A History of the Birds of New Zealand.
Fam. STIRINGOPIDÆ — Stringops Habroptilus. — (Owl Parrot.)
Strigops habroptilus, Gray, P.Z.S. 1847, p. 62
Strigopsis habroptilus, Bonap. Consp. Gen. Av. i. p. 8 (1850)
Stringops habroptilus, Van der Hoeven, Handb. Zool. ii. p. 466 (1856).
Stringopsis habroptilus, Schl. Mus. Pays-Bas, Psittaci, p. 107 (1864).
Stringops habroptilus, Finsch, Papag. i. p. 246 (1867).
Strigops greyii, Gray, Ibis, 1862, p. 230.
Stringops greyi, Finsch, Papag. i. p. 253 (1867).
Kakapo, Tarapo, and Tarepo; “Ground-Parrot” of the colonists.
Ad. viridis: plumis pilei dorsique medialiter pallidè flavidis, irregulariter nigricanti-brunneo transtasciatis et trans-vermiculatis: uropygii plumis lætiùs viridescentibus: loris plumisque rictum obtectentibus pallidè fulvescentibrunneis, medialiter albicantibus: regione auriculari brunneâ, rachidibus plumarum fulvescentibus: facie laterali brunneâ, plumis medialiter latè flavicantibus: remigibus nigricanti-brunneis, primariis extùs etintùs flavicante maculatis, secundariis irregulariter flavido fasciatim variis et extùs olivascenti-viridi lavatis: caudâ olivascenti-brunneâ, ubique nigricante fasciolatâ: subtùs magis flavicans, viridi lavatus, abdomine puriùs flavicante: pectoris plumis paullò nigricante variis, hypochondriis magis conspicuè fasciatis: subalaribus olivascenti-flavis, obscurè brunneo fasciatis: subalaribus flavicantibus, minoribus nigro variis: rostro flavicanti-albido, ad basin saturatiore: pedibus flavicanti-brunneis, unguibus saturatioribus.
Obs. The sexes are alike in plumage. Individuals vary a good deal both in the brilliancy of their tints and in the details of their colouring. The ground-colour of the upper parts varies from a dull sap-green to a bright grass-green, and in some examples the whole of the plumage of the underparts is strongly suffused with lemon-yellow. The barred character of the individual feather is more defined in some specimens, while in others the light markings on the quills and tail-feathers are softened to a pale yellow. Individual birds also differ perceptibly in size, owing probably to conditions of age and sex.
Captain Preece, R.M., has in his possession the skin of a Kakapo obtained at Hikurangi, in the North Island. Its plumage is in no respect different from that of the southern bird. Length 25 inches; wing, from flexure, 11; tail 8; tarsus 2; longer fore toe and claw 2·5.
Varieties. Of this species there is a beautifully marked variety in Mr. James Brogden’s collection of New-Zealand birds, at Porthcawl. The whole of the plumage is largely suffused with yellow, especially on the underparts, where each feather has a broad irregular central spot of pale yellow, edged with dusky brown; towards the tips the feathers are greenish yellow. The upper parts are bright green, prettily rayed with black, and varied more or less obscurely with yellow, the feathers of the nape and sides of the neck having spear-head points of bright yellow near the tips. The tail is conspicuously marked at regular intervals with vandyked bars of clear lemon-yellow, getting darker towards the tips; these yellow markings are edged with black, and the interspaces are yellowish brown, more or less freckled and marbled with black. The primaries and secondaries are similarly marked on their outer webs, but the yellow is not quite so clear.
A specimen in my collection has the cheeks of a bright reddish brown, this colour fading away on the edges. There is a somewhat similar example in the Otago Museum, with the crown, sides of the face, chin, and upper part of the throat dingy reddish brown. I suspect that this coloration results from some vegetable stain, inasmuch as in this specimen I observe that the ridge and sides of the upper mandible and the fluted grooves in the lower are similarly stained.
