A History of the Birds of New Zealand.
Circus Gouldi. — (Gould’s Harrier.)
Circus assimilis, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terror, Birds, p. 2 (1844, nec J. & S.).
Circus gouldi, Bonap. Consp. Gen. Av. i. p. 34 (1850).
Falco harpe, Haast, Layard, Taylor (nec Forst.), 1859–1861.
Falco aurioculus, Ellman, Zoologist, 1861, p. 7464.
Circus approximans, Gray, Hand-1. of B. i. p. 36 (1869).
Kahu and Manutahae; in some districts Kahu-maiepa and Kahu-komokomo; also Kahu-korako and Kahu-pango*, to distinguish the very old and the young birds.
Ad. suprà brunneus, sub certâ luce cuprco nitens, dorsi plumis plus minusve fulvo lavatis et terminatis: pilei plumis medialiter et longitudinaliter nigris, ferrugineo marginatis: nuchâ cum collo postico et laterali clariùs fulvescentioribus: regione oculari nigrâ: facie laterali brunneâ, plumis medialiter nigris: radio faciali saturaté brunneo, ferrugineo tincto et fulvescenti mixto: dorso postico brunneo, plumis laté fulvo terminatis: uropygio imo et supracaudalibus albis, his fasciâ fulvâ anteapicali transnotatis: tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus, minimis fulvo et albo lavatis: alâ spuriâ cinereo lavatâ: remigibus brunneis, ad apicem saturatioribus, extùs argenteo-cinereo lavatis, saturatè brunneo transfasciatis: caudâ cinereâ, rectricibus exterioribus ferrugineis, plus minusve albicantibus, pennis centralibus distinctè, exterioribus irregulariter brunneo transfasciatis, omnibus ad apicem albis: caudâ subtùs albicante, fasciis brunneis interruptis notatâ: subtùs lactescenti-albus, paullò fulvescens: gulâ brunneâ, plumis medialiter nigris: pectore toto distinctè brunneo longitudinaliter striato: cruribus paullò ferrugineo tinctis, suprà angustè ferrugineo striatis: subalaribus albis, maculis ferrugineis et brunneis notatis: cerê et pedibus flavis: rostro et ungulis nigris: iride lætè flavâ.
♂ mari paullò major et ferè pallidior: scapularibus rufescenti-albo terminatis.
Juv. chocolatinus, cupreo nitens, pileo vix nigricantiore: nuchâ albicanti-fulvo notatâ: subtùs ferrugineo tinctus: caudâ subtùs albicante, suprà chocolatinâ, ferrugineo marmoratâ: remigibus subtùs ad basin lactescentibus, plus minusve brunneo marmoratis: cerâ et pedibus flavis: iride saturatè brunneâ.
* Mr. Gurney has sent me the following note:—“The circumstance which you mention (page 11 of 1st edition) of Circus gouldi being called by the natives ‘kahu-pango’ strikes me as very curious, as C. macroscelis bears the name of ‘papango’ in Madagascar, and C. maillardi in Réunion (vide Ibis, 1863, p. 338 and note). The fact of the Réunion Harrier being called ‘papango’ was also mentioned to me by a resident there.”
A well-feathered fledgling in my collection, with rectrices more than four inches long, has still some fulvous-white down adhering to the crop, flanks, and upper edges of wings. Claws well developed and very sharp.
Progress towards maturity. Upper parts dark brown with a purple gloss; the tail with five rather obscure bars of black about half an inch apart, and darkest towards the tip; upper tail-coverts delicate fawn-colour, with the centre of each feather brown, shaded off on the sides. The wing-coverts have a coppery hue, and the longer ones, together with the scapulars, are narrowly tipped with rufous white. Underparts bright chocolate-brown, tinged with rufous, especially on the neck and abdomen; tibial plumes rufous brown. Cere and legs yellow; beak and claws black; irides bright yellowish brown.
Obs. It must be noted that individuals differ, more or less, in the details of their colouring during their progress towards maturity*. With extreme age, the fulvous of the lower parts changes to white, and the brown markings become much narrower, being almost obsolete on the tibial plumes. The silvery grey on the quills and tail-feathers increases, while the rufous colouring diminishes, and the lining of the wings becomes pure white, with narrow shaft-lines of dark brown. There is a beautiful albino specimen in the Nelson Museum.
