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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Platycercus Auriceps. — (Yellow-Fronted Parrakeet.)

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Platycercus Auriceps.
(Yellow-Fronted Parrakeet.)

  • Platycercus auriceps, Kuhl, Consp. Psittac. p. 46 (1820).

  • Pacific Parrot, var. C, Lath. Gen. Syn. i. p. 252 (1781).

  • Psittacus pacificus, var. δ, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 329 (1788).

  • Platycercus auriceps, Vigors, Zool. Journ. i. p. 531 (1825).

  • Platycercus novœ zelandiœ, Bourjot St.-Hilaire, Perroq. t. 37 (1837).

  • Euphema auriceps, Licht. Nomencl. Av. p. 72 (1854).

  • Cyanoramphus auriceps, Bonap. Rev. et Mag. de Zool. vi. p. 153 (1854).

  • Cyanoramphus malherbi, Souancé, Rev. et Mag. de Zool. ix. p. 98 (1857).

  • Platycercus malherbii, Gray, Cat. Brit. Mus. Psitt. p. 14 (1859).

  • Coriphilus auriceps, Schlegel, Dierent. p. 77 (1864).

Native names.

The same as those applied to the preceding species.

Ad. P. novæ zealandiæ similis, sed valdè minor, et vertice aureo, fronte puniceâ facilè distinguendus.

Adult male. General plumage beautiful grass-green, paler or more suffused with yellow on the underparts. A band of dark crimson connects the eyes, passing across the forehead, immediately above the nostrils; upper part of forehead and crown golden yellow; on the nape a basal spot of yellowish white, apparent only on moving the feathers; on each side of the rump a conspicuous spot of crimson; quills dusky black, crossed on their under surface with a band of pale yellow; the outer web of the bastard quills and first four primaries, with their coverts, indigo-blue, narrowly margined with yellow. Irides pale cherry-red; upper mandible bluish white at the base, black towards the tip; under mandible bluish black; feet pale brown. Extreme length 10·5 inches; wing, from flexure, 4·5; tail 5; culmen ·6; tarsus ·6; longer fore toe and claw 1; longer hind toe and claw ·9.

Varieties. Like the preceding bird, this species also exhibits abnormally coloured varieties. A young bird, brought to me from the nest, and not fully fledged, had the plumage of the body pale yellow, shaded with green on the upper parts, and the quills and tail-feathers marked with red. Another had numerous light crescentic marks on the wing-coverts. In the summer of 1863 I obtained a very beautiful variety at Manawatu. I found it in the hands of a labouring settler, who had purchased it from the natives for something less than a shilling. Finding him unwilling to part with it, I tempted him with a guinea, and secured the prize. It was a bird of the first year, and presented the following appearance:—Frontal band crimson; vertex golden yellow; space around the eyes and a band encircling the neck green; head, shoulders, and lower part of back red, the intermediate space variegated with red and green; quills dusky, obscurely banded with yellow, and margined on the outer web with blue; wing-coverts greenish yellow, barred and margined with red; tail-feathers green, obscurely barred with yellow in their apical portion; underparts green, variegated with crimson and yellow, an interrupted band of the former colour crossing the breast. Like the spotted variety of P. novæ zealandiæ already mentioned, within a short time it commenced to moult, and was fast assuming the common green livery of the species, when it was accidentally killed. This specimen, which still exhibits traces of its original colours, belongs now to the type collection in the Colonial Museum.

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A pretty male bird obtained by Reischek near Dusky Sound, at an elevation of 2000 feet, has the entire plumage tinged with saffron-brown, which is darkest on the breast, shoulders, and upper wing-coverts; the yellow on the vertex is mixed with orpiment-orange; the blue on the bastard quills and primaries is unusually brilliant; the scapulars have a wash of yellow; and the uropygial spots are very indistinct.

I have seen several examples exhibiting marks of red on the vertex and crown; and in the Canterbury Museum there is a specimen which has the frontal band dull red instead of crimson, the crown, upper surface of wings, and the abdomen more or less marked with yellowish brown, the primaries tipped and the secondaries largely margined with paler brown.

Mr. Henry Travers obtained one on Mangare Island (at the Chathams) “with a faint tinge of yellow on the head.”

A specimen obtained by Dr. Lemon at Takaka, in the South Island, and presented to the Colonial Museum, is one of the loveliest objects in the mounted collection. The whole of the plumage is of a vivid canary-yellow, which is brightest on the vertex, and is bordered by a narrow band of crimson across the forehead. The uropygial spots are large and of flaming crimson. The only indications of the normal colour are on the quills and tail-feathers. The quills are pale canary-yellow, inclining to white; the middle primaries in one wing are clouded with dark grey, and in the other wing there is a splash of green across the secondaries; in both wings the bastard quills are edged with blue; the two middle tail-feathers are stained with green, and the two succeeding on either side are green in their central portion; one of the outer laterals also is marked with green. Bill pure white; legs and feet flesh-white.

