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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.



Xenicus Gilviventris.

  • Xenicus gilviventris, Von Pelz. Verh. k.-k. zool.-bot. Ges. Wien, 1867, p. 316.

  • Xenicus haasti, Buller, Ibis, 1869, p. 37.

  • Acanthisitta gilviventris, Gray, Hand-l. of B. i. p. 183 (1869).

  • Acanthisitta haastii, id. tom. cit. p. 183 (1869).

♂ staturâ X. longipedis, sed hallucis ungue maximo distinguendus: suprà pallidè viridis, pileo et dorso superiore brunnescentioribus concoloribus: supercilio albo, haud flavo tincto: subtùs dilutè chocolatino-brunneus, crisso cum cruribus viridescentibus, hypochondriis lætè flavis: subalaribus pallidè flavis.

♀ feminæ X. longipedis dissimilis et hujus mari magis assimilata: suprà ochrascenti-brunnea, uropygio vix viri-descente: tectricibus alarum conspicuè nigris: remigibus brunneis, extùs dorsi colore lavatis: subtùs pallidè isabellina, hypochondriis viridescentibus.

Adult male. Upper parts dull olive-brown, with a greyish gloss, darker on the forehead and crown, and tinged on the back, wing-coverts, and rump with yellowish green; sides of the head dark brown, with a narrow superciliary streak of fulvous white, widening above the ears; underparts delicate purplish brown, with a silky appearance, and fading into fulvous white at the base of the lower mandible; the sides of the body lemon-yellow; wing-feathers brown, the primaries margined on their outér webs with dull olive, the secondaries with an apical spot of fulvous on their outer webs; tertials and the lesser wing-coverts black, forming a conspicuous triangular spot; inner lining of wings pale yellow; tail-feathers dull olive. Irides and bill blackish brown; tarsi and toes pale brown; claws darker. Total length 3·75 inches; wing, from flexure, 2·1; tail ·75 (nearly two thirds of it being concealed by the coverts); bill, along the ridge ·4, along the edge of lower mandible ·6; tarsus 1; middle toe and claw ·9; hind toe and claw ·9.

Adult female. Differs from the male in having the plumage of the upper parts dull yellowish brown, shaded with umber on the crown, and tinged with yellowish olive on the wings and rump; the superciliary streak less distinct; and the underparts pale fulvous, stained on the sides of the body with lemon-yellow.

Obs. It will be necessary to obtain a larger series of specimens than is at present available, and to make a closer investigation of the subject, before the differences supposed to be characteristic of the sexes (both of this and the preceding species) can be considered finally determined. It is probable that the colours undergo some change in the progress of the bird towards maturity; and there is likewise reason to suspect that a seasonal change takes place in the plumage of the male.

My first specimens of this bird were received from Dr. (now Sir Julius von) Haast, F.R.S., who discovered it in the Southern Alps, during a topographical survey of the Canterbury Province. In a notice which I communicated to ‘The Ibis’ (I. c.), I described the species as new, and named it Xenicus haasti, in compliment to the discoverer. This name, however, must, in obedience to the inflexible law of priority, give place to Xenicus gilviventris, a description of the species under that title having previously been published by Von Pelzeln, although it had not then reached the colony. Nevertheless I am glad to be able to quote Haast’s account of the bird’s habits as communicated to me at the time:—“It lives exclusively amongst the large taluses of débris high on the mountainsides. Instead of flying away when frightened or when stones are thrown at it, or even when shot page 112 at, it hides itself among the angular débris of which these large taluses are composed. We tried several times in vain to catch one alive by surrounding it and removing these blocks. It reminded me strongly of the habits and movements of the lizards which live in the same regions and in similar localities.”

Another correspondent says that “they move about so nimbly that to procure specimens was like shooting at mice.”

This species is confined to the South Island, being met with in the mountains, at an elevation of 3000 feet and upwards, their range appearing to commence with the snow-line, below which I have never heard of their being found.