The present species is spread over a wide geographical area; for not only is it found in all parts of our own country, but it also occurs in Australia and Tasmania, and extends eastward to the Fiji Islands. Mr. J. H. Gurney has already drawn attention (Ibis, 1870, p. 536) to the fact that our Harrier is exactly the same species as that figured by Mr. Gould in the ‘Birds of Australia’ under the name of Circus assimilis. The true Circus assimilis of Jardine and Selby (III. Orn. ii. pl. 51) has proved, however, to be only the young of Circus jardinii, also figured in the ‘Birds of Australia’ (pl. 27); and therefore the New-Zealand Harrier bears the name of Circus gouldi, Bonap. (l. c.) †.
* My eldest son, writing to me from Horowhenua on the 6th of May, 1881, says:—“I shot a beautiful Harrier yesterday, winging it when very nearly out of range. The plumage is handsomely mottled, and on the upper surface of the wings there is a steel-blue lustre; the breast yellowish white; lower part of body and tibials nearly pure white. Instead of the unpleasant odour peculiar to these carrion-feeders, it has a ‘woody’ smell like that of the Kaka.”
† Dr. Finsch writes:—“A comparison of specimens in the Leiden Museum from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and New Caledonia has fully convinced me of their identity. The specimen from New Caledonia (C. wolfii, Gurney) does not show a single character by which it can be specifically distinguished. As the true C. assimilis, Jard. & Selby, is undoubtedly the same as C. jardinii, Gould (which, therefore, must bear the former appellation), the New Zealand Harrier must stand as approximans, Peale.” But Mr. J. H. Gurney, who is a recognized authority in regard to the Accipitres, has arrived at a different conclusion; and even were the matter entirely free from doubt, I should hesitate before disturbing a name so generally understood and accepted as that of Circus gouldi.
It is a very common bird in New Zealand, being met with on the fern-covered hills, in the plains, among the marshes of the low country, and even along the open seabeach, where it feeds on carrion. It is seldom, however, found in the dense bush, although I once surprised one there in the act of picking a large Wood-Pigeon*.
Like all the other members of the genus, it hunts on the wing, performing wide circles at a low elevation from the ground, and sailing over meadows, fern-land, or marshes in quest of lizards, mice, and other small game. Its flight is slow but vigorous and well sustained. The small size and specific gravity of its body, as compared with the great development of wings and tail and corresponding muscles, enable it to continue these wanderings for a whole day without any apparent fatigue. When sailing, as it often does, at a high elevation, the wings are inclined upwards so as to form a broad obtuse angle (with the tail half spread), and there is no perceptible motion in them, except when the bird alters its course. A pair may often be seen sailing thus in company, mounting higher with each gyration, and emitting a peevish whistle as they cross each other’s course. On these occasions I have sometimes seen the birds close in upon and attack each other, the upper one making the first swoop, and the lower one instantly turning on its back, with upstretched talons, to receive him, and, after thus parrying the attack, wheeling upwards and becoming in turn the assailant. Whether it be the angry meeting of rival males, or the amorous gambols of raptorial lovers, I have never been able to determine; but this aerial encounter, whether in earnest or in play, has a very pretty effect. A correspondent informs me that he once observed five of these birds engaged together in this manner, at the commencement of the breeding-season, and that it was one of the prettiest sights of the kind he had ever witnessed.
It is worthy of remark that the birds of the first year are apparently incapable of the peculiar sailing flight which I have described, their locomotion being effected entirely by slowly repeated flappings of the wings. This circumstance, taken in conjunction with the dark colour of the young bird (appearing perfectly black at a little distance), has led to the common belief that there are two distinct species.
* I am indebted to Mr. J. A. Wilson for the following interesting information:-In March 1884 there was a violent eruption from the crater of White Island in the Bay of Plenty. For some weeks there was a continuous discharge of volcanic débris from the pit of the crater, with the usual accompaniments; and the heat thus evolved had the effect of driving out the rats which abound there in prodigious numbers (a small black rat, supposed by some to be the true kiore maori). This exodus, strange to say, was the signal for the appearance on the island of the Harrier, which came over in large numbers from the mainland, as many as seventy having been counted on the wing together in one spot alone.
