A History of the Birds of New Zealand.
Heteralocha Acutirostris. — (Huia.)
Neomorpha acutirostris, Gould, P.Z.S. 1836, p. 144 (♀).
Neomorpha crassirostris, Gould, P.Z.S. 1836, p. 145 (♂).
Neomorpha gouldi, Gray, List of Gen. of B. p. 15 (1841).
Heteralocha gouldi, Cab. Mus. Hein. Th. i. p. 218 (1850).
♂ undique sericeo-niger, sub certâ luce obscurè viridi nitens: caudâ conspicuè albo terminatâ: pileo carunculis magnis rotundatis Iætè aurantiacis utrinque ad basin mandibulæ positis ornato: rostro valido, eburneo, versus basin cinereo: pedibus cinereis, unguibus corneis.
♀ mari similis, sed rostro longo valdè decurvato semper distinguenda.
Adult. The whole of the plumage is black, with a green metallic gloss; the tail with a broad terminal band of white. Bill ivory-white, darkening to blackish grey at the base. Wattles large, rounded, and of a rich orange-colour in the living bird. Tarsi and toes bluish grey; claws light horn-colour.
Male. Length 18·75 inches; extent of wings 22·5; wing, from flexure, 8; tail 7·5; bill, along the ridge 2·75, along the edge of lower mandible 2·76; tarsus 3; middle toe and claw 2·5; hind toe and claw 2.
Female. Length 19·5 inches; extent of wings 21; wing, from flexure, 7·5; tail 7·25; bill, along the ridge 4, along the edge of lower mandible 4·12; tarsus 3; middle toe and claw 2·25; hind toe and claw 1·75.
Young female. Differs from adult bird in having the entire plumage of a duller black, or slightly suffused with a brownish tinge, and with very little gloss on the surface. Under ‘tail-coverts tipped with white, and the terminal white bar on the tail washed with rufous-yellow, especially in the basal portion. Wattles small and pale-coloured. Bill only slightly curved.
In another specimen in my possession, apparently a year older, the tail-coverts are without the margin, the white on the tail-feathers is purer, and the bill is perceptibly longer, with a darkened tip. In another, the tips of both mandibles are perfectly black for about half an inch in extent; the tail-feathers are only slightly stained with rufous, but instead of having an even white border the shafts are black to their tips, and the terminal bar has an emarginate edge.
Young male. On comparing a specimen in my collection with the above, the same general remarks apply, except that the under tail-coverts are not tipped with white at all, while the soft feathers on the lower part of the abdomen are largely tipped with pale rufous and white. The pale rufous wash on the tail-bar is likewise more conspicuous.
Varieties. The Maoris speak of a “red-tailed Huia,” but I have no doubt that this is merely the condition of tail noticed above. A single tail-feather in my possession has the terminal band stained with rust-colour, and this would be described by a Maori as “red.” They also say that the birds from the Ruahine range have a somewhat broader band on the tail than those from Tararua, the skins from the former locality being in much greater demand on that account. A specimen which came into my hands had a single white feather in the tail—not a feather of the full quality but aborted in its character, being short, narrow, and shaped like one of the outer primaries, although filling the place of an ordinary tail-feather. In another page 8 specimen there was a narrow white streak down the shaft-line of the middle feather. The most remarkable variety, however, is that known to the Maoris as a Huia-ariki. I have never seen but one of these birds, of which I have already published the following notice*:—
“I have received from Captain Mair some feathers which, in colour, have much the appearance of the soft grey plumage of Apteryx oweni, but which are in reality from the body of a Huia, being of extremely soft texture. I hope to receive the skin for examination, but in the meantime I will give a quotation from the letter forwarding the feathers:—Old Hapuku, on his death-bed, sent for Mr. F. E. Hamlin, and presented him with a great taonga. This has just been shown to me. It is the skin of a very peculiar Huia, an albino I suppose, called by the Hawke’s Bay natives ‘Te Ariki.’ I send you a few feathers. The whole skin is of the same soft dappled colour, but the feathers are longer and softer. The bill is nearly straight, strong, and of full length. The wattles are of a pale canary-colour. The centre tail-feather is the usual black and white, while the others on each side are of a beautiful grey colour. These birds are well known to the Huia-hunting natives of Hawke’s Bay; and to possess an ‘Ariki’ skin one must be a great chief. The specimen I have described was obtained in the Ruahine mountains.”
The skin was afterwards sent to me, for examination, and was exhibited at a Meeting of the Wellington Philosophical Society. It is that of a male bird of the first-year. The whole of the body-plumage is brownish black, obscurely banded or transversely rayed with grey; on the head and neck the plumage is darker, shading into the normal glossy black on the forehead, face, and throat. The tail-feathers are very prettily marked: with the exception of the middle one, which is of the normal character in its apical portion, they are blackish brown, irregularly barred and fasciated with different shades of grey, and with a terminal band of white; the under tail-coverts, also, are largely tipped with white, indicating adolescence.
