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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Turnagra Hectori. — (North-Island Thrush.)

Turnagra Hectori.
(North-Island Thrush.)

  • Otagon tanagra, Schl. Ned. Tijdschr. Dierk. iii. p. 190 (1865).

  • Turnagra hectori, Buller, Ibis, 1869, p. 39.

  • Turnagra tanagra, Gray, Hand-1. of B. i. p. 284 (1869).

  • Keropia tanagra, Finsch, J. f. O. 1870, p. 323.

Native names.

Piopio, Koropio, Korohea, and Tiutiukata.

Ad. statura T. crassirostris sed rostro crassiore, suprà olivascenti-brunneus: pileo nusquam striolato: uropygio caudâque clare rufis: gutture albo: pectore superiore cinerascente: abdomine medio albo, parte imâ et subcaudalibus conspicuè flavicantibus: hypochondriis olivascentibus: rostro et pedibus saturatè brunneis: iridè flavâ.

Adult. Crown of the head, hind neck, and upper parts generally clear olive-brown; throat pure white; breast and abdomen ashy grey, darker on the former, the abdomen and the under tail-coverts tinged with yellow; sides olive-brown, washed with yellow; wing-feathers dark olive-brown, dusky on their inner webs; tail-feathers and their upper coverts bright rufous, paler on their under surface, the two middle ones tinged above with olive-brown. Irides yellow; bill and feet dark brown. Total length 11 inches; wing, from flexure, 5·25; tail 5; bill, along the ridge ·8, along the edge of lower mandible 1; tarsus 1·25; middle toe and claw 1·25; hind toe and claw 1.

Young. Birds of the first year differ in having the feathers at the base of the upper mandible, the tips of those covering the crown and sides of the head, the small feathers fringing the eyelids, and a broad zone on the upper part of the breast bright rufous; the primary and secondary wing-coverts, and sometimes the secondary quills, are also largely tipped with the same colour, and the grey of the underparts is darker, but with a tinge of orange-yellow under the wings.

In January 1869 I communicated to ‘The Ibis’ the description of a new species of Thrush inhabiting the North Island, and differing from the South-Island bird (Turnagra crassirostris) not only in plumage, but in its superior size and more strongly developed bill; and I named it in compliment to my friend Dr. (now Sir) James Hector, F.R.S., Director of the Colonial Museum and Geological Survey of New Zealand.

In an editorial footnote to my paper, Professor Newton suggested that this species might be identical with one described, in a Dutch work, by Professor Schlegel, four years before, without, however, any habitat being assigned to it. This opinion has since been verified by a careful comparison of the specimen I have figured with the type of Schlegel’s Otagon tanagra in the Museum at Vienna; and under ordinary circumstances the name I have proposed would of course be reduced to a synonym. It will be observed, however, that Professor Schlegel has used a common generic name to distinguish the bird specifically, while he refers the form to the genus Otagon, established by Bonaparte in 1850. As I can see no valid reason for setting aside the generic title of Turnagra page break


page break page 27 proposed by Lesson as early as 1837, and as the adoption of the older specific name would, according to this view, give the confused result of Turnagra tanagra, I have deemed myself justified in retaining the distinctive appellation of T. hectori. At the same time I am anxious to give due prominence to the fact that Professor Schlegel was the first to discover the existence of this new species.

There is a peculiar charm about the New-Zealand forest in the early morning; for shortly after daylight a number of birds of various kinds join their voices in a wild jubilee of song, which, generally speaking, is of very short duration. This was the morning concert to which Captain Cook referred in such terms of enthusiasm; and the woods of Queen Charlotte’s Sound, where his ship lay at anchor, are no exception to the general rule. In illustration of this, I take the following from an entry in one of my note-books:—“Tuesday, 5 A.M.—At this moment the wooded valley of the Mangaone, in which we have been camped for the night, is ringing with delightful music. It is somewhat difficult to distinguish the performers amidst the general chorus of voices. The silvery notes of the Bell-bird, the bolder song of the Tui, the loud continuous strain of the native Robin, the joyous chirping of a flock of White-heads, and the whistling cry of the Piopio—all these voices of the forest are blended together in wild harmony. And the music is occasionally varied by the harsh scream of a Kaka passing overhead, or the noisy chattering of a pair of Parrakeets on a neighbouring tree, and at regular intervals the far-off cry of the Long-tailed Cuckoo and the whistling call of its bronze-winged congener; while on every hand may be heard the soft trilling notes of Myiomoira toitoi.” For more than an hour after this concert had ceased, and the sylvan choristers had dispersed in search of their daily food, one species continued to enliven the valley with his musical notes. This bird was the Piopio, or New-Zealand Thrush, the subject of the present article, and unquestionably the best of our native songsters. His song consists of five distinct bars, each of which is repeated six or seven times in succession; but he often stops abruptly in his overture to introduce a variety of other notes, one of which is a peculiar rattling sound, accompanied by a spreading of the tail, and apparently expressive of ecstacy. Some of the notes are scarcely distinguishable from those of the Yellow-head; and I am inclined to think that the bird is endowed with mocking-powers. The ordinary note, however, of the Piopio, whence it derives its name, is a short, sharp, whistling cry, quickly repeated.