Besides dévouring carrion of all kinds, the Harrier subsists on rats, mice, lizards, feeble or wounded birds, and even grubs and spiders. One, which I had confined in an outhouse, subsisted for several days entirely on spiders, for which he made a systematic search among the cobwebs that covered the walls. At the close of each day I found him with a matted circlet of spiders’ webs surrounding the base of his bill. On my offering him the body of a Wood-Robin (Miro australis) he struck his talons into it, and, holding it firmly down, plucked off the feathers with his beak with remarkable rapidity, and then, tearing it to pieces, devoured it—the whole proceeding occupying only a few minutes. Captain Mair, who kept several of these birds in confinement for a considerable time, fed them frequently with freshwater fish, which they devoured with great avidity; and he assures me that he has observed them, in the wild state, capturing mullets in a shallow fish-pond.
The Harrier secures his prey by grappling it in his talons, sometimes bearing it off with him, but more generally remaining on the spot to devour it. On newly ploughed land he may occasionally be seen regaling himself on grubs and earthworms. It may be noticed that on these occasions, instead of walking, he moves by a succession of hops, the toes being turned inwards, in order, as it would appear, to protect the fine points of his grappling-instruments.
When the winter rains have inundated the low-lying flats and filled the lagoons, these places become the favourite resort of Wild Duck, Teal, Pukeko, and numerous other waterfowl; but this Hawk also puts in his appearance with the new comers, and is a perpetual terror to them. I have frequently seen one attack a full-grown Pukeko (Porphyrio melanotus), attempting to grapple it in its talons—its long tarsi and legs being stretched downwards to their full extent, accompanied by much noiseless fluttering of the wings. The Pukeko, anticipating the attack, springs upwards with open mouth and outstretched neck, and generally succeeds in warding off its assailant till it reaches cover and hides in the sedge. Audubon, in his ‘Birds of America,’ states that he has seen the Circus cyaneus attack the Marsh-Hen (Rallus crepitans) in the same manner. Young birds, and those wounded by the sportsmen, suffer most. On one occasion I fired at and disabled a large Pukeko, which at once took refuge in some rushes on the edge of the lagoon; but before I could get round to the spot, one of these Hawks had killed, plucked, and partly devoured it.
Once I saw a Harrier boldly attack a party of seven Pukekos. The birds crowded together, as if for mutual protection, on a dry clump in the midst of the swamp, and eventually succeeded in warding off their assailant.
But although, under press of extreme hunger, it will thus attack live birds, it is in reality a very cowardly representative of its tribe; for I have seen one chased by a pair of Australian Magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen) whose nest was in danger and driven ingloriously off the field, the pursuers assaulting it in a most determined manner and from opposite directions. An observant friend assured me that on one occasion he witnessed an attack made by four or five of these Magpies, acting in concert, and that the Harrier was not only vanquished but actually killed by them.
In the spring months it may be seen skimming low along the edges of the lagoons in pursuit of young Ducks, ever and anon swooping down among a swimming brood, but not always with success, the young birds instinctively diving under water on the approach of their natural enemy.
I have known the Harrier, when urged by excessive hunger, visit the poultry-yard and snatch up a chicken in its talons; and I have occasionally seen it attack both the wild and the domestic page 210 duck; and Mr. Gould, in writing of this species in Australia, declares that it is addicted to the stealing of eggs. On the other hand, I have seen it assailed by the Common Sea-Gull (Larus dominicanus) on approaching the nest of this bird, and put to an ignominious flight.
It is worth recording that the Harrier will sometimes pursue on the wing. Riding along the road near the Whenuakura river, on one occasion, I observed a Kahu pursuing a small bird (apparently a Ground-Lark) high in the air. The pursuit was continued for a considerable time, the Hawk making frequent swoops and the small bird eluding its grasp by suddenly altering its course and thus gaining on its pursuer. When nearly out of sight the Hawk was joined by another, both in pursuit of the same bird, from which circumstance I concluded that the raptor was foraging for hungry ones at home. This might account for the eagerness of the pursuit, and for a mode of chase which I had never observed before during a very long acquaintance with this species.
Mr. Hamilton, of Petane, states that he has on two occasions surprised the Harrier in the act of devouring an eel in the bed of a shallow creek.
When travelling through the Waikato district in July 1883, I observed one of these birds hawking in the rain. Although a heavy shower was falling the Harrier continued to hover without any apparent inconvenience, only occasionally shaking the raindrops off its tail.