Obs. In some adult examples of both sexes the white at the end of the tail is tinged more or less with rufous. It should be noted also that the brightness of the fleshy wattles depends, in some measure, on the health or condition of the bird; for during sickness they change to lemon-yellow. A recently killed specimen weighed 14 ½ oz. The palate and soft parts of the throat are bright yellow. The tongue is horny and slightly bifid at the tip. In fully matured examples the wattle measures nearly an inch across.
This is one of those anomalous forms that give to the New-Zealand avifauna so much special interest. Considerable difference of opinion has existed among naturalists as to its proper position in our artificial system. For many years it was placed, by common consent, among the Upupidæ, and that it possesses strong affinities to the Hoopoes is, I think, undeniable. Dr. Finsch proposed to group it in a separate family with Glaucopis and Creadion, under the name of Glaucopidæ; and Mr. Sharpe, in the British Museum Catalogue, has placed it with both of those forms in the family Corvidæ. According to my view, however, the investigation of its anatomy by the late Prof. Garrod leaves no doubt whatever that its natural place is among the Starlings.
The late Mr. Gould, who was the first to characterize the form, was deceived by the great difference in the shape of the bill, and treated the sexes as distinct species, naming them respectively Neomorpha acutirostris and N. crassirostris—a very natural mistake, “many genera even,” as Mr. Gould observes, “having been founded upon more trivial differences of character.” Mr. G. R. Gray, having determined their identity, proposed to substitute the specific name of gouldi, in compliment to the original describer; and his example has been followed by others; but I have deemed it more in accordance with the accepted rules of zoological nomenclature to adopt the first of the two names applied to the species by Mr. Gould; and the name Neomorpha having been previously used in ornithology, it becomes necessary to adopt that of Heteralocha, proposed by Dr. Cabanis for this form.
* Trans. New-Zealand Instit. 1878, vol. xi. p. 370.
† Op. cit. 1870, vol. iii. pp. 24–29.
A well-known writer in ‘Nature’ (Dr. Sclater), in describing the peculiarity in the form of the bill that distinguishes it from the female, observes: “Such a divergence in the structure of the beak of the two sexes is very uncommon, and scarcely to be paralleled in the class of birds. It is difficult to guess at the reason of it, or to explain it on Darwinian or any other principles.” In the absence of any published account of its habits, beyond mere fragmentary notices, I have thought the subject of sufficient interest to justify my placing before the Society the following complete account of all that I have been able to ascertain respecting it. The peculiar habits of feeding, which I have described from actual observation, furnish to my own mind a sufficient “reason” for the different development of the mandibles in the two sexes, and may, I think, be accepted as a satisfactory solution of the problem.
Before proceeding to speak of the bird itself, I would remark on the very restricted character of its habitat. It is confined within narrow geographical boundaries, being met with only in the Ruahine, Tararua, and Rimutaka mountain-ranges, with their divergent spurs, and in the intervening wooded valleys. It is occasionally found in the Fagus forests of the Wairarapa valley, and in the rugged country stretching to the westward of the Ruahine range, but it seldom wanders far from its mountain haunts. I have been assured of its occurrence in the wooded country near Massacre Bay*, but I have not been able to obtain any satisfactory evidence on this point. It is worthy of remark that the natives, who prize the bird very highly for its tail-feathers (which are used as a badge of mourning), state that, unlike other species which have of late years diminished and become more confined in their range, the Huia was from time immemorial limited in its distribution to the district I have indicated.
My first specimen of this singular bird (an adult female) was obtained in 1855, from the Wainuiomata hills, a continuation of the Rimutaka range, bounding the Wellington harbour on the northern side—the same locality from which Dr. Dieffenbach, nearly twenty years before, received the examples figured by Mr. Gould in his magnificent work ‘The Birds of Australia.’ I have since obtained many fine specimens, and in the summer of 1864 I succeeded in getting a pair of live ones. They were caught by a native in the ranges, and brought down to Manawatu, a distance of more than fifty miles, on horseback. The owner refused to take money for them; but I negotiated an exchange for a valuable greenstone. I kept these birds for more than a year, waiting a favourable opportunity of forwarding them to the Zoological Society of London. Through the carelessness, however, of a servant, the male bird was accidentally killed; and the other, manifesting the utmost distress, pined for her mate, and died ten days afterwards.
