts. Irides black; bill and rictal bristles black; tarsi and toes bluish black, with paler soles and brown claws. Total length 6·5 inches; extent of wings, 8·4; wing, from flexure, 2·9; tail 2·75; bill, along the ridge ·4, along the edge of lower mandible ·5; tarsus 1; middle toe and claw 8; hind toe and claw 6.

Female. Similar to the male but somewhat smaller. Total length 6 inches; extent of wings 7·75; wing, from flexure, 2·6; tarsus 9; middle toe and claw 6.

Qbs. In the male bird the palate and soft parts of the mouth are black, and in the female flesh-coloured.

Young. Upper parts pale vinous brown, whitish on the head; throat and underparts greyish white, shading into brown on the sides; wings tinged with yellow on their inner edges.

page 54

My account of this species in the former edition of this work commenced thus:—“This interesting little bird is distributed all over the North Island, but is replaced in the South by a representative species, the Orthonyx ochrocephala or Yellow-head. It frequents all wooded localities, but seems to prefer the outskirts of the forest and the low bush fringing the banks of rivers and streams. It is gregarious in its nature; and the report of a gun, the cry of a Hawk, or any other exciting cause will instantly bring a flock of them together, producing a perfect din with their loud chirping notes. It is a curious or inquisitive bird, following the intruder as he passes through the bush, and watching all his movements in a very intelligent manner. If he remains stationary for a few moments, it will peer at him through the leaves with evident curiosity, and will hop gradually downwards from twig to twig, stretching out its neck and calling to its fellows in a loud chirp, and approaching the object of this scrutiny till almost within reach of his hand.”

But alas! what of the Popokotea in this year of grace 1887? In the interesting account which Mr. Reischek has furnished me of a collecting tour he made through almost every part of the island lying to the north of Hawke’s Bay, he says:—“I found one pair of Orthonyx albicilla on Castle Hill, Coromandel, one pair in the Pirongia ranges, Waikato, and one pair in the Tuhua ranges, near Mokau; that was all.” So this is the rapid fate of the pretty, noisy, little White-head, once the commonest bird in all our northern forests!

Even five years ago it was quite plentiful on Te Iwituaroa, at the north-east extremity of the Kuranui-whaiti range in the Waikato district; but now it has disappeared entirely. It is still numerous on the island of Kapiti in Cook’s Strait, and on the Little Barrier; but, strange to say, it no longer exists on the Great Barrier, Kawau, the Hen and Chickens, or indeed, so far as I am aware, on any of the other islands in the Hauraki Gulf. The only localities on the mainland in which I have met with it of late are the wooded hill-tops in the Upper Wairarapa district, and a clump of bush near the Owhaoko station in the Patea country, at a considerable elevation above the sea. It has a simple but very melodious song, some bars of it reminding one of the musical notes of English birds. Its loud chirp is not unlike that of the House-Sparrow, but sharper.

Its food consists of insects and minute seeds. It is very active in all its movements, flitting about among the leafy branches and often ascending to the lofty tree-tops; clinging by the feet head downwards, and assuming every variety of attitude as it prosecutes its diligent search for the small insects on which it principally subsists. I have frequently observed it inserting its beak into the flower of the Metrosideros, either for the purpose of extracting honey, or, as is more likely, to prey on the insects that are attracted by it. I have also known them occasionally caught on the tuke baited with these flowers to allure the Tui and Korimako, which are genuine honey-eaters.

I have found scores of nests of this species, and have made frequent but ineffectual attempts to rear the young in a cage. The nest is usually fixed in the fork of a low shrubby tree, frequently that of the Ramarama (Myrtus bullata), and is always so placed as to be well concealed from observation. It is a round, compact, and well-constructed nest, being composed of soft materials, such as moss, dry leaves, spiders ‘nests, shreds of native flax, and sometimes wool, all firmly knit together. The cavity is deep and well rounded, the walls being formed of dry bents and vegetable fibres, and thickly lined with soft feathers. The lip or outer edge of the nest is carefully bound in with these fibres, sometimes mixed with spiders’ webs, and often presenting a high degree of finish. The eggs are usually three in number, but sometimes four; they are of proportionate size, measuring ·8 of an inch in length by ·6 in breadth, rather rounded in form, and with a shell of very delicate texture. They are creamy white, minutely speckled or marbled over the entire surface with reddish brown, the markings being denser towards the thick end, where they sometimes form an irregular zone. During incubation the hen bird sits closely, and leaves the nest with reluctance, almost permitting herself to be touched by the hand before quitting it.