In Mr. Silver’s fine collection of New-Zealand Birds at Letcomb Manor there is an abnormally small specimen, the measurements being:—Total length 20 inches; wing, from flexure, 10·5; tail 7·5; bill, along the ridge 1·5, along the edge of lower mandible ·75. The plumage as in the ordinary bird, except that, on the left cheek, there is a patch of yellow about an inch in extent, completely covering the ear-coverts and extending downwards.
I have examined the type specimen of Mr. G. R. Gray’s Strigops greyii in the British Museum and have come to the conclusion that it is simply an accidental variety, although a very singular one, of the true S. habroptilus. The specimen is in very bad condition, the quills being much worn and abraded, and the tail worn down to a mere stump; indeed the whole of the plumage is dingy and soiled, apparently the result of long confinement. The feathers of the upper parts, instead of being sap-green at the ends, are of a dull greenish blue, changing in certain lights to a purplish blue. There is, moreover, somewhat less of the terminal colour; and as the barred markings on the basal portion of the feathers are fulvous white instead of yellow, the back has a more variegated appearance. The entire plumage of the underparts is a pale yellowish fulvous, mottled, except on the abdomen, with brown. The cheeks and feathers overlapping the lower mandible are the same as in ordinary examples, but without any yellow tinge. On the sides and flanks the feathers are slightly tinged with blue, but of a duller tint than on the upper parts; thighs deeply stained with yellow. The newest of the tail-feathers (i. e. the stumpy portion that remains) is rayed in the same manner as in ordinary examples, but without the yellow element, showing a decided tendency to albinism. In the wing-feathers, in which also the yellow colour is absent, the bars appear at first sight more regular and distinct; but on closer examination it will be found that in both wings the broad inner secondaries and the scapulars have been torn out (doubtless due to the bird’s captivity), and the barred effect is therefore more conspicuous. Although, among the numerous examples that have come under my notice, I have never seen one in any degree approaching this condition, yet I have detected in some a tendency in the feathers of the back to assume a bluish margin, and in all specimens these feathers have a bright metallic lustre on their under surface. There is no means of determining the exact length of the page 178 wing, as the long primaries, on both sides, have been broken off; but the specimen does not appear to differ in size from ordinary small examples of S. habroptilus. But what tends more than any thing else to convince me that the so-called S. greyii is merely an abnormal or accidental variety of the species under review is the fact that some of the small coverts on both wings, and the feathers of the crown, have assumed the normal sap-green colour, thus betraying a strong tendency to reversion. In the absence of any other examples in a similar condition of plumage, this fact appears to me of itself fatal to the recognition of the species. At the same time, I should add that the difference in colour was so manifest and striking, that Mr. G. R. Gray was perfectly justified in characterizing it provisionally as a distinct species, although (as appears from his Catalogue of Psittacidæ, 1859) he was himself of opinion that it might ultimately prove a mere variety. Even Dr. Finsch, who is scrupulously careful in all his identifications, states (in his valuable Monograph of Parrots) that, after a careful examination of the type specimen, he felt bound to admit S. greyii as a good species. It only remains for me to say that I regret that my convictions compel me to sink a name designed by the describer as a compliment to Sir George Grey, who has always taken so zealous a part in the furtherance of ornithological science.
In Reischek’s collection there is a specimen with a single canary-yellow feather among the scapulars; and another has a bluish glint on the feathers of the upper parts, somewhat like that described above.
I examined a remarkable variety from Dusky Bay, this example having been obtained (as I was assured) at a considerable elevation. This bird had the crown of the head uniform dark green, the cheeks dull greenish brown, the markings on the upper surface generally very obscure, and the plumage of the underparts dull greenish yellow, with faint marbled markings of a paler colour, presenting a very soft appearance, whilst the flanks were prettily marked with numerous narrow bars of brown; the bill was pale yellow, the sides of the under mandible inclining to brown.
Mr. J. D. Enys sends me the following note:—“Mr. G. Müller, the Chief Surveyor of Westland, has a Kakapo with the entire plumage yellow. It came from Jackson’s Bay. Have you heard of it?”