It was when I obtained a caged Piopio that I first became acquainted with its superior vocal powers. In 1866 I purchased one for a guinea from a settler in Wellington, in whose possession it had been for a whole year. Although an adult bird when taken, it appeared to have become perfectly reconciled to confinement; but on being placed in a new cage it made strenuous assaults on the wire bars, and persevered till the feathers surrounding its beak were rubbed off and a raw wound exposed. It then desisted for several days; but when the abraded part had fairly healed, it renewed the attempt, and with such determined effort that the fore part of the head was completely disfigured, and the life of the bird endangered. On being removed, however, to a spacious compartment of the aviary, it immediately became reconciled to its condition, made no further efforts to escape, and for a period of fifteen months (when it came to an untimely end) it continued to exhibit the contentment and spright-liness of a bird in a state of nature.

I observed that this bird was always most lively during or immediately preceding a shower of rain. He often astonished me with the power and variety of his notes. Commencing sometimes with the loud strains of the Thrush, he would suddenly change his song to a low flute-note of exquisite sweetness; and then abruptly stopping, would give vent to a loud rasping cry, as if mimicking a pair of Australian Magpies confined in the same aviary. During the early morning he emitted at intervals a short flute-note, and when alarmed or startled uttered a sharp repeated whistle.

This caged bird was generally fed on dry pulse or grain; but he also evinced a great liking for cooked potato and raw meat of all kinds; in fact he appeared to be omnivorous, readily devouring page 28 earthworms, insects of all kinds, fruits, berries, green herbs, &c. He was supplied daily with a dish of fresh water, and was accustomed to bathe in it with evident delight. At one time he occupied the same division of the aviary with a pair of Australian Ring-Doves which had commenced to breed. The Doves were allowed to bring up their first brood in peace; but when the hen bird began to build a second time, she was closely watched by the Piopio, and immediately the first egg was deposited he darted upon the nest and devoured it. The innocent little Ring-Dove continued to lay on in spite of repeated robbery, and had at length to be placed beyond the reach of her persecutor. During the day the Piopio was unceasingly active and lively; at night he slept on a perch, resting on one leg, and with the plumage puffed out into the form of a perfectly round ball, the circular outline broken only by the projecting extremities of the wings and tail. Every sound seemed to attract his notice, and he betrayed an inquisitiveness of disposition which in the end proved fatal; for having inserted his prying head through an open chink in the partition, it was seized and torn off by a vicious Sparrow-Hawk in the adjoining compartment of the aviary.

In the wild state this species subsists chiefly on insects, worms, and berries. I have shot it on. the ground in the act of grubbing with its bill among the dry leaves and other forest debris. Its flight is short and rapid. It haunts the undergrowth of the forest, darting from tree to tree, and occasionally descending to the ground, but rarely performing any long passage on the wing. It is very nimble in its movements; and when attempting on one occasion to catch one of these birds with an almost invisible horsehair noose, it repeatedly darted right through the snare, and defeated every effort to entrap it.

In my former edition of this work I stated that the Piopio was at that time comparatively common in all suitable localities throughout the southern portion of the North Island, but was extremely rare in the country north of Waikato. I mentioned also that a specimen which I shot in the Kaipara district in the summer of 1852 (doubtless a straggler from the south) was quite a novelty to the natives in that part of the country; that it was recognized, however, by an old Maori, who called it a “Korohea,” a name quite unknown in the south, and who stated that in former years it was very abundant in all the woods. I ventured then to express a belief that the bird whose biography I had undertaken to write would soon be equally scarce elsewhere. And so it has proved, for the North-Island Piopio is now one of our rarest species, and is certainly doomed to extinction within a very few years.