It is said to be very destructive on the sheep-runs during the lambing-season; and I have been assured by eye-witnesses that three or four of them will sometimes detach a lamb from the flock, and then, assailing it from different points, tear out the animal’s eyes and ultimately kill it. I am of opinion, however, that these attacks are confined to the weakly or sickly lambs of the flock, and occur only in times of great famine. Be that as it may, the practice of poisoning Hawks in the lambing season has now become very general; and I have known upwards of a hundred of them destroyed in this manner, during that season, in a single locality. It is accomplished by rubbing a small quantity of strychnine into the body of a dead lamb or piece of offal, and leaving it exposed on the run. The poison takes immediate effect, and often eight or ten birds are thus destroyed in the course of an hour. As stated in my former edition, on one station alone in Canterbury upwards of a thousand Hawks per annum were destroyed in this manner during the preceding two or three years, and, as an almost necessary corollary of this, rats became excessively abundant on this particular sheep-run. I have always been of opinion that the wholesale killing of Hawks in a country like this is a questionable policy, from a utilitarian point of view, as it tends to alter the balance of nature, and to interfere with the general conditions of animal life, already too much disturbed by the operations of Acclimatization Societies. The rapacious birds have an important part to perform in the economy of nature; and species like the present, which are partly insectivorous, are too valuable to the practical agriculturist to be destroyed with impunity, although they may occasionally attack a sickly lamb in the flock, or swoop on an inviting young turkey. The damage to a flock where these Hawks abound is, no doubt, greatly overrated. It is true, however, that this species does sometimes hunt in packs, for I have counted as many as twenty of them at one time hovering over a small mob of sheep detached from the main flock; and three of them have been seen to attack a full-grown turkey, and, acting in concert, to overpower and kill their quarry.
The natives take this species by means of flax snares, arranged in such a manner that the bird, in attempting to grapple the bait, gets its legs entangled in a running noose, which its efforts to escape only serve to tighten. I have frequently taken it alive by means of a steel trap, with muffled edges, baited with a dead rat or chicken. When shot at, and wounded in the wing, it attempts to escape by a succession of leaps along the ground, and, on being overtaken, defends itself vigorously with beak and claws, its beautiful golden eyes sparkling with passion. In captivity it is at first fierce, throwing itself backwards when approached, and striking forwards with its long talons; but it soon becomes reconciled to the situation, and permits itself to be stroked with the hand. The late Captain page 211 Buck, 14th Regiment, informed me that, while stationed at Napier, one that he had winged became so tame that, on recovering health and liberty, it was accustomed to return every evening to his garden and roost in the arbour.
The peculiar whistling note already alluded to is only heard when two or more of these birds are in company. The young has a cry resembling the hoarse note of our Stilt-Plover. Professor Hutton informs me that the cry of this Hawk is very similar to that of the Govinda Kite of India, which he has frequently heard in that country.
I have observed that in very old birds of this species the feathers of the upper parts present a faded and ragged appearance, from which it may be inferred that the moulting-power becomes impaired as age advances. A specimen that came under my examination, in the flesh, presented the following singular condition, for which I was quite unable to account, although probably the result of disease. A space on the breast and the whole surface of the sides were entirely denuded of feathers, these parts being covered by a thick growth of white down; on the back also there was simply a narrow strip of feathers down the line of the spine. The head of this bird was greatly infested with parasitic ticks.
There is a very beautiful albino variety in the Nelson Museum, presented by Mr. Goodall, of Riwaka, where the bird was obtained. The whole of the plumage is of a very delicate white ash-colour, the underparts having a rosy-purple tinge. The primaries are ashy grey; and both these and the tail-feathers present, on the under surface, obsolete bands, as though they had been washed out. The shafts of all the feathers on the upper parts are dark grey, presenting the appearance of finely pencilled lines. The bill, as also a superciliary line of hairs and those covering the lores, black; cere, tarsi, and toes yellow. The taxidermist to whom this handsome specimen was entrusted, with a full appreciation of its value, charged the modest sum of eight guineas for stuffing it, and had to be compelled to give it up by process of law.