Mr. Reischek, who spent six months in the West Coast Sounds, brought back with him some very beautiful specimens, differing from the common Kakapo in having the entire upper surface rayed with narrow transverse, more or less wavy, bars of brownish black, and the markings on the wing-feathers very regular and distinct, being of a pale lemon-yellow. Of this bird he writes:—“The Alpine Kakapo—so called by me, as I have never found this beautiful bird anywhere except on high mountains—is considerably larger and much brighter than the ordinary Kakapo. The young ones are much duller in plumage than their parents. These alpine birds are rare, but I was fortunate in securing about a dozen of them. Amongst them was a specimen of a beautiful varied plumage: on the top of the head very light green; back, wing-coverts, and tail yellowish green with crimson spots; round the bill crimson; throat, breast, and abdomen yellow with crimson spots; bill light yellow; legs silver-grey; eyes dark brown.”
Several of these fine specimens are now in my collection, and although I fully appreciate the difference in the plumage of the upper surface, yet, with my knowledge of the extreme variability of this form, I am unable, however willing, to recognize a new species. As to individual size, that counts for very little, for I have in my collection even larger specimens in the ordinary plumage. Again, one of the alpine birds received from Mr. Reischek, in which the colours are particularly brilliant, has little thread-like tufts of down adhering to the tips of the secondaries; it is obviously a very young bird, and does not conform to Mr. Reischek’s description as quoted above.
On the accompanying Plate my artist has represented this Alpine form, in the distant figure, just emerging from its burrow.
Young. The young Kakapo assumes the adult plumage from the nest, although the colours are duller than in the mature bird and with a less admixture of yellow; the ear-coverts are darker and the facial disk less conspicuous. The bill, instead of being horn-coloured, is of a delicate bluish-grey colour.
Nestling. In the Otago Museum there is a Kakapo chick apparently just extruded from the shell. It is extremely small for such a bird, and is covered with thick fluffy down of a creamy-white colour; bill and feet white. It was obtained at Dusky Bay, in April 1877, by Mr. Docherty, who presented it to the Museum. I have seen more advanced nestlings covered with greyish down. (See woodcut on page 191.)
General remarks. In the peculiar form which constitutes the unique member of the genus Stringops the bill is page 179 broad and powerful; the upper mandible has a peculiar rasp-like character within, while the lower mandible is deeply fluted on its outer surface, with a worn, notched process near the extremity. The plumage is soft but compact; the wings apparently well developed, but useless for purposes of flight, with the quills much curved or bent; the tail long and slightly decurved, the feathers composing it acuminate and sometimes with the tips abraded; the projecting feathers on the cheeks loose, with disunited filaments and shafts much produced; the legs strong and well formed; the tarsi covered with elevated rounded scales; the toes similarly protected in their basal portion, scutellate towards the end; the claws strong, well-arched, sharp on their inner edge, and with fine points.
This is one of the very remarkable forms peculiar to New Zealand, and has been appropriately termed an Owl Parrot. Dr. Sclater refers to it as “one of the most wonderful, perhaps, of all living birds.” As its name Stringops indicates, its face bears a superficial likeness to that of an Owl. In all the essential characteristics of structure it is a true Parrot; but in the possession of a facial disk (in which respect it differs from all other known Parrots), in the soft texture of its plumage, and especially in its decidedly nocturnal habits, it betrays a striking resemblance to the Owl tribe. Its toes, as in all other members of the order, are zygodactyle; but, as pointed out by Mr. Wood in an interesting article communicated to the ‘Student’ (1870, p. 492), the foot of an Owl, when the bird is perched, considerably resembles that of a Parrot, as the outer toe is then placed backwards with the hind one, so that the bird’s feet may be said to be temporarily zygodactyle, whereas those of the Parrot are permanently so.
Although it may, perhaps, be morphologically incorrect to say that this form supplies a quasi-connecting link between the Owls and the Parrots, there can be no doubt that the Kakapo, in some of its external characters as well as in its mode of life (as Mr. A. R. Wallace has well expressed it), “imitates the Owl” in a very remarkable manner.