* Mr. Kane informs me that when travelling, two years ago, in the South Island he saw several Huias in a forest lying between Nelson and Picton. He states that he was quite close to them, and could not possibly be mistaken in the bird, with which he is familiar. Mr. W. T. Owen, who is a very careful observer, assures me that he met with it on the other side of Nelson. If the range of the Huia does in reality extend across the Straits, it is a very remarkable fact in the geographical distribution of this much-restricted species. That it does occasionally wander far beyond the limits assigned to it in the North Island is certain, because in 1881 Mr. Ambrose Potts met with one near Te Riuopoanga, in the Patea country. This was not an escaped bird, because the natives of the district knew nothing about it, and would scarcely credit the statement.
They were fully adult birds, and were caught in the following simple manner. Attracting the birds by an imitation of their cry to the place where he lay concealed, the native, with the aid of a long rod, slipped a running knot over the head of the female and secured her. The male, emboldened by the loss of his mate, suffered himself to be easily caught in the same manner. On receiving these birds I set them free in a well-lined and properly ventilated room, measuring about six feet by eight feet. They appeared to be stiff after their severe jolt on horseback, and after feeding freely on the huhu grub, a pot of which the native had brought with them, they retired to one of the perches I had set up for them, and cuddled together for the night.
In the morning I found them somewhat recruited, feeding with avidity, sipping water from a dish, and flitting about in a very active manner. It was amusing to note their treatment of the huhu. This grub, the larva of a large nocturnal beetle (Prionoplus reticularis), which constitutes their principal food, infests all decayed timber, attaining at maturity the size of a man’s little finger. Like all grubs of its kind, it is furnished with a hard head and horny mandibles. On offering one of these to the Huia, he would seize it in the middle, and, at once transferring it to his perch and placing one foot firmly upon it, he would tear off the hard parts, and then, throwing the grub upwards to secure it lengthwise in his bill, would swallow it whole. For the first few days these birds were comparatively quiet, remaining stationary on their perch as soon as their hunger was appeased. But they afterwards became more lively and active, indulging in play with each other and seldom remaining more than a few moments in one position. I sent to the woods for a small branched tree, and placed it in the centre of the room, the floor of which was spread with sand and gravel. It was most interesting to watch these graceful birds hopping from branch to branch, occasionally spreading the tail into a broad fan, displaying themselves in a variety of natural attitudes and then meeting to caress each other with their ivory bills, uttering at the same time a low affectionate twitter. They generally moved along the branches by a succession of light hops, after the manner of the Kokako (Glaucopis wilsoni); and they often descended to the floor, where their mode of progression was the same. They seemed never to tire of probing and chiselling with their beaks. Having discovered that the canvas lining of the room was pervious, they were incessantly piercing it, and tearing off large strips of paper, till, in the course of a few days, the walls were completely defaced.
But what interested me most of all was the manner in which the birds assisted each other in their search for food, because it appeared to explain the use, in the economy of nature, of the differently formed bills in the two sexes. To divert the birds, I introduced a log of decayed wood infested with the huhu grub. They at once attacked it, carefully probing the softer parts with their bills, and then vigorously assailing them, scooping out’the decayed wood till the larva or pupa was visible, when it was carefully drawn from its cell, treated in the way described above, and then swallowed. The very different development of the mandibles in the two sexes enabled them to perform separate offices. The male always attacked the more decayed portions of the wood, chiselling out his prey after the manner of some Woodpeckers, while the female probed with her long pliant bill the other cells, where the hardness of the surrounding parts resisted the chisel of her mate. Sometimes I observed the male remove the decayed portion without being able to reach the grub, when the female would at once come to his aid, and accomplish with her long slender bill what he had failed to do. I noticed, however, that the female always appropriated to her own use the morsels thus obtained.page 11
For some days they refused to eat anything but huhu; but by degrees they yielded to a change of food, and at length would eat cooked potato, boiled rice, and raw meat minced up in small pieces. They were kept supplied with a dish of fresh water, but seldom washed themselves, although often repairing to the vessel to drink. Their ordinary call was a soft and clear whistle, at first prolonged, then short and quickly repeated, both birds joining in it. When excited or hungry, they raised their whistling note to a high pitch; at other times it was softly modulated, with variations, or changed into a low chuckling note. Sometimes their cry resembled the whining of young puppies so exactly as almost to defy detection.
I had afterwards another captive Huia, which came from the Fagus-covered hills at Wainuiomata. This bird became very tame, knew me well, and always welcomed my approach by making a melodious chirping note. He was fond of fresh meat, chopping it up into very small pieces with his bill, making a sound like the tapping of a Woodpecker as he cut up his dinner on the floor of his cage. He ultimately made his escape, and although he remained about the gardens and shrubberies of Wellington for more than two months, consorting freely with the Indian-Minahs, and occasionally indulging in a flight over his old habitation, he seemed to prefer freedom to captivity, and remained at large; but disappeared at last, having probably fallen a victim to the catapult of some city larrikin.
