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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Clitonyx Ochrocephala. — (The Yellow-Head.)

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Clitonyx Ochrocephala.
(The Yellow-Head.)

  • Yellow-headed Flycatcher, Lath. Gen. Syn. ii. p. 342 (1783).

  • Muscicapa ochrocephala, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 944 (1788, ex Lath.).

  • Certhia heteroclites, Quoy & Gaim. Voy. Astrol. i. pl. 17. fig. 1 (1830).

  • Mohoua hua, Less. Compl. Buff. ix. p. 139 (1837).

  • Orthonyx icterocephalus, Lafr. Rev. Zool. 1839, p. 257.

  • Orthonyx heteroclitus, Lafr. Mag. de Zool. 1839, pl. 8.

  • Mohoua ochrocephala, Gray, List of Gen. of B. p. 25 (1841).

  • Muscicapa chloris, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 87 (1844).

  • Orthonyx ochrocephala, Gray & Mitch. Gen. of B. i. p. 151, pl. 46 (1847).

  • Orthonyx ochrocephala, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 103 (1873).

  • Certhiparus ochrocephalus, Gadow, Cat. Birds Brit. Mus. vol. viii. p. 76 (1883).

Native names.

The same as those applied to the preceding species: “Canary” of the colonists.

Ad. pileo undique et corpore subtùs lætè citrinis, nuchâ vix olivascente, abdomine imo cum cruribus crissoque cineraceis: dorso toto olivascenti-brunneo, flavido lavato, uropygio conspicuè lætiore flavo: tectricibus alarum et supracaudalibus olivaceo-flavis, illarum majoribus saturatioribus, potiùs olivaceo-viridibus: remigibus brunneis, extùs dorsi colore lavatis, primariis cano limbatis, pogonii interni margine lætè flavicante: caudâ olivaceo-flavâ, subcaudalibus et subalaribus olivaceo-flavis, his albido lavatis: rostro nigro: pedibus nigris, unguibus saturatè brunneis: iride nigrâ.

♀ mari similis, sed coloribus obscurioribus.

Juv. similis adulto, sed pileo et nuchâ olivascente lavatis.

Adult male. Head and breast, sides of the body, and upper part of the abdomen bright canary-yellow; shoulders, back, and upper surface of wings yellowish brown, with an olivaceous tinge; upper surface of tail and the outer margins of the secondary quills dark olivaceous yellow; the colours are blended where they meet, the nape being more or less mottled with yellowish brown; lower part of abdomen greyish white; thighs and flanks pale brown; upper and lower tail-coverts yellow; the whole of the plumage dark plumbeous at the base. Irides black; bill and feet black; claws dark brown. Total length 6·75 inches; extent of wings 9·5; wing, from flexure, 3·25; tail 2·75; bill, along the ridge ·5, along the edge of lower mandible ·7; tarsus]; middle toe and claw ·87; hind toe and claw ·75.

Female. Similar to the male, but with the tints of the plumage generally duller.

Young. The young bird differs from the adult in having the yellow plumage tinged with olivaceous, especially on the crown and nape, where the latter colour predominates; rictal membrane yellow.

Obs. The shafts of the tail-feathers are often found denuded at the tips. During the breeding-season the testes are enormously developed, attaining to the size of small marbles.

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This bright-coloured bird is the southern representative of Clitonyx albicapilla. Its range is confined to the South Island, where it is quite as common as the preceding species formerly was in the North. A narrow neck of sea completely divides their natural habitat-a very curious and suggestive fact, inasmuch as this rule applies equally to several other representative species treated of in the present work.

The habits of this bird are precisely similar to those of its northern ally; but it is superior to the latter in size and in the richer colour of its plumage, while its notes are louder and its song more varied and musical. A flock of these Canary-like birds alarmed or excited, flitting about among the branches with much chirping clamour, and exhibiting the bright tints of their plumage, has a very pretty effect in the woods. Even under ordinary conditions it is very pleasing to watch their movements. Hopping from twig to twig, and calling to each other almost continuously in a short clear note, they pass quickly through the branches, moving the body deftly, first to one side then to the other, as they pry into every crevice for the insect food on which they live; then, after remaining stationary a few seconds, they utter a louder and more plaintive note and fly a few yards further to repeat these movements; and so on, all through the day, with never tiring persistence. Sometimes they may be seen hunting among the mosses and lichens that grow on the bark of old forest trees, on which occasions they will ascend the trunks in company, clinging to the hanging vines or any other projecting point, as they make their rapid search, and finally consorting together in the topmost branches. Their black eyes, in a setting of yellow plumage, have a pretty effect, and nothing seems to escape their close scrutiny. They love to move about in the thick foliage, indicating their presence when not chirping by an audible rustling of the green leaves.

The discharge of a collector’s gun, the snapping of a stick under foot, or the cry of a wounded bird, will sometimes bring a flock of forty or fifty of these bright-coloured creatures into the branches overhead, where they move restlessly about, peering down and chirping with noisy din, as if in eager consultation.

In all the specimens opened by me the stomach contained comminuted insect remains, chiefly those of minute coleoptera, and larvae of various kinds.