Although exclusively a vegetable-eater, its habit of hiding during the day in holes of trees and dark burrows exhibits a further point of resemblance to the nocturnal birds of prey. As these latter are in reality night Hawks, so is this bird, what the native name indeed implies, a night Parrot; and the analogy thus presented harmonizes with the idea expressed above.
The feathers surrounding the eyes and filling the lores differ from those on the other parts of the body not only in being of a lighter colour, but also in form and structure, being narrow and penicillate, with the shaft considerably produced. Those overlapping the base of the lower mandible are more stiff and elongated.
All who have studied the bird in its natural state agree on this point, that the wings, although sufficiently large and strong, are perfectly useless for purposes of flight, and that the bird merely spreads them to break the force of its fall in descending from a higher point to a lower when suddenly surprised; in some instances (as one of the writers quoted below informs us) even this use of them is neglected, the bird falling to the ground like a stone.
We are naturally led to ask how it is that a bird possessing large and well-formed wings should be found utterly incapable of flight. On removing the skin from the body it is seen that the muscles by means of which the movements of these anterior limbs are regulated are fairly well developed, but are largely overlaid with fat. The bird is known to be a ground-feeder, with a voracious appetite, and to subsist chiefly on vegetable mosses, which, possessing but little nutriment, require to be eaten in large quantities; and the late Sir J. von Haast informed me that he had sometimes seen them with their crops so distended and heavy that the birds were scarcely able to move.
These mosses cover the ground and the roots or trunks of prostrate trees, requiring to be sought for on foot; and the bird’s habit of feeding at night, in a country where there are no indigenous predatory quadrupeds, would render flight a superfluous exertion, and a faculty of no special advan- page 180 tage in the struggle for existence. Thus it may be reasonably inferred that disuse, under the usual operation of the laws of nature, has, in process of time, produced the modification of structure which distinguishes this form from all other known Parrots and thereby occasioned this disability of wing.
The sternum, which in all other birds of its class has so prominent a keel, is so completely altered that it presents almost a flat surface, although the symmetry of the skeleton does not appear to have suffered in any other respect.
Prof. W. K. Parker says:—“Like all those who glory in ‘high degree,’ the Parrots have a poor relation or two to abate their pride. The Owl-billed Parrot (Stringops habroptilus) of New Zealand is as lowly as ‘the younger son of a younger brother.’ If birds were to be classified by the sternum only, then the Stringops should be put near the Apteryx and the Tinamou attached to the train of the Peacock.”
The late Prof. Garrod has pointed out that the Parrots, as an order, are peculiar for the variation that occurs in their carotids, which show four different arrangements, and that Stringops is one of those forms in which the two carotids run normally*.
Conformably also with the doctrine of natural selection, we have here another striking instance of the law of assimilative colouring, which obtains more or less in every department of the animal kingdom. Nature has compensated this bird for its helplessness when compelled to leave its hiding-place in the daytime, by endowing it with a mottled plumage so exactly harmonizing with that of the green mosses among which it feeds, that it is almost impossible to distinguish it.
Although the existence of a large ground-Parrot was known to the early colonists of New Zealand from the reports of the natives, who set a high value on the feathers for purposes of decoration, it was not till the year 1845 that a skin of this bird reached Europe; and this was purchased by the Trustees of the British Museum for the sum of ·24.