Dr. Dieffenbach, in forwarding his specimens of the Huia to Mr. Gould, in 1836, wrote:—“These fine birds can only be obtained with the help of a native, who calls them with a shrill and long-continued whistle resembling the sound of the native name of the species. After an extensive journey in the hilly forest in search of them, I had at last the pleasure of seeing four alight on the lower branches of the trees near which the native accompanying me stood. They came quick as lightning, descending from branch to branch, spreading out the tail and throwing up the wings.”
On the first occasion of my meeting with this species in its native haunts, I was struck by the same peculiarities in its manners and general demeanour. In the summer of 1867, accompanied by a friend and two natives, I made an expedition into the Ruahine ranges in search of novelties. After a tramp on foot of nearly twenty miles through a densely wooded country, we were rewarded by finding the Huia. We were climbing the side of a steep acclivity, and had halted to dig specimens of the curious vegetating caterpillar (Sphœria robertsii), which was abundant there. While thus engaged, we heard the soft flute-note of the Huia in the wooded gully far beneath us. One of our native companions at once imitated the call, and in a few seconds a pair of beautiful Huias, male and female, appeared in the branches near us. They remained gazing at us only a few instants, and then started off up the side of the hill, moving by a succession of hops, often along the ground, the male generally leading. Waiting till he could get both birds in a line, my friend at length pulled trigger; but the cap snapped, and the Huias instantly disappeared down the wooded gully. Then followed a chevy of some three miles, down the mountain-side and up its rugged ravines. Once more, owing to the dampness of the weather, the cap snapped, and the birds were finally lost sight of. I observed that while in motion they kept near each other, and uttered constantly a soft twitter. The tail was partially spread, while the bright orange lappets were usually compressed under the rami of the lower jaw.
We camped that night near the bed of a mountain rivulet, in a deep wooded ravine, and soon after dawn we again heard the rich notes of a Huia. Failing to allure him by an imitation of the call, although he frequently answered it, we crossed to the other side of the gully, and climbed the hill to a clump of tall rimu trees (Dacrydium cupressinum), where we found him. He was perched on the high limb of a rimu, chiselling it with his powerful beak, and tearing off large pieces of bark, doubtless in search of insects; and it was the falling of these fragments that guided us to the spot and enabled us to find him. This solitary bird, which proved, when shot, to be an old male, had frequented this neighbourhood (as we were informed by the natives) for several years, his notes page 12 being familiar to the people who passed to and fro along the Otairi track leading to Taupo. On asking a native how the Huia contrived to extract the huhu from the decayed timber, he replied “by digging with his pickaxe”—an expression which I found to be truthfully descriptive of the operation; and on dissecting this specimen. I found an extraordinary development of the requisite muscles. The skin was very tough, indicating, probably, extreme age. The stomach contained numerous remains of coleopterous insects, of the kind usually found under the bark of trees, also one or two caterpillars.
On skinning the two sexes, it is at once apparent that the head of the male is formed on a different model to that of the female. In the latter the skin peels off very readily, but in the male the head seems too large for the neck. This difference is occasioned by the greatly developed muscles, forming a rounded mass or cushion on each side of the occiput, which enables this sex to wield his chisel in the effective manner described.
In October 1883, I made a special expedition into the mountain-forest in quest of the Huia; and as it will serve to complete my history of the species, I have transcribed the following narrative from my note-book:—
Taking the early train from Wellington to Masterton on the 9th, I met Captain Mair by appointment, and we forthwith made our arrangements for a start on horseback at daybreak. Instead of a fine day, as we had hoped, the morning opened with a heavy shower, which somewhat delayed our departure, and the day turned out drizzly. Our road lay through a bush and along a highway which had been formed but not metalled. The mire was knee-deep for the horses, and, for most part of the way, it was very toilsome work. The distance to be traversed was only twenty miles, the first four of which were over a hard road; but the shades of evening were closing in around us by the time we reached our camping-ground at the foot of the Patitapu range, and our Maori attendant (Rahui) had barely time to fix up our tent and collect “whariki” for bedding before thick darkness had set in. Our approach to this camping-place lay along the edge of a wooded ravine. On the opposite side from us there was a grove of tall manuka trees, several hundred acres in extent. Rahui informed us that this was a favourite resort of the Huia when feeding on the weta or tree-cricket (Deinacrida thoracica). The dull russet-green of the manuka bush was relieved on the sides of the ravine by those ever changing, ever beautiful, light-green tints so characteristic of our New-Zealand woods. Here and there a shapely rewarewa reared its tapering top, spangled all over with bunches of crimson flower, while along our path were fringes of the scented pukapuka with its dark green leaves, showing their silver lining as they yielded to the breeze, and covered with a profusion of creamcoloured inflorescence. At intervals might be seen a leafless kowhai laden with a wealth of beautiful golden blossom, and in the more open parts of the widening valley clumps of Cordyline with their waving crowns of green; whilst, adding immeasurably to the charm of the whole scene, the star-like clematis, in huge white clusters, hung everywhere in graceful festoons from the tangled vegetation. Down in the bed of the ravine, and hiding the babbling brook, the stunted overhanging trees were for the most part clothed in a luxuriant mantle of kohia, kareao, and other epiphytic plants.