During a visit to the lake district, in the autumn of 1877, I saw another, apparently very like the last-mentioned bird, hovering over the fern ridges that close in the intensely blue waters of Tikitapu. As he swooped down upon a rat or lizard in the fern his underparts appeared to be perfectly white, and the upper surface of the body and wings ashy. Major Mair informs me that, in 1885, he observed a similar one at Lake Rotoiti.
* Mr. C. H. Robson, of Cape Campbell, has sent me the following interesting note:—“In the spring of 1873, I observed a very large female Hawk of a brighter colour than usual, with very distinct markings, and presenting quite a yellow appearance as compared with the ordinary Hawk. She rose, the first time I saw her, out of a piece of swampy ground near the beach, and, on a subsequent occasion, finding her in the same place, I hunted about and found her nest in a tussock, with two white eggs in it. Being anxious to secure the young birds, I did not handle the eggs, but visited the nest every week, each time coming quite close to the bird. In due time one of the eggs hatched out a little yellow-white chick, but a few days later, to my great regret, it was taken, I presume, by a rat. On flying off the nest the Hawk was joined by the male bird, not nearly so large as herself, and always too high in the air for me to observe his plumage.”
“In November 1884 in one of the large swamps in the Hind district, on the Canterbury Plains, a nest of this Harrier, built on a large tuft of coarse growing rushes (Juncus) was knocked over by a ‘mob’ of cattle. The nest being set up again and the eggs put back the Hawk returned and resumed incubation. The nest contained five eggs; another nest in the Horoatu district also contained five eggs.”—Zoologist, 1885 p. 421.
When there are two young birds in a nest there is often a remarkable disparity in their size. They are always very savage when molested, throwing themselves on their back and striking vigorously with their talons at the hand of the intruder.
A nest found by a Wanganui settler contained, in addition to two full-grown young birds, the remains of 11 Pheasants, 5 rats, 3 Quail, and a Weka.
The eggs are from two to four in number, but generally three, ovoido-conical in form, with a smooth or finely granulate surface, perfectly white, till stained by the bird’s feet during incubation, and measuring 1·9 inch in length by 1·5; my largest example measures 2 by 1·6. At first sight they appear to be disproportionately small for the size of the bird; but they are not so in reality, for the body of this Hawk, when stripped of the feathers, is almost ridiculously small. After being blown, if held up against the light, the interior of the shell presents a surface of a beautiful clear green.
Before passing on to the next group, I may mention that in a case of mounted Raptores which I had the pleasure of presenting, some years ago, to the Colonial Museum there is a fine specimen of the White-bellied Sea-Eagle (Ichthyaëtus leucogaster), which I received from the late Mr. Gould as having been obtained in New Zealand. This species has been observed along the whole southern coast of Australia, from Moreton Bay on the east to Swan River on the west, including Tasmania and all the small islands in Bass Strait; and as it is a powerful flier there is no physical reason why it should not occur sometimes as a straggler on the New-Zealand coast. Mr. Gould had satisfied himself that this specimen was obtained there, although unable to ascertain the precise locality. In corroboration of its presumed occurrence, I may mention that an officer of the 14th Regiment, who was a good sportsman and a tolerable naturalist, assured me that he had actually seen and fired upon a “Sea-Eagle” on the rocks near the entrance to the Wellington harbour.
Two other species of Accipitres, the Falco subniger (a rare bird inhabiting South Australia) and the Milvus isurus, or Australian Kite, have had New Zealand assigned as their habitat, on the authority of Mr. J. H. Gurney, who, in a letter to ‘The Ibis’ (1870, p. 536), offers the following explanation:—“My authority for quoting New Zealand as a habitat for the former (Falco subniger) was the veteran ornithologist, M. Jules P. Verreaux, who informed me that a New-Zealand specimen had passed through his hands. With regard to the latter (Milvus isurus), the Norwich Museum possesses a specimen, which I obtained from Mr. A. D. Bartlett, who assured me, at the time, that he had received it from New Zealand, and had satisfied himself that it had been killed in that country. Probably both these species, if not indigenous to New Zealand, may occasionally occur there as accidental visitors from the Australian continent.” In support of Mr. Gurney’s surmise, I may state that the account sent to me, many years ago, by Sir Julius von Haast, of a Hawk observed by him in the Southern Alps, although unfortunately not secured, seems to accord with that given by Captain Sturt of the Australian Falco subniger.