* The same distinguished anatomist, in one of his earlier papers on the muscles of Birds, pointed out that the ambiens may be present normally, or it may be differentiated in the thigh, but fail to cross the knee, being lost in the fascia over it, or it may be absent; and he stated that in Stringops habroptilus it is present but does not cross the knee. In a subsequent paper “On the Anatomy of the Parrots” (P. Z. S. 1874, pp. 596–598) he says:—“I have twice had the opportunity of dissecting Stringops habroptilus. As a Parrot it is not so strikingly peculiar as many seem to think. Its wings are useless, and the carina sterni is correspondingly reduced, it is true; but as points of classificational importance, I regard these as insignificant. The points of special anatomical interest which it does possess, however, are particularly instructive. The proximal ends of the incomplete furcula are well developed, so much so that it might at first sight seem that the symphysial ends are only lost in correlation with the excessive reduction of the powers of flight; though this is probably not the case, because the allied similarly modified genera Euphema &c. do not keep to the ground. Further, in the Society’s specimen above mentioned, though the ambiens muscle did not cross the knee, yet its fleshy belly was well differentiated on both sides, its thin tendon being lost over the capsule of the joint. In the College of Surgeons’ specimen, however, this muscle was entirely absent in the only knee which was in a fit state for dissection, the other being much shot. It is only in the genus Œdicnemus that I have elsewhere found a similar partial loss of the ambiens. The partial development of this muscle in this particular instance shows that the tendency to lose it is not of great antiquity; and it is to be noted that there is no other Parrot with normal carotids in which any trace of an ambiens is to be found. These considerations suggest, what may perhaps be the case, as is suggested by the peculiarities of their geographical distribution, that Agapornis may be the representative among the normal-carotid Parrots of the Platy-eercine branch from the Arinæ, whilst the Stringopinæ proper (including Geopsittacus, Melopsittacus, and Euphema) are more direct continuations of the main stem, Stringops itself being the nearest living representative of the common ancestor of the whole suborder.” And in a postscript (dated Dec. 8, 1874) he adds:—“On the 25th of last month, from the death of one of the specimens of Stringops habroptilus, recently purchased by the Society, I have had an opportunity of dissecting a third individual of the species. In it the ambiens muscle is complete, of fair size, at the same time that it crosses the knee as in Psittacus. This makes me feel more convinced that the arrangement indicated by me is the correct one, and that the main stem has given rise to three instead of two branches—the Stringopinæ being the nearest representatives of the ancestral form, some of its members (Geopsittacus, Melopsittacus, Euphema, and Cyanorhamphus) having quite recently lost, whilst Stringops itself is just now on the point of losing the ambiens muscle. It is, however, quite possible, if external resemblances and geographical distribution are left out of consideration, that Stringops must stand as the sole representative of the Stringopinæ, thus conforming with generally received ideas.”
According to native tradition, the Kakapo was formerly abundant all over the North* and South Islands; but at the present day its range is confined to circumscribed limits, which are becoming narrower every year. In the North Island it is rarely heard of; but it still exists in the Kai-Manawa ranges, and, as I have been assured by the chief Herekiekie, it is still occasionally met with in various parts of the Taupo district†.
Until within the last few years the Kakapo abounded in the Urewera country, and the natives were accustomed to hunt them at night with dogs and torches. The Maori proverb, “Ka puru a putaihinu,” relates to the former abundance of this bird. The natives say that the Kakapo is gregarious, and that when, in the olden time, numbers of them congregated at night their noise could be heard to a considerable distance. Hence the application of the above proverb, which is used to denote the rumbling of distant thunder‡.
The first published account of this singular bird is that given by Dr. Lyall, R.N., in a paper read before the Zoological Society of London, on the 24th of February, 1852, and which I have transcribed from the ‘Proceedings’ of that year:–“Although the Kakapo is said to be still found occasionally on some parts of the high mountains in the interior of the North Island of New Zealand, the only place where we met with it during our circumnavigation and exploration of the coasts of the islands in H.M.S. ‘Acheron,’ was at the S.W. end of the Middle Island. There, in the deep sounds which intersect that part of the island, it is still found in considerable numbers, inhabiting the dry spurs of hills or flats near the banks of rivers where the trees are high and the forest comparatively free from fern or underwood. The first place where it was obtained was on a hill nearly 4000 feet above the level of the sea. It was also found living in communities, on flats near the mouths of rivers close to the sea. In these places its tracks were to be seen, resembling footpaths made by man, and leading us at first to imagine that there must be natives in the neighbourhood. These tracks are about a foot wide, regularly pressed down to the edges, which are two or three inches deep amongst the moss, and cross each other usually at right angles.