page 55

I have before me now a beautiful nest of this species, which was taken on the Little Barrier in December, and contained three young birds. It is almost spherical, except at the top, which is flattened, measuring in its largest part 4 inches by 3; and its structure is very close and compact, all the materials composing it being well felted together; the cup or cavity is rather deep and rounded with an overhanging lip, the edges being very closely bound and interlaced; and the opening measures just two inches in diameter. The nest is composed of many coloured mosses and lichens, dry leaves, grasses, vegetable fibres, and here and there a feather closely interwoven with the web; and the interior is lined with fine grass-bents and a few feathers.

For the rapid disappearance of our indigenous birds it is hard to assign any special cause. The introduced rat is undoubtedly an important factor in the business by preying on the eggs and young of such species as habitually nest in places accessible to them; but we can hardly account in this way for the almost total disappearance of the pert little White-head, once the commonest denizen of our woods. The introduced bee gets a share of the blame in the case of honey-eating and treehole nesting birds, like the Korimako and Stitch-bird on the one hand, and the Kaka and Parrakeet on the other; but with even less probability than the Norwegian rat can this agent be credited with the destruction of the White-head. The disappearance of the Quail we are accustomed to attribute to the introduction of sheep and the prevalence of tussock fires; the diminution of the Wild Duck to the extensive draining-operations of the farmer; and the thinning of the Wood-Pigeon to the wholesale slaughter of these birds by both Europeans and natives, and in some districts without cessation all the year through. But we find it extremely difficult to discover any sufficient reason for the wonderfully rapid extinction of the White-head, or Popokatea, in most parts of the island. No doubt it is due to a variety of causes, operating with more or less force, all round, and thus furnishing another illustration of what appears to be an almost universal natural law—that indigenous forms of animal and vegetable life sooner or later succumb to, and are displaced by, more vigorous types from without. As the Maori is being rapidly supplanted by his Anglo-Saxon neighbour, as the rat has exterminated and replaced the Kiore maori, as the native fern and other herbaceous vegetation disappears in all directions before the spreading grass and clover of the colonist, so in like manner the native birds, or at any rate many of the well-known species, are giving place to the ever-increasing numbers of Sparrows, Linnets, Greenfinches, Yellowhammers, Starlings, and other introduced birds that are now to be met with in every part of the country.

On the other hand, how are we to account for the almost total disappearance of the introduced Pheasant from the Waikato and other districts, where a few short years ago they were excessively abundant, proving almost a plague to the farmers and Maori cultivators? Some ascribe it to the Hawks, but these were always as numerous as they are now; some to poisoned wheat laid for rabbits, but the Pheasant has disappeared from districts where there are no rabbits, and consequently no poisoned wheat. Others believe that the native Woodhen is responsible for the change; but the habit of feasting on Pheasants’ eggs, whenever it gets the chance, is by no means a newly acquired one with this bird. Doubtless there are agencies at work of which at present we have no knowledge. The fact nevertheless remains, and is quite as inexplicable as in the case of some of our indigenous birds.

For my own part, I deplore very much this displacement of the natural Avifauna, which appears to be almost inevitable, because many interesting types will disappear for ever. Efforts are being made to save some of them by means of island reserves, but I fear the task is a hopeless one. All therefore that remains to us now is to record their history as fully and minutely as possible for the benefit of science. This I shall endeavour to accomplish in the present work, describing faithfully their habits of life, and omitting nothing that may seem likely to prove of interest or value to the student of the future.

* Acting on Professor Newton’s suggestion, I have substituted albicapilla for albicilla; for the bird is white-headed and not white-tailed, and I cannot believe that Lesson ever intended to apply the latter name to it. Although it has hitherto been the practice to use it, I think Im justified in rectifying what was obviously a lapsus calami.