This bird, as Dr. Lemon informs me, was shot in May 1882, in Eve’s Valley, Waimea, by Mr. Fabian, telegraph lineman, who had the good sense to preserve it. By the courtesy of Sir James Hector, it was brought to England, and exhibited in the New-Zealand Court at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, 1886.

Obs. This species is very readily distinguished from all the other members of the group of Platycerci by its beautiful golden vertex. Individuals vary both in size and in the brilliancy of their plumage.

Some specimens exhibit the yellow vertex stained more or less with crimson. The type of Platycercus malherbi, in the British Museum, received from the Auckland Islands, and characterized by Souancé as “encore plus petit que l’auriceps,” is nothing but a very small example of this species. There is an equally small one in the same collection from the Bay of Islands, New Zealand.

Professor Hutton states that two specimens brought by Mr. Henry Travers from the Chatham Islands are slightly larger than the New-Zealand bird.

The Yellow-fronted Parrakeet, although generally dispersed over the country in all suitable localities, is more plentiful than the red-fronted species in the northern parts of the North Island, and less so as we approach Cook’s Strait. In the South Island, however, the two species appear to be more equally distributed.

In habits this bird closely resembles the preceding one; but it is less gregarious, being seen generally in pairs. It loves to frequent the tutu bushes (Coriaria ruscifolia), to regale itself on the juicy berries of this bushy shrub; and on these occasions it is easily snared by the natives, who use for that purpose a flax noose at the end of a slender rod. When feeding on the tutu-berry, the whole of its interior becomes stained of a dark purple. When the wild dock has run to seed, this pretty little Parrakeet repairs to the open fields and feasts on the ripe seeds of that noxious weed; at other seasons the berries of Coprosma lucida, Fuchsia excorticata, and other forest-shrubs afford it plentiful and agreeable nutriment.

Far up the course of the Northern Wairoa, just below Mangakahia, the banks of the river for some miles are cleared of the original forest, the land having been in years gone by occupied by Maori plantations. A new growth has covered the long-abandoned “wairengas,” and, just along the margin of the stream, the soil, enriched by deposits of fine silt through the occasional overflowing of the muddy waters, supports a belt of tupakihi, intermixed with other shrubs and completely overgrown with climbing convolvulus. In no part of New Zealand have I found the Yellow-fronted page 144 Parrakeet so numerous as in this tangled retreat, especially at the season when the tutu-berries have ripened and are hanging in drupes from every branch. I have seen a native lad enter this thicket—which is open below and matted overhead—and, armed only with a flax noose at the end of a slender rod, catch numbers of them with perfect ease, by slipping the loop over the head of the unsuspicious bird.

My son met with it in the stunted woods in the Owhaoko-Kaimanawa district, when the whole country was under snow.

At irregular periods, after intervals of from seven to ten years, this Parrakeet (in company with the preceding species) visits the settled and cultivated districts in astonishing numbers, swarming into the gardens and fields, devouring every kind of soft fruit, nibbling off the tender shoots on the orchard trees, and eating up the pulse and grain in all directions. Sir William Fox gave me a graphic account of one of these sudden irruptions in the South Island in the summer of 1870–71, when great injury was done to the crops. The last of these visitations occurred in the early part of 1886, and the one before that at the close of 1877. On each of these occasions much public interest was excited by the occurrence, and many theories (such as the devastation of the country by bush-fires) were put forward to account for this recurrent “plague of Parrakeets.” Whilst the newspapers were busy with these more or less colourable theories, the birds vanished as suddenly as they had come.

There is a widespread popular belief that the movements of certain species of birds indicate approaching climatic changes, or form a sort of index to the seasons; and it would not be difficult to find and multiply apparent proofs of such a connection. But the theory, as generally accepted, is true only to a certain extent. Everyone is probably aware that birds, of all animals (except perhaps frogs), are the best natural barometers. For example, to every native colonist the vociferous cry of the Sparrow-Hawk betokens change; the altitudes at which these birds habitually fly make them susceptible to the slightest change of temperature, and to all observers of outdoor nature they announce the fact with no uncertain sound. Even our little Wood-Robin, which keeps near the ground and never leaves the seclusion of its forest home, is so ready to detect any atmospheric disturbance and to predict by its peculiar note a change of weather, that it is commonly called the “rain-bird” in many parts of the country. The presence on a calm day of the snow-white Gannet, sailing majestically over our harbours and, ever and anon, plunging headlong into the placid waters, or of a flock of playful Sea-Gulls coming inland to rest themselves in our fields and pastures, is a sure indication that a storm is brewing at sea, although there may be no actual appearance of it at the time. But, of course, it does not follow from such instances as these that any species of bird can foresee an impending change of season, or, by any ratio-cinative process, prepare for it by migration. So far as I understand the facts, the case is simply this:—The failure, more or less complete, of their natural food (which in itself is often a safe indication of seasonal derangement) necessitates the migration of all birds dependent on such food-supply to other parts of the country in search of the ordinary means of subsistence. And as the migration always precedes the other evidences of climatic change, the popular notion that birds are instinctively prophetic in the matter of seasons is easily accounted for. The sudden irruption of Parrakeets in the South Island, referred to above, to such an extent as to be an actual “pest” is, it seems to me, but an illustration of this natural law of cause and effect. This pretty little Parrakeet is strictly an arboreal bird. It is an inhabitant of the woods, and, besides being well distributed, its plumage is so admirably suited to its natural surroundings by the law of assimilative colouring that, although it exists in tens or hundreds of thousands, it is rarely seen, and except to the lovers of nature and bush-craft its very existence is almost unknown to the colonists. But when, from some unknown cause, there is a failure of its everyday food-supply, the fact is proclaimed by the sudden and unexpected appearance of countless numbers of these birds in our cultivated fields, gardens, and page 145 hedgerows, all fugitives under a common calamity and becoming a nuisance by the very intensity of their hunger.