In the Bay of Plenty district it has never been heard of since the time of Hongi’s famous invasion (about the year 1820). A little wooded spur near Te Puke settlement, behind Maketu, frequented by a pair of these birds at that troublous period has ever since borne the name of Piopiorua; and to the present day the old men talk of the ominous appearance in their district of this “manu aitua” at the time that the bloodthirsty warrior landed in. his war-canoes and spread terror and destruction with his newly acquired firearms*.

The last accessible place in which I met with it was Horokiwi, about 25 miles from Wellington. page 29 This was some twenty years ago—when riding through this lovely wooded valley—at a time when the road passed through the primitive forest, all untouched by the hand of man, disclosing to the eye new beauties at every turn as it followed the course of a tortuous mountain-stream. From the time of my first visit up to the present (and I have passed through the valley hundreds of times) I have never tired of this beautiful sylvan scenery; but at the period I speak of the bush was an almost impervious tangle, the lower tree-tops bound together with kareao and other creeping plants, and the trees themselves laden with a rich epiphytic growth. Even now it is a delightfully refreshing resort. The tawa rears its feathery branches of soft pale green, and beside it rises, like a sentinel, the cone-shaped top of the darker Knightia excelsa; the bright green of the rimu with its graceful, drooping boughs, is everywhere present; and, as the eye scans the scene more closely, almost every tree common to the New-Zealand bush may be readily distinguished, all growing in rank profusion, plentifully sprinkled with the star-like crowns of giant tree-ferns, varied here and there with the bending palm-like top of the nikau (Areca sapida), its huge stem springing up from the shady depths of the uneven forest—the whole presenting a beautiful picture, in ever varying tints, and almost subtropical in the luxuriance of its growth. In this valley there are yet some matchless groups of Cyathea medullaris and other tree-ferns; but the hand of civilization is upon the wilderness, the virgin forest is receding more and more, the axe of the woodman is incessant, and the bushman’s fire is doing every season its further work of devastation. A few years hence, and the sylvan beauty of Horokiwi with all its sweet memories will have passed away for ever|

One peculiarity about this species is its devotion to some particular locality, beyond which it never wanders very far. Mr. C. Field, a Government surveyor, who has spent the best part of his life in the woods, writes to me:—” I have seen the bird in the same spot year after year, and generally in pairs, except when the hen is nesting. To my certain knowledge a pair of them have kept to the same locality, on a valley flat by the side of a stream, for a period of seven or eight years.” My last fresh specimens (two males and one female preserved in spirit) were received in January 1884, from this gentleman, who obtained them far up the wooded valley of the Pourewa on the west coast, where he was conducting a trigonometrical survey. A year later a skin was sent in by Mr. Tone, another Government surveyor, who was employed on the east coast, and who informed me that the bird was still to be met with in the woods at Akitio.

A pair has been known to frequent for several seasons a spot on the western side of the Rangataua lake, near the source of the Mangawhero river, at the foot of the Ruapehu mountain. A correspondent who visited the place in the summer of 1880 was informed by the resident natives that the birds had always nested there. He could hear their musical song from his camp across the lake, and on going over he found the old birds in a maire tree, but could see nothing of the young brood. They were very tame and fearless, and on his simulating their notes they readily came to the ground and hopped about, scratching the surface and turning over the leaves as if in search of insects.

It shows how rare the bird has become when its habitat is thus localized. Indeed, it has already entirely disappeared from a tract of country where in former years it was specially abundant. In proof of this, I may mention the experience of Mr. Morgan Carkeek, who in 1884, at the instance of the Public Works Department, made a careful exploration of the Mokau-Wanganui district. Starting from the foot of Mount Egmont he followed down the Patea river, then up the north-east branches of this and the Wanganui rivers, crossed the watershed, and followed up the north-west branches of the latter into the Tuhua country; and then returned, by a route lying between the White Cliffs and Mokau, to the sea-coast. All the country thus traversed is heavy bush-land and, for the most part, excessively rough and broken. During the whole journey, which occupied about two months, he never once saw or heard a Piopio|

page 30

As to its nidification, I may mention that in the Ruahine ranges I met with a breeding-pair of these birds late in December. The sudden disappearance of the female and the cautious demeanour of the male satisfied me that I was in the immediate vicinity of the nest; but I nevertheless failed in my endeavours to find it. The bird resented my intrusion on its sanctum by a peculiar purr, not unlike the alarm-note of the American Cardinal (Cardinalis virginianus), accompanied by a sudden spreading of the tail.

