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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Creadion Carunculatus. — (The Saddle-Back.)

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Creadion Carunculatus.
(The Saddle-Back.)

  • Wattled Stare, Lath. Gen. Syn. iii. p. 9, pl. 36 (1783).

  • Sturnus carunculatus, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 805 (1788, ex Lath.).

  • Creadion pharoides, Bonn. et Vieill. Enc. Méth. p. 874 (1823).

  • cterus rufusater, Less. Voy. Coq. i. p. 649, pl. xxiii. fig. 1 (1826).

  • Xanthornus carunculatus, Quoy et Gaim. Voy. de 1′Astr. i. p. 212, pl. 12. fig. 4 (1830).

  • Oxystomus carunculatus, Swains. Classif. of B. ii. p. 270 (1837).

  • Oreadio carunculatus, Cab. Mus. Hein. Th. i. p. 218 (1850).

Native names.

Tieke, Tiraweke, Tirauweke, and Purourou.

ad. nitidè niger: dorso cum tectricibus alarum, supracaudalibus et subcaudalibus laeté ferrugineis: carunculis rictalibus miniatis: rostro et pedibus nigris: iride nigricanti-brunneâ.

♀ mari similis, sed minor et carunculis minoribus distinguenda.

Adult male. General plumage glossy black; hack, wing-coverts, upper and lower tail-coverts bright ferruginous. Irides blackish brown’; bill and legs black; wattles varying in tint from a clear yellow to a bright vermilion, being apparently affected by physical conditions, such as the health of the bird or the temperature of the weather. Total length 10 inches; extent of wings 12·5; wing, from flexure, 4; tail 3·5; bill, along the ridge 1·25, along the edge of lower mandible 1·4; tarsus 1·6; middle toe and claw 1·25; hind toe and claw 1·1.

Female. Of inferior size to the male, and having the wattles of a somewhat lighter colour.

Young. Has the colours of the adult, but with the tints duller and no sheen or gloss on the plumage; the wattles extremely small and of a pale yellow colour.

Obs. In the Natural-History Museum of the Jardin des Plantes, in Paris, I observed an adult specimen in partial albino plumage; and in the Canterbury Museum there is an example with a single white feather on the breast.

This bird derives its popular name from a peculiarity in the distribution of its two strongly contrasted colours, black and ferruginous, the latter of which covers the back, forms a sharply defined margin across the shoulders, and sweeps over the wings in a manner suggestive of saddle-flaps. The colours, in the male bird especially, are of so decided a kind as to attract special attention, to say nothing of the loud notes and eccentric habits of this remarkable bird. The bill is strong, sharply cut, and wedge-shaped, being well adapted for digging into decaying vegetable matter in search of larvæ, grubs, and insects, on which this species largely subsists. Berries, tender buds, and other vegetable substances likewise contribute to its support. From the angle of the mouth on each side there hangs a fleshy wattle, or caruncle, shaped like a cucumber-seed, and of a changeable bright yellow colour. The wings are short and feeble, and the flight of the bird, though rapid, is very laboured, and always confined to a short distance.

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[The range of this species extends as far north as the Lower Waikato, beyond which district it is only rarely met with. It is numerous in the wooded ranges between Waikato Heads and Raglan, and is occasionally found in the neighbourhood of the Hunua coal-fields; but I have never heard of its occurrence in the Tauranga district, on the east coast, although I have an excellent ornithological correspondent there. In the summer of 1852 I obtained a pair at the Kaipara; but the bird was decidedly a rara avis, few of the natives in that part of the country being familiar with it. Captain G. Mair met with it once at Kaitaia, near the North Cape, and he afterwards saw a pair in the Maungatapere bush, near Whangarei. These are the only instances I can give of its occurrence on the mainland north of Auckland; but, strange to say, it is very plentiful on the Barrier Islands, in the Gulf of Hauraki. Mr. Layard was the first to notice its existence there, having shot a specimen on the Little Barrier, which he visited, in company with Sir George Grey, in 1863. He speaks of it (Ibis, 1863, p. 244) as “an apparently very rare bird;” but Captain Hutton, who visited these islands in December 1867, found it on both the Great and Little Barrier, and “very common” on the latter*. It is comparatively abundant in the wooded hills in the vicinity of Wellington and in those skirting the Tararua and Ruahine ranges; and it occurs also, and more plentifully, in many parts of the South Island.]

This species, formerly comparatively plentiful but now extremely scarce in the North Island, is very irregular in its distribution. In my first edition I endeavoured as above (within the brackets) to describe its range; but I omitted to mention that in one locality north of Auckland—a small wood at Kaitaia called Mauteringi, some three or four miles in extent—this bird was plentiful, although’ rarely ever met with in other parts of that district. Although never seen in the Bay of Plenty woods, it was, till within the last few years, numerous enough in the Ngatiporou country, where the natives were accustomed to regard it also as a bird of omen. A war-party hearing the cry of the Tieke to the right of their path would count it an omen of victory, but to the left a signal of evil. It is also the mythical bird that is supposed to guard the ancient treasures of the Maoris. The relics of the Whanauapanui tribe—mere pounamus and other heir—looms of great antiquity and value—are hidden away in the hollow of a tree at Cape Runaway, and it is popularly believed that the Tieke keeps guard over these lost treasures. According to Maori tradition, among these hidden things is a stone atua, which possessed at one time the power of moving from place to place of its own accord, but has since become inactive.