* Te Heuheu’s father, Ngatoroairangi, a renowned Maori naturalist of former times, was a successful Kakapo-hunter. He was (so the natives relate) accustomed to lie in ambush near the beaten tracks of these birds, and capture them, in the early dawn, on their way to their hiding-places. This good old chief is said to have attempted the introduction of the Snapper into the Taupo Lake. He planted the island of Mokois, in the Rotorua Lake, with totara, and left behind him other evidences that he was a “scientific man” far in advance of his time.
† Through the kindness of Mr. White, R.M., I obtained a native-prepared skin of the Kakapo from Taupo, for comparison with examples from the South Island. It was a very small specimen, measuring only 21 inches in length and 8·5 in the wing; but I was able to satisfy myself of the real identity of the species in both islands.
‡ Cf. Note on Stringops habroptilus and its skeleton by E. Deslongchamps, Ann. Mus. H. N. Caen, i. pp. 49–53; also skeleton as figured by A. B. Meyer, Abbild. Vögelsk.
“The cry of the Kakapo is a hoarse croak, varied occasionally by a discordant shriek when irritated or hungry. The Maoris say that during winter they assemble together in large numbers in caves, and that at the times of meeting, and again before dispersing to their summer haunts, the noise they make is perfectly deafening. A good many young ones were brought on board the ship alive. Most of them died a few days afterwards, probably from want of sufficient care; some died after being kept a month or two; and the legs of others became deformed after they had been a few weeks in captivity. The cause of the deformity was supposed to be the want of proper food, and too close confinement. They were fed chiefly on soaked bread, oatmeal and water, and boiled potatoes. When let loose in a garden they would eat lettuces, cabbages, and grass, and would taste almost every green leaf that they came across. One which I brought within six hundred miles of England (when it was accidentally killed), whilst at Sydney ate eagerly of the leaves of a Banksia and several species of Eucalyptus, as well as grass, appearing to prefer them all to its usual diet of bread and water. It was also very fond of nuts and almonds, and during the latter part of the homeward voyage lived almost entirely on Brazilian ground-nuts. On several occasions the bird took sullen fits, during which it would eat nothing for two or three days at a time, screaming arid defending itself with its beak when any one attempted to touch it. It was at all times of an uncertain temper, sometimes biting severely when such a thing was least expected. It appeared to be always in the best humour when first taken out of its box in the morning, hooking on eagerly with its upper mandible to the finger held down to lift it out. As soon as it was placed on the deck it would attack the first object which attracted its attention—sometimes the leg of my trousers, sometimes a slipper or a boot. Of the latter it was particularly fond: it would nestle down upon it, flapping its wings and showing every symptom of pleasure. It would then get up, rub against it with its sides, and roll upon it on its back, striking out with its feet whilst in this position. One of these birds, sent on shore by Capt. Stokes to the care of Major Murray, of the 65th Regiment, at Wellington, was allowed to run about his garden, where it was fond of the society, of the children, following them like a dog wherever they went.
“Nearly all the adult Kakapos which I skinned were exceedingly fat, having on the breast a thick layer of oily fat or blubber which it was very difficult to separate from the skin. Their stomachs contained a pale green, sometimes almost white, homogeneous mass, without any trace of fibre in it. There can be little doubt but that their food consists partly of roots (their beaks are usually more or less covered with indurated mud), and partly of the leaves and tender shoots of various plants. At one place where the birds were numerous we observed that the young shoots of a leguminous shrub growing by the banks of a river were all nipped off; and this was said by our pilot, who had frequented these places for many years in a whaling-vessel, to be the work of the Kakapo. Their flesh is white and is generally esteemed good eating.”page 183
Sir George Grey, two years later, sent the following interesting account of the Kakapo to Mr. Gould, who gave it a place in the Appendix to his ‘Birds of Australia’:—
“During the day it remains hid in holes under the roots of trees or rocks, or, very rarely, perched on the boughs of trees with a very dense thick foliage. At these times it appears stupid from its profound sleep, and if disturbed or taken from its hole immediately runs and tries to hide itself again, delighting, if practicable, to cover itself in a heap of soft dry grass; about sunset it becomes lively, animated, and playful, issues forth from its retreat, and feeds on grass, weeds, vegetables, fruit, seeds, and roots. When eating grass it rather grazes than feeds, nibbling the grass in the manner of a rabbit or wombat. It sometimes climbs trees, but generally remains upon the ground, and only uses its short wings for the purpose of aiding its progress when running, balancing itself when on a tree or in making a short descent, half-jump, half-flight, from a higher to a lower bough. When feeding, if pleased with its food, it makes a continued grunting noise. It is a greedy bird and choice in its food, showing an evident relish for any thing of which it is fond. It cries repeatedly during the night, with a noise not very unlike that of the Kaka (Nestor meridionalis), but not so loud.