A native once-described the nest to me as being of large size and composed of moss, twigs, and dry leaves. He assured me that he had twice met with it in the high scrub near the Manawatu river, and that in both cases the nest contained two eggs. This was many years ago; but that the account was reliable may be inferred from the fact, since ascertained, that this description applies very well to that of a closely allied species in the South Island.

Although Turnagra has hitherto been placed among the Turdidæ, the form is admittedly an aberrant one. Dr. Finsch has suggested the propriety of uniting it to Glaucopis, but I do not think this view has met with any acceptance or support. Fortunately I was able to bring with me to England a specimen in alcohol, which I forwarded to Dr. Gadow, of Cambridge, for anatomical study. After making an autopsy, with his accustomed care, he writes to me as follows:—” I am sorry to say that the outcome of my investigation regarding Turnagra is not very striking. After all, you are quite right in your suggestions as to its position and affinities. The fact is, we know so little of the anatomy of the many birds belonging to the Timeliidæ that comparison with these forms is almost out of the question. At any rate, it is satisfactory to know that there are not present any known characters to indicate other affinities, or to negative your suggestions.”

Mr. Sharpe has placed Turnagra among his Timeliidæ; but I have decided to make it the type of a new family, Turnagridæ, because the form seems to differ quite as much from typical Timelia as it does from Turdus.

As it is important to place on permanent record the results of Dr. Gadow’s patient study of the subject, I shall here append his report in full, together with his detailed remarks on Glaucopis (referred to on page 4), in order to show that there is no relationship between these two forms, not-withstanding the similarity of some of the external characters:—

“Turnagra.—Stomach quadrangular, flattened, very muscular. Crop absent. Tongue fleshy, with a few short bristles on the sides near the tip. Intestinal convolutions Thrush-like, certainly not Corvine, with decided graminivorous adaptation. Syrinx muscles acromyodean. Pterylosis agrees with Nitzsch’s Subulirostres s. Canoræ. Ten primaries; terminal (or first) long; tip of wing formed by third to seventh; sixth longest. Nine secondaries. Twelve tail-feathers. Metatarsus like that of Thrushes or Sylviæ. Sternum and shoulder-girdle agree with many birds: Struthidea, Graucalus, Strepera, Ptilonorhynchus, Turdus (i. e. all alike). Conclusion: After examination of the digestive apparatus, the pelvic nerve-plexus, the skeleton, and the pterylosis, I feel inclined to put Turnagra with the wide and ill-defined group of Timeliidæ. Turnagra is certainly neither Corvine nor Fringilline, and it is in fact a member of the Southern (Indian-Australian) mass of Thrush-like birds. Its bill and certain modifications of its digestive apparatus seem to show that this bird is a Thrush with graminivorous propensities. I would put it into Sharpe’s subfamily Ptilonorhynchinæ, to which Æluroedus belongs, but unfortunately Ptilonorhynchus itself is very different from Timeliidæ in its pterylosis.”

Glaucopis.—After examination of the skeleton I am satisfied that Glaucopis comes nearest to the Corvidæ. The skull, although in general configuration and beak very similar to that of Struthidea, differs from the latter. Barring the peculiar lacrymals, it agrees with Ptilonorhynchus, also with Strepera, and, more remotely, with Paradisea. No agreement with Graucalus. Comparison with Heteralocha and Sturnus is not possible. Skull, consequently, agrees with Ptilonorhynchus and Strepera. Sternum: agrees most with that of Strepera, far less with Graucalus, Struthidea, Paradisea. Ptilonorhynchus disagrees in clavicles, like Heteralocha and Sturnus. Pelvis and sacrum: agrees with Graucalus, Heteralocha, and Ptilonorhynchus, also with Strepera, Paradisea, and Struthidea. Metatarsal scutes: agree most with Heteralocha; through the fusing condition in which the scutes are, very much with Ptilonorhynchus and Gymnorhina. Hyoid bones: Corvidæ. Pterylosis: Strepera and Ptilonorhynchus, but the latter has considerably more remiges. Conclusion: Glaucopis is nearly allied to the Austrocoracos. It agrees best with Strepera (Gymnorhininæ in general), and shows some considerable similarity in structure with Ptilonorhynchus. Struthidea agrees with Glaucopis by far less than you might perhaps suppose, and Graucalus is still further removed. Heteralocha is an unmistakable Starling form, and has little of importance in common with Glaucopis.”