Such was the spot in which we first heard the soft, whistling call of the Huia! Rahui imitated the cry, and in a few moments a fine male bird came across the ravine, flying low, taking up his station for a few seconds on a dead tree, and then disappearing, as if by magic, in the undergrowth below. Our guide continued to call, but the Huia was shy and would only respond with a low chirping note. But this was enough, and led us to where he was engaged, apparently grubbing among the moss on the ground. We shot the bird, which proved to be in beautiful plumage, and Rahui accepted this as an earnest of our success on the morrow.
Our camp was selected as only a native can select in the bush. The spot fixed upon was a gentle slope under the shadow of a three-stemmed tawhero (Weinmannia racemosa), sheltered all round by close-growing porokaiwiria, torotoro, and other shrubby trees, and the whole fenced in, as page 13 it were, by a thick undergrowth of bright green pukapuka, mixed with the still brighter mahoe, and protected in front by a perfect network of kareao vines, attached to and suspended from the higher trees. We soon had a roaring camp fire and some ribs of mutton roasting for supper. As the night closed in upon us we heard all round the solemn notes of the New-Zealand Owl: first, a distinct kou-kou, kou-kou; then in a weaker key (perhaps the responsive call of the female) keo-keo-keo; and then, in alternation, the alarm-note and the ever familiar cry of “more-pork.”
Even after a pall of darkness had settled on the woods, some Tuis in the tall tree-tops kept up a delicious liquid song, like the measured tolling of a silver bell, and far into the night could be heard, at intervals, the low whistling note of the Kaka communing with his mate. Then all was quiet, the night being very dark, and nothing broke the stillness of the forest till the Huia-call of our native guide brought us to our senses in the early dawn. But the day turned out unpropitious. The drizzling rain continued and a strong breeze set in; so we determined to shift our camp to the other side of the range. Our road lay along the side of another ravine. We had not proceeded more than a mile when Rahui’s call was answered from the other side. The bird’s loud cry was presently succeeded by a whistling whimper, and then he came towards us, bouncing through the brushwood as if in a desperate hurry. Descending to the ground a few yards in front of us, he hopped along the surface, and then up the trunk of a prostrate tree, with surprising agility. My companion took a shot at him; but owing to the dampness his gun missed fire, and the bird, taking alarm, disappeared in an instant, all our efforts to recall him proving of no avail. On reaching the head of the valley, we tethered our horses and commenced the ascent of the range, which we found very steep. About halfway up, we rested on the ground. Rahui continued his call—a loud clear whistle—not much like the ordinary call of the bird, being louder and more shrill. In a few seconds, without sound or warning of any kind, a Huia came bounding along, almost tumbling, through the close foliage of the pukapuka, and presented himself to view at such close range that it was impossible to fire. This gave me an opportunity of watching this beautiful bird and marking his noble bearing, if I may so express it, before I shot him. While waiting to get the bird within proper range, I heard far below me the rich note of the Kokako, repeated several times. It is scarcely distinguishable from the call of the Tui, but is preceded by a prolonged organ-note of rare sweetness. My next shot was at an adult male Huia who came dashing up, with reckless impetuosity, from the wooded gully. Being anxious to obtain a perfect specimen, I risked a long shot and only wounded my bird. Down he went to the ground like an arrow, with a sharp flute-note of surprise or pain, and then darted off, kangaroo-fashion, covering the ground with wonderful rapidity, and disappeared in the tangle.
We found the descent of the range much easier than our toilsome climb. Remounting our horses we continued up the valley. At a turn in the road, at a spot hemmed in by a wooded amphitheatre of beautiful shapely trees (chiefly rata), we halted for a moment to gaze on the scene. On a tree, immediately in front of us, a pair of Wood-Pigeons were sitting side by side, showing off their ample white breasts under the rays of sunlight glancing through the rain-drops. Whilst we were looking at and admiring this little picture of bird-life, a pair of Huias, without uttering a sound, appeared in a tree overhead, and as they were caressing each other with their beautiful bills, a charge of No. 6 brought both to the ground together. The incident was rather touching, and I felt almost glad that the shot was not mine, although by no means loth to appropriate the two fine specimens. Before we reached our next camping-ground, at the foot of Poroporo, we had bagged another bird (a female of last year) who was unattended, and came up quite fearlessly to her doom.