Mr. Brough, who sent me a specimen from Nelson, says it was one of five which he met with in February on the very summit of a barren mountain. “They were dodging about among the angular rocks right on the top of the peaks, where there was no vegetation except the so-called ‘vegetable sheep’ (Raoulia eximia), which grows freely enough among the débris or shale.” These birds were, at that time, catching a bright-coloured alpine butterfly, which I have since identified as Phaos huttoni.

Mr. Reischek writes that he found it very plentiful on the top of Mount Alexander, near Lake Brunner, also on Mount Alcidus, near Rakaia forks, “hopping about among the débris grown over with alpine vegetation.” On the heights overlooking Dusky Sound, he found it extremely rare, a circumstance which he attributes to the thousands of rats infesting that region.

Sir J. Hector found it frequenting the stunted vegetation growing on the mountain-sides in the Otago Province; and Mr. John Buchanan, the artist attached to the Geological Survey, met with it on the Black Peak, at an elevation of 8000 feet. There, where the vegetation is reduced to a height of only a few inches, it was constantly to be seen, fluttering over the loose rocks or upon the ground in its assiduous search for minute insects and their larvæ.

It is worthy of remark that in this species the claw of the hind toe is considerably more developed than in the tree-frequenting X. longipes—even exceeding the toe in length—a modification of structure specially adapted to the peculiar habits of the bird, which differ from those of the former species consistently with its habitat. They hunt much on the ground, particularly in wet weather; and will freely visit the explorer’s camp, hopping about on the ground, picking at mutton-fat or any thing of the kind lying outside. The young are fed on insects; and it is amusing to see the old birds coming to the nest, sometimes with a dragon-fly almost as large as its captor, and dividing it among the brood.

Mr. W. W. Smith informs me that on one occasion he collected twelve of these birds, and that the stomachs of all of them contained the minute chrysalids commonly found among fallen leaves and other decaying vegetation.

The nest, which is a more finished construction than that of the Bush-Wren, is placed in a sheltered crevice among the loose rocks or débris of the mountain. One found under these circumstances by Mr. Brough in the Nelson district, on Sept. 24, contained five eggs. This nest, which is now in my collection, is of a rounded form, laterally compressed, and measuring five inches in its widest diameter. It is composed externally of wiry rootlets, intermixed with very small twigs and dry leaves. The entrance is on the side, being a perfectly round aperture about an inch in diameter. The interior of the nest is lined with soft feathers.

The egg (of which I have a single damaged specimen) is ovoido-elliptical in form, measuring ·7 of an inch in length by ·5 in breadth, and is perfectly white, with a slightly polished surface.

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The Rifleman (Acanthidositta chloris), male and female. THE ROCK-WREN XENICUS GILVIVENTRIS. THE BUSH-WREN XENICUS LONGIPES

The Rifleman (Acanthidositta chloris), male and female.

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Acanthidositta * Chloris.

  • Citrine Warbler, Lath. Gen. Syn. ii. pt. 2, p. 464 (1783).

  • Sitta chloris, Sparrm. Mus. Carls. pl. 33 (1787).

  • Motacilla citrina, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 979 (1788, ex Lath.).

  • Sylvia citrina, Lath. Ind. Orn. ii. p. 529 (1790).

  • Sitta punctata, Quoy et Gaim. Voy. de l’Astrol. i. p. 221, pl. 18. fig. 1 (1830).

  • Acanthiza tenuirostris, Lafr. Rev. Zool. 1841, p. 242.

  • Acanthisitta tenuirostris, Lafr. Mag. de Zool. 1842, pl. 27.

  • Motacilla citrinella, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 89 (1844).

  • Acanthisitta tenuirostris, Ellman, Zoologist, 1861, p. 7466.

  • Acanthisitta punctata, Ellman, tom. cit. p. 7466.

Native names.