A life-size drawing of this species, by Mitchell, appeared long ago in the ‘Genera of Birds;’ but the attitude is unnatural, the bird being placed on the ground instead of a tree. The attitude in which Mr. Keulemans has depicted the bird is a highly characteristic one.

On comparing the nest of this species with that of Clitonyx albicapilla, it appears to exhibit more care and finish in its general construction, although composed of the same materials. It is a round and compactly built structure, composed chiefly of mosses, felted together with spiders’ webs, and having the cup lined with fine grasses. In the specimen under examination there are a few feathers of the Tui and Parrakeet intermixed with the other materials. Mr. Potts has “sometimes found it placed in the hollow trunk of a broad-leaf.” His son found a nest containing two young birds. It was built of moss, grass, and sheep’s wool, with a few feathers intermixed, and was placed in a cluster of young shoots on the side of a black birch, near a shepherd’s homestead.

The eggs differ in colour from those of C. albicapilla, but the type is the same. They are ovoido-elliptical in form, measuring ·9 inch by ·7 inch, although some specimens which I have examined were slightly smaller. They are of a uniform reddish cream-colour, minutely and faintly freckled over the entire surface with a darker tint, approaching to pale brown. In one of my specimens the entire surface is of a warm salmon-colour, without any freckled markings; and another is minutely freckled and dotted with reddish brown, of which colour there are also some irregular smeared markings towards the smaller end. The last-mentioned specimen differs also from the typical form in being almost pear-shaped, with the thick end rather flattened, and measuring only ·75 of an inch in length by ·65 in breadth.

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As to the systematic position of this form, much doubt and uncertainty existed till the appearance of a paper. “On the Structure of the genus Orthonyx,” by the late Mr. Forbes, the Prosector to the Zoological Society, in which he gave the results of a careful dissection and comparison of the typical Orthonyx spinicauda of Australia with the so-called Orthonyx ochrocephala from New Zealand*. This examination convinced him that the two forms are not really congeneric, the New-Zealand bird, apart from its entirely dissimilar coloration, differing from the Australian in its more slender bill, less development of the nasal operculum, less spiny tail, and more slender claws. He states further that internally the skull and the syrinx exhibit differences, slight in amount, but greater than those usually found in birds of the same genus; and he concludes thus:—“Under these circumstances it seems that Clitonyx of Reichenbach will be the correct generic term for the New-Zealand birds, as Lesson’s name Mohoua, though of prior application, is not only barbarous but, what is more important, liable to be confounded with Mohoa, also a genus of Passeres from the Pacific Subregion.

In the present unsatisfactory condition of the systematic grouping of the Oscinine Passeres, it is impossible for me to point out clearly any definite position either for Orthonyx or Clitonyx, though both forms might, I apprehend, be safely placed in Mr. Sharpe’s somewhat vaguely defined ‘Timeliidae.”’

The above conclusions were based upon an examination of C. ochrocephala only from New Zealand. It will be seen that I have placed the North-Island form (C. albicapilla) in the same genus. I am aware that Dr. Finsch has proposed to separate these birds generically, and that his views have been adopted by one or two of our local naturalists. It appears to me, however, quite impossible to find any sufficient distinguishing characters. It will be seen, on comparison, that the wing-feathers present the same proportional arrangement in both species, and that the bill and feet of C. albicapilla, although somewhat more slender, are formed on exactly the same model as in C. ochrocephala. Apart from these external characters, the two forms agree in other essential respects. The peculiar feature of a black mouth (in the male) is common to both; their style of song is the same; the sexes are alike in both, and their habits of nidification are very similar. It is true that the colour of the plumage is different, and that there is some dissimilarity in the coloration of the eggs, but these differences have no generic value. On these grounds I adhere to my old contention that the two species belong to the same genus.

Dr. Gadow, in the ‘Catalogue of the British Museum’ (l. c.), while accepting this relationship of the two forms to each other, has grouped them together with the New-Zealand Creeper in the genus Certhiparus. So far, however, from adopting this arrangement, I have deemed it necessary not only to separate these birds generically but to place them in different Families.

* “Both forms are typical Singing-birds (‘Oscines Normales’.), with a well-developed. Oscinine syrinx with its normal complement of four pairs of muscles. Of these the short anterior muscle runs to the anterior end of the third bronchial semiring alone in O. spinicauda; whilst in O. ochrocephala this ring receives its muscular supply from a fasciculus of the long anterior muscle. They thus differ essentially from Menura, with which they have been associated, that bird having but three pairs of muscles peculiarly arranged. In this, as in all other points examined-with one exception in the case of Orthonyx spinicauda—these birds quite resemble the normal Passeres, as they do in having the bilaminate tarsus and reduced ‘first’ (tenth) primary nearly always associated with the normal Acromyodian syrinx. Orthonyx spinicauda, however, has a peculiarity quite unknown to me in any other bird, inasmuch as its carotid artery, the left alone of these vessels (as in all Passeres) being developed, is not contained anywhere in the subvertebral canal, but runs up superficially in company with the left vagus nerve to near the head, where it bifurcates in the usual manner. In Orthonyx ochrocephala the left carotid retains its normal situation, though the point of entrance into the canal is somewhat higher up than is usual in other Passeres.” (P. Z. S. 1882, pp. 544, 545.)

Handb. Spec. Ornith. p. 167 (1851).

Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. vii. p. 204.