After we had secured our horses and “refreshed the inner man,” Rahui and I started again for Huias, whilst our companion remained to fish for eels in the creek near our camp. After we had walked about a mile, a bird answered our call, and immediately afterwards a pair of Huias alighted in a pukatea tree above us. I brought them down, with right and left, and then another page 14 bird (a young male) appeared on the scene. He exhibited great excitement and was evidently at a loss to know what it all meant. Uttering a low, sibilant cry, with a tender pathos, he hopped down lower and lower, till within a yard or two of my head. I could easily have knocked the pretty creature over with a stick, but had not the heart to do so. I was less scrupulous, however, about having him caught, and in far less time than I take to write it, Rahui had selected a long stick, fixed a noose at the end of it, and slipped it over the bird’s head. The Huia nimbly jumped through the loop but was caught by the feet. On finding himself a captive, he uttered no sound, but, in the most practical way, at once attacked my hands with his bill, striking fiercely and repeatedly at a white-faced signet-ring. On the following day Rahui managed to snare another, which was fortunately a female, thus making a pair of young birds. They became at once reconciled to confinement, eating freely of the huhu grub, and resting very contentedly on a perch to which they had been attached by a thong of flax. The young of the first year has a low and rather plaintive cry, easily distinguished from all other sounds in the forest, and pleasant enough to the ear. Our third and last day turned out wet and stormy; but we nevertheless got some more Huias, our bag consisting altogether of sixteen birds, exclusive of the live ones.
The Huia never leaves the shade of the forest. It moves along the ground, or from tree to tree, with surprising celerity by a series of bounds or jumps. In its flight it never rises, like other birds, above the tree-tops, except in the depth of the woods, when it happens to fly from one high tree to another. The old birds, as a rule, respond to the call-note in a low tremulous whistle or whimper, and almost immediately afterwards answer the summons in person, coming down noiselessly and almost with the rapidity of an arrow. Occasionally a shy old bird refuses every allurement, and takes himself quietly off. These knowing ones are distinguished by the bird-hunters as Huia-paoke. Young birds answer the call, although somewhat feebly, but do not, as a rule, present themselves. With these, it is necessary to mark down the direction, and follow them up with gun or snare.
They are generally met with in pairs, but sometimes a party of four or more are found consorting together.
Its food consists largely, as already stated, of the huhu grub; but it also subsists on the weta and other insects of various kinds, and the berries of such trees and shrubs as hinau, porokaiwiria, poukaka, and karamu. In the stomachs of those which I opened I found hinau berries (Elœocarpus dentatus), orthopterous insects, caterpillars, and the remains of a large spider; and Mr. Drew informs me that birds skinned by him had been feeding on the green and brown Mantis.
Within its restricted habitat the Huia appears to maintain its position notwithstanding the wholesale slaughter of late years. To say nothing of the zeal of collectors, who obtain large numbers for the European markets, the natives annually kill a great many for the sake of their feathers. For example: a party of eleven natives went out for a month and scoured the wooded country lying between the Manawatu gorge and Akitio, and brought in 646 skins; and a party of three men obtained a considerable number near Turakirai on the south-western side of the Wairarapa Lake. Other instances of the kind might be given, all tending to show that the struggle for existence with the Huia is becoming a severe one. Already the fate of several species which, a few years ago, were plentiful enough in these woods has been decided. In the course of our expedition, which extended altogether 27 miles beyond Masterton, we travelled over a broad extent of broken, wooded country, and, to say nothing of Korimako and Pitoitoi (which have long since disappeared), we never saw or heard the notes of either the Piopio, the Tieke, or the Hihi, all of which birds were at one time more numerous even than the Huia. The Zosterops was everywhere abundant, also the Grey Warbler and Rifleman, and along the edges of the bush we found the Tomtit comparatively plentiful; the Parrakeet chased its mate through the tree-tops with sharp cries of “twenty-eight”; the Tui, in its playful flight, mounted high in the sunlight overhead; and among the tangle of the underwood the ever-present Flycatcher displayed its pretty fan-like tail. But, of course, the charm of these page 15 dark Fagus-woods was the beautiful bird for which we had expressly come, and of which we had secured so many fine specimens.
One of the birds shot on our last day was a sitting female. The whole of the abdomen was denuded of feathers, and the skin had a smooth or polished appearance, as if the bird had been incubating for some time. This was on October 12, and was perhaps a case of early nesting, as none of the other birds presented any such appearance. In the ovary was a cluster of eggs, the largest of which was scarcely equal to a No. 6 shot. The ovarial duct was much enlarged, from which it may be, inferred that the egg had only lately been laid. Another point deserving of notice is that the bird was very fat, even the intestines being overlaid with thin layers; whereas most of the birds we shot’ were in rather poor condition. May we not fairly infer from this that the male bird attends upon and feeds the female during incubation?