Tititipounamu, Kikimutu, Kikirimutu, Pihipihi, Piripiri, Tokepiripiri, and Moutuutu.

ad. suprà, viridis, uropygio lætiore, pileo brunneo lavato: tectricibus alarum nigris, extùs viridi lavatis: alâ spuriâ nigrâ, extùs albicante: remigibus nigricanti-brunneis, extùs viridi (ad basin pennarum lætiore) lim-batis, secundariis dorsalibus pogonio externo albo conspicuè maculatis: caudâ nigrâ, ad apicem albo viridi lavato maculatâ: loris, supercilio et facie laterali albidis, strigâ per oculum eunte fuscâ: subtùs albus, vix fulvo tinctus, corporis lateribus flavo lavatis: rostro saturatè brunneo: pedibus pallidè brunneis: iride saturatè brunneâ.

♀ mari omninò similis, sed saturatior: pileo magis brunnescente.

Juv. suprà cinerascenti-brunneus, plumis utrinque nigro marginatis, uropygio olivascente: alâ ut in adultis coloratâ, sed extùs ad basin secundariorum conspicuè flavâ: facie laterali cinerascente, nigricante variâ: subtùs albescens, hypochondriis flavicantibus, gutture et pectore superiore maculis triquetris nigricantibus notatis.

Male. Upper parts dull green, tinged with yellow on the wings and rump; throat, breast, and underparts generally fulvous white, with a tinge of yellow on the sides of the body and abdomen; a streak over and beyond the eyes and a lower-eyelid fringe of fulvous white; wing-feathers black, edged on their outer webs with green, and crossed with a band of dull yellow immediately below the coverts, which are black; the first tertial white on its outer web; tail-feathers black, tipped with fuscous. Irides and bill dark brown; legs and feet paler brown, changing to yellow on the under surface of the toes. Total length 3 inches; extent of wings 5·25; wing, from flexure, 1·5; tail ·25; bill, along the ridge ·4, along the edge of lower mandible ·55; tarsus ·75; middle toe and claw ·6; hind toe and claw ·55.

Female. Crown, hind neck, and upper part of back olivaceous yellow, each feather margined with brown; lower part of back and rump olivaceous yellow, tinged with green; tail-coverts dull green; underparts buffy

* This has hitherto been written Acanthisitta; but Professor Newton has drawn my attention to the fact of its being erroneous. I have therefore adopted the more classic form of Acanthidositta, the etymology of which is ακανθτδ- (acanthid-), crude form of ακανθτs=Carduleis, and sτττα=sitta.

page 114 white, washed on the sides with yellow; wing-feathers dusky, margined on the outer web and marked at the base with olivaceous yellow; superior wing-coverts black; outer tertials margined with white; innermost secondary with an oblong spot of yellowish white on the outer vane; tail-feathers black, tipped with fulvous.

Young. Plumage generally duller and suffused with yellowish brown; marked on the breast with numerous small longitudinal spots of brown.

Obs. As will be seen above, the plumage of A. chloris differs in the male, female, and young. Examples vary in the tone of their colouring; and a specimen in my collection (received from the South Island) has the rump and upper tail-coverts almost orange-coloured, without any mixture of green. I do not believe in the existence of Acanthidositta citrina, Gmelin, although recognized as a distinct species by Dr. Finsch*.

The Rifleman is the smallest of our New-Zealand birds. It is very generally distributed over the middle and southern portions of the North Island, in all suitable localities, and throughout the whole extent of the South Island. It is to be met with generally on the sides and summits of the wooded ranges, seldom or never in the low gullies. Professor Hutton found it on the Great Barrier, and was assured by the native residents of that island that it was a migratory bird, coming and going with the Cuckoo! Mr. Reischek met with it also on the Little Barrier, but not on the other islands in the Hauraki Gulf.

In the hilly pine-forests at the head of the Wairarapa valley I found this bird comparatively plentiful in the summer of 1883. This was the more noticeable on account of the general absence of bird-life in these dark woods at all seasons of the year. On the outskirts small flocks of Zosterops consort together in the underwood, and a few Flycatchers and White-heads share the solitude with the sober Tomtit; but as we enter the woods the stillness becomes oppressive, unbroken even by the chirp of a cricket or the drumming of a locust, and, apart from the active little Rifleman, which seems perfectly at home under all conditions, the only sign of animation is an occasional night-moth lazily flapping its wings in the gloomy shade of the forest.