At the present time it is more plentiful on the Hen (a little wooded islet in the Hauraki Gulf) than anywhere else, a fact which may be attributable to the absence of wild cats; for on the Barrier Islands, where, the cat has obtained a footing, this bird is nearly exterminated. On the Hen, according to Mr. Reischek, it is actually increasing. in numbers, During his earlier visits they were only to be met with on the west and north-west sides of the island; on his last visit, after a lapse of only four years, they were to be heard and seen everywhere, being indeed the commonest bird on the island. They appeared to be of all ages; but neither here nor on the mainland did he ever meet with Creadion cinereus, which appears to be strictly confined to the South Island, where both species commingle.

The natives state that this species usually places its nest in the hollow of a tree, and they point to holes in well-known trees where the Tieke has reared its young for many years in succession. A pair is said to be still breeding in the hollow of the famous tree at Omaruteangi, known all over the country as “Putatieke” he bird is accordingly regarded with some degree of superstitious page 20 reverence by the Arawa, who will not allow it to be wilfully destroyed. Those who have read Maori history will be familiar with the story of Ngatoroirangi and his sacred Tiekes of Cuvier Island. Hence the proverb, “Mann mohio kei Reponga,” commonly applied to a man wise in council, and used in the sense of our own proverbial saying “Old birds are not to be caught with chaff.”

Dr. Hector has informed me of a peculiarity in the habits of this species as observed by him in Otago. It is accustomed to follow the flocks of Clitonyx ochrocephala through the bush; but for what purpose it is difficult to imagine. Wherever he saw a flock of Yellow-heads there was invariably one of these Saddle-backs in attendance, mingling freely with them and, as it were, exercising a general supervision over the flock. He assures me that, during many months’ residence in the woods, he had almost daily opportunities of verifying his observations regarding this very curious fact.

Active in all its movements, it seldom remains more than a few seconds in one position, but darts through the branches or climbs the boles of the trees, performing the ascent by a succession of nimble hops, and often spirally. It is naturally a noisy bird, and when excited or alarmed becomes very clamorous, hurrying through the woods with cries of “tiaki-rere,” or a note like cheep-te-te, quickly repeated ‘several times. At other times it has a scale of short flute-notes, clear and musical; but the most remarkable exhibition of its’ vocal powers takes place during the breeding-season, when the male performs to his mate in a soft strain of exquisite sweetness. This love-song is heard only on a near approach, and it is at first difficult to believe that so clamorous a bird could be capable of such tender strains.

When feeding its young the female has a different cry—a low, musical whistle, repeated once or twice. When the nest is invaded, or the safety of the young threatened, the male bird becomes very excited and utters his shrill cry with renewed energy and with quicker repetition.

The Plate represents the bird on a flowering branch of the pukapuka (Brachyglottis repanda); and I may here mention that in this and some other instances Mr. Keulemans has availed himself of my son’s drawings of the New-Zealand flora.

Professor Hutton discovered the nest of this species on the Little Barrier Island. It was situated about two feet down the hollow stem of a dead tree-fern that had been broken off at the top, and from which he saw a Saddle-back emerge. The nest was roughly composed of stems of Hymenophyllum and dead fibres of nikau (Areca sapida), and lined with the fine papery bark of the Leptospermum; and it contained three eggs, which, at the time they were found (December 27th), had been slightly sat upon. One of these specimens was kindly forwarded to me and is now in the Colonial Museum; it measures 1·4 inch in length by 1 in breadth, and is white, marked and spotted, especially at the thicker end, with purplish brown of different shades.

An egg more recently received by the Canterbury Museum, from the West Coast, is of a rather elliptical form, measuring 1·2 inch in length by ·85 of an inch in its greatest width. It is of a delicate purplish grey, becoming lighter at the smaller end, and marked all over the surface, but more thickly at the larger end, with points, spots, and blotches of dark purple and brown.

I was, informed by an intelligent Maori at Wellington that this bird is accustomed to ’repair, for many successive seasons, to the cavity in which it has once reared its brood, and that, although the number of eggs is generally three, he has occasionally found a nest containing four.

* Trans. New-Zealand Inst. 1868, vol. i. p. 160.

Putatieke: a renowned hinau tree in the Urewera country. It is supposed to possess miraculous attributes. Sterile women visit it for the purpose of inducing conception. They clasp the tree with their arms, and repeat certain incantations by way of invoking the atua.