“The Kakapo is a very clever and intelligent bird—in fact, singularly so; contracts a strong affection for those who are kind to it; shows its attachment by climbing about and rubbing itself against its friend, and is eminently a social and playful bird: indeed, were it not for its dirty habits, it would make a far better pet than any other bird with which I am acquainted; for its manner of showing its attachment by playfulness and fondling is more like that of a dog than a bird.
“It builds in holes under trees and rocks, and lays two or three white eggs, about the size of a pullet’s, in the month of February; and the young birds are found in March. At present (1854) the bird is known to exist only in the Middle Island of New Zealand, on the west coast, between Chalky Harbour and Jackson’s Bay, and in the Northern Island about the sources of the Wanganui and in part of the Taupo countries. It was, within the recollection of the old people, abundant in every part of New Zealand; and they say it has been exterminated by the cats introduced by the Europeans, which are now found wild and in great numbers in every part of the country. They say also that the large rat introduced from Europe has done its part in the work of destruction.
“The natives assert that, when the breeding-season is over, the Kakapo lives in societies of five or six in the same hole; and they say it is a provident bird, and lays up in the fine season a store of fern-root for the bad weather. I have had five or six of the birds in captivity, but never succeeded in keeping them alive for more than eighteen months or two years. The last I had I sent home as a present to the Zoological Society; but it died off Cape Horn.”
Mr. G. S. Sale (now Professor of Classics in the New-Zealand University) succeeded, in 1870, in bringing, for the first time, to England a live specimen of the Kakapo. This bird was deposited for a short period in the gardens of the Zoological Society, and excited much interest*. An excellent portrait of it appeared in the ‘Field’ newspaper of October 15, 1870, accompanied by a short article on the subject, in which the readers of that journal were-informed that “unfortunately for the gratification of the curiosity of visitors, the Kakapo in the gardens obstinately persists in indulging in its nocturnal habits. During the day it remains concealed; and it is only at night, when the visitors have departed, that the singular movements and habits of this animal can be studied with advantage.”
* The Council of the Society offered a sum of ·60 for this bird, but were unable to come to terms with the owner.
† ‘Field’ newspaper, November 12, 1870.
“I am surprised to find that during the time it was in the Zoological Gardens it very rarely showed itself in the daytime. My experience has been the reverse of this. It has generally been lively enough during the greater part of the day, though not quite so violent and noisy as at night. I had this bird at Saltburn, in Yorkshire, during the summer; and any of your readers who were at that place in the month of August, will remember seeing this bird at the bazaar held in aid of the district church, on which occasion its playfulness never flagged during the whole day. This may partly have been due to excitement at seeing so many strange faces; but it also, no doubt, felt the excellence of the cause (recollect, Sir G. Grey testifies to its cleverness and intelligence), and exerted itself accordingly to help the Church-building Fund.”
In another account of the habits of the particular bird in his possession, Mr. Sale remarks:—“I observe that it rarely makes any noise by day; but about dusk it usually begins to screech, its object being apparently to attract attention; for if let loose from its cage and allowed to have its usual play, it ceases to make any noise. It also makes a grunting noise