In its habits it is lively and active, being incessantly on the move, uttering a low feeble cheep (like the cry of a young bird), accompanied by a constant quivering of the wings. I have noticed that this cry becomes louder and more continuous towards evening. It is generally to be seen running up the boles of the larger trees, often ascending spirally, prying into every chink and crevice, and moving about with such celerity that it is rather difficult for the collector to obtain a shot. Its powers of flight are very feeble, and it simply uses its wings for short passages from one tree to another. Its tail is extremely short, and is hardly visible when the bird is in motion.

The stomachs of all that I have opened contained numerous remains of minute Coleptera and other insects, sometimes mixed with finely comminuted vegetable matter.

It is naturally a shy bird, but of so excitable a nature that, during the breeding-season, it may be decoyed into the open hand by rapidly twirling a leaf, so as to simulate the fluttering of a bird, accompanied by an imitation of its simple note.

A bird-collector at Wellington showed me a brood of three young ones which he had taken from a nest in the cavity of a hinau, at an elevation of 20 feet or more from the ground. Finding the aperture too small to admit his hand, he cut into the tree about a foot below it, and thus disclosed the nest, which he described as being composed entirely of fern-hair, about 10 inches in length, and bottle-shaped, with a long vertical tube forming the entrance to it. In the Canterbury Museum there is a nest of this species, which appears to have been torn out of some natural cavity. It is pear-shaped, with the entrance on the side and near the bottom, and is very loosely constructed, the

* Trans. N.-Z. Inst. 1874, vol. vii. p. 227.

page 115 materials composing it being the skeletons of decayed leaves, the wiry stems of plants, rootlets, and a few feathers.

Captain Mair discovered a nest under the thatched eaves of a Maori hut; and Mr. E. Pharazyn sent me an egg taken from another nest found concealed among the dry roots of a fallen tree. Mr. Potts has found the nest “very cleverly built, in a roll of bark that hung suspended in a thicket of climbing convolvulus,” and, at another time, in a small hole in the trunk of a black birch. More than once he has known the bird to occupy the mortice-hole of a stock-yard post; also to utilize the skull of a horse, and to build between the slabs of a bush hut, adapting the form of its nest to the immediate surroundings.

The Rifleman has been found breeding as early in the year as the month of August; and in a specimen which I killed in the Ruahine ranges on the 23rd of December the ovary contained an undeveloped egg of the size of buck-shot, while the bareness of the underparts bore indication that the bird had already been sitting. From these facts we may, I think, reasonably infer that this species produces two broods in the season. The companion male bird on this occasion also had the abdomen bare, thus affording presumptive evidence that the sexes share the labour of incubation. The eggs vary in number from three to five; they are very fragile, broadly ovoid, or inclined to a spherical form, measuring ·6 of an inch in length by ·5 in breadth, and perfectly white, with a slightly glossy surface.

Before leaving the great Order of Passeres and passing on to the next, the Picariæ, it may be useful to note that most of the Passerine genera found in New Zealand are strictly endemic or peculiar to the country. Without of course taking into account the undoubted stragglers from abroad, the only exceptions to this rule are Sphenœacus, which occurs also in Australia; Gerygone and Rhipidura, of which there are representatives in Australia, Tasmania, Norfolk Island, New Guinea, and many of the Indo-Malayan Islands; Zosterops, whose range extends over the entire southern hemisphere; and Anthus, which occurs in most parts of the world.

I have already explained in my account of Xenicus why it became necessary to remove that form and Acanthidositta from their old position among the Certhiidæ and to place them in a new family at the end of the Passeres. Both these forms are, in fact, dwarf Pittas of a degenerate type. They have no relations in New Zealand, and their nearest allies in Australia are the true Pittidæ, a highly specialized group extending to New Guinea and, through the entire Malay Archipelago, to India and China. One species occurs in West Africa; but in all the other zoological regions of the earth, so far as we at present know, this type is absent.