The same thing happens, although in a less pronounced manner, with the Tui and Korimako, both of which species occasionally appear in our midst, all miserably lean and in a state of absolute starvation.

What occasions this widespread failure of the natural food is generally a mystery; but that such failure is the chief factor in the migratory impulse there can be little doubt. The case of the Passenger Pigeon in the United States is strongly in point. The movements of this bird are irregular in the extreme—completely disappearing from entire districts for years together, and then returning in prodigious numbers (in flocks of hundreds of thousands), the migration being regulated entirely by the scarcity or abundance of the natural food.

In captivity it is very gentle and tractable, but it is far inferior to the larger red-fronted bird in its talking-capacity. One or two instances of its being taught to articulate words of two syllables have come to my knowledge; but, as a rule, the attempt to instruct it ends in failure.

Like its congener it nests in hollow trees, and lays from five to eight eggs, resembling those of Platycercus novæ zealandiæ, but smaller. Specimens in my son’s collection measure ·9 of an inch in length by ·75 in breadth; others are more broadly ovoid, measuring ·85 by ·70, and are stained yellowish white, probably the result of incubation. Major Mair informs me that he watched a pair of these birds breeding in the cavity of a dead tree for three successive seasons. The first year’s brood numbered five, the second eight, and the third seven.

As will be seen by the synonymy at the head of this article, there has been a considerable amount of confusion in the nomenclature of this and the preceding species, notwithstanding their strongly marked characters. I trust that the reference lists and full descriptions now given will, for the future, make it impossible to confound these forms with other members of the genus. As a brief review, however, of the types in the National Collection may help to elucidate the synonymy of the group, I will reproduce here the notes on the subject which I published in the ‘Transactions of the New-Zealand Institute’ (vol. xi. pp. 368, 369).

British-Museum Collection.—My examination of the types gives the following results:—Platycercus aucklandicus not distinguishable from P. novæ zealandiæ, but smaller than ordinary examples; beak decidedly smaller, being of same size as in P. auriceps, but lighter at base; ear-spots indistinct; frontal spot less extensive, but of same colour as in P. novæ zealandiæ. P. malherbii=P. auriceps, but smaller than average specimens of the latter. P. pacificus similar to P. novæ zealandiæ, but much larger, with a more robust bill. P. erythrotis, from Macquarie Islands, =P. pacificus, but with lighter plumage. P. forsteri=P. novæ zealandiæ, with the thigh-spots accidentally absent. There is another specimen marked “Platycercus forsteri,” to which I shall refer again presently, in very different plumage. P. cookii=P. pacificus. P. unicolor, a much larger and very distinct species. P. rayneri, from Norfolk Island, is like P. pacificus, but larger and with a more powerful bill; the frontal spot is more extensive but lighter in colour; ear-spots small and obscure as compared with P. novæ zealandiæ. I think we may pretty safely conclude that P. rayneri is in reality P. pacificus, although the British-Museum specimen is both larger and lighter-coloured than ordinary specimens of the latter. Platycercus ulietanus, from the Society Islands, is very distinct in appearance from all those enumerated above. The so-called P. forsteri, before referred to, labelled as from the main island Otaheiti, appears to hold an intermediate position between P. ulietanus and P. pacificus. It has the general plumage of P. pacificus but of much duller tints, mixed with brown on the upper parts and clouded with a colder green on the underparts. It wants the crimson vertex; but there is a frontal patch of brownish black corresponding to the colour of P. ulietanus, which changes to crimson in front of the eyes; behind which, also, there is a small obscure spot of dull crimson. It has the concealed nuchal patch of yellowish white which is found in P. pacificus; while, on the other hand, it has the bright crimson rump which is characteristic of P. ulietanus. The tail has a dingy, washed-out appearance, and the colours of the plumage generally are very undecided. The bill and feet are exactly as in P. ulietanus, of which species this bird may be an accidental variety, or possibly a hybrid. There is likewise in this collection a specimen of our P. novæ zealandiæ, exhibiting much bright yellow mixed with the green on the abdomen and under tail-coverts. It likewise has the thigh-spots very large and bright; the rump stained, and the tail obscurely banded on the upper surface with dull yellow.