In the generality of dried specimens, and in the published drawings that have hitherto appeared, the bill is of a yellowish horn-colour; but this, instead of being natural, is caused by the decomposition of the animal matter inside. I have succeeded in retaining the ivory whiteness of the bill, in preserved specimens, by treating them after the manner recommended by Waterton for preserving the bill of the American Toucan (see ‘Wanderings,’ p. 103)—that is to say, by removing with a sharp scalpel the whole of the inner substance, leaving nothing but the outer shell, which then retains its original appearance. The process is a tedious one; but the result amply repays the trouble. The wattles of the Huia are of a bright orange colour, and during life are usually carried half-curled inwards.
I have given elsewhere* figure of the dried head of a Huia handed to me, many years ago, by a native who had been wearing it as an ear-ornament. This specimen, which is now in the University Museum at Cambridge, represents a more highly curved form of bill than is usually met with.
I have also described and figured † a curious deformity in the bill of this bird. The lower mandible, in this instance, having been at some time accidentally broken off, the upper mandible had considerably overgrown it, becoming somewhat thickened beyond the point of friction ‡.
* Trans. New-Zealand Institute, 1870, vol. iii. pl. iv. fig. 3.
† Op. cit. 1877, vol. x. p. 211.
‡ More, curious still is the case of deformity recently described by the Rev. W. Colenso, F.R.S., in a paper read before the Hawke’s Bay Institute on the 9th August, ·1886 (not yet published), of which the author has kindly sent me a copy, from which I extract the following:—“The head exhibited is that of a female Huia, the upper mandible of its bill being greatly and strangely deformed. From about one inch or one-fourth of the normal length of the upper mandible from its base it suddenly rises and remains at an angle of 45°, forming a regular, ascending, sub-erect spiral of two large and equal curves of ·75 of an inch, open, interior diameter, not unlike a gigantic cork-screw, and reminding one of the spiral horn of the Strepsiceros. The total length of this deformed mandible, following the curves, is just six inches. It is flat above and devoid of nostrils, and the end or tip is sharply pointed…… The lower mandible is 2·75 inches long, being vory much shorter and not so much curved as this portion of the bird’s bill is in the normal state…… There is not the slightest indication of the upper mandible ever having been broken or bruised…… From its strange configuration it appears to have been far more than merely useless, for it must have been always an obstacle in the way and the means of keeping the bird’s mouth constantly open. How it could have managed to exist seems truly wonderfull” Vide woodcut on page 17.
In connection with this tendency to abnormal growth, I may mention a suggestive circumstance that has lately come under my notice. A male bird which I presented to the Zoological Society was fully adult when I brought it to England. For about a year, in its new home, it has been fed on soft food, the bill being thus deprived of the ordinary wear and tear incident to the natural habits of the species. As a consequence, the bill has far outgrown in length its normal proportions, and has assumed a somewhat curved form, resembling that of an immature female. The wattles have retained their rich orange colour, and the bird seems to be in perfect health.
Mr. T. W. Kirk mentions (Trans. N.-Z. I. vol. xii. p. 249) another curious instance of deformity in the bill of a female Huia, in the Museum Collection at Wellington, and gives a woodcut to illustrate it. In this case, it appears to have resulted from an accident, a shot having probably passed through and split the upper mandible immediately below the nostril.
There is now living in the “Western Aviary” in the same Gardens a fine male bird which I brought to England in April 1886, and which had been in possession of the Wairarapa Maoris for nearly a year previous to my leaving the colony.
* As stated in the Introduction to my former edition (page xvii) the loss to the collection was a gain to science, for the late Prof. Garrod had thus an opportunity of studying the osteology and anatomy of this singular form; and I quoted the following passages from his valuable paper on the subject read before the Zoological Society on the 21st of May, 1872:—
“The arrangement of the feathers is completely Passerine. The rhombic saddle of the spinal tract does not enclose any ephippial space, therein differing from the Crow’s and resembling the typical Starling’s. There are ninetcen remiges, of which ten are on the hand; they increase in size up to the fifth. The reotrices are twelve in number. The oil-gland is nude…… The gizzard is well developed. The intestines are 16 inches long, with the bile-ducts 2 ½ inches from. the’ gizzard. The cæca are 1 inch from the cloaca and ¼ inch long, being cylindrical. There is one carotid artery, the left…… The palate is strictly ægithognathous; that is, the vomer is truncate in front abruptly, and cleft behind; the postero-external angles of the palatines are produced; the maxillo-palatines are slender, and approach towards, but do not unite with, one another, nor with the vomer, which they partly embrace. There is no ossification in the nasal septum anterior to the vomer. The whole cranial configuration closely resembles that of Sturnus; but the mandible, instead of being bent upwards, is straight. Like it, the palatines are narrow and approximate; the antero-internal angles of the posterior portions of those bones are reduced and rounded off, as is sometimes the case with Sturnus. The vomer is completely truncated in front, and is not prolonged forwards at its external angles, as in Corvus and its allies. The zygoma is not so slender as in Sturnus; but the curves are similar. The articular surfaces on the quadrate bone for the mandible are proportionally very large. The anterior extremities of the pterygoid bones articulate with the sphenoidal rostrum much as in Corvus, meeting in the middle line behind the posterior extremities of the palatines for a short distance. The maxillo-palatines, in their approximate portions, are shorter from before backwards than in Sturnus, and much resemble those of Corvus. The antero-inferior processes of the orbit are large and spongy; they almost touch the zygoma. But the most characteristic portion of the skull of Heteralocha is the occipital region; and in this it presents a great exaggeration of the peculiarities of Sturnus and its allies. In Corvus and most Passerines the digastric muscles occupy a narrow space intervening between the auditory meatus and the mass of occipital muscles, not extending so high up the skull as the latter. The occipital ridge encloses a space elongated from side to side, and of but little depth. In Sturnus the digastrics are much broader, and they narrow the occipital space; they also extend up the skull to so great an extent that they nearly meet in. the middle line above the origin of the biventres cervicis muscles; but in Heteralocha they are of still greater size, and, meeting above the middle line, they form a strong ridge, which extends for some distance into the parietal region vertically. This peculiar development of these muscles produces a correspoñding change in the shape of the space enclosed by the occipital ridge. In Heteralocha it is almost circular, and it extends some way above the foramen magnum. In Sturnus there is an approximation to this condition. A vertical parieto-occipital ridge in many other birds closely resembles that of Heteralocha; but it is the median limit of the temporal fossa in most. Correlated with this extensive digastric origin is a large surface for its insertion. The angle of the mandible is prolonged directly backwards for this purpose, in a manner unique among Passerine birds, but well seen in the Anatidœ. In Sturnus the angle of the mandible is slightly prolonged backwards for a similar purpose…… In the sternum Heteralocha differs in no important point from Sturnus, except that the posterior notches tend to be converted into foramina, as observed by Mr. Eyton in his ‘Osteologia Avium.’ .… In conclusion, it may be stated that the anatomy of Heteralocha shows clearly that it is truly Passerine, and not related to Upupa, as was previously supposed by most authors. When examined more in detail its relation to the Sturnidœ is found to be very intimate, and its structure is clearly not closely allied to that of the Corvidœ. In its relation to Sturnus it seems to present an exaggeration of the peculiarities of that bird, which would place it at the head of the family.”—Proc. Zool. Soc. 1872, pp. 643–647.
The Maoris prepare the skin in a very primitive way: cutting off the wings and legs, they strip the body and then flatten the skin to dry between two sheets of totara bark, tied tightly round with native flax, taking special care to keep the tail-feathers unsoiled. The latter are much prized as head-plumes on festive occasions, and for the ornamentation of the dead. In former days very artistic boxes (papa-huia) were carved in relief as caskets for these precious feathers.
This species builds its nest in hollow trees, forming it of dry grass, leaves, and the withered stems of herbaceous, plants, carefully twined together in a circular form, and lined with softer materials of a similar kind*. An egg was brought to me on the 11th October, 1877, by Mikaera of Wainuiomata, who stated that it was found by him in utero when engaged in skinning a Huia. As already mentioned on page 4, the testimony of this man is not very reliable; but there can be little doubt that this is in reality the egg of the Huia, for it agrees in general character with one subsequently received at the Colonial Museum and described by Mr. Kirk †. My specimen was perfectly fresh when brought to me, and the shell was of such extreme delicacy that it was fractured under the gentlest handling in blowing. It is ovoido-elliptical in form, measuring 1·8 inch in length by 1·1 inch in breadth, of a very delicate stone-grey, inclining. to greyish white, without any markings except at the larger end, where there are, chiefly on one side, some scattered rounded spots of dark purple-grey and brown; towards the smaller end there are some obsolete specks, but over the greater portion of its surface the shell is quite plain.
The specimen described by Mr. Kirk is somewhat smaller, being 1·45 inch in length by 1·1 in its widest diameter, the shell “having a beautifully fine and delicate structure, and pure white without any trace of markings whatever.” This egg was obtained by Mr. G. M. Hewson from the Maoris of Murimotu, who assured him that it was that of the Huia.
* See an interesting account by Mr. Potts (’Zoologist,’ 1884, p. 387) of a nest found in the cavity of an ancient hinau tree at Manawatu. On November 18th it contained one young bird. Another nest in the same neighbourhood contained three.
† Journal of Science, 1882–83, vol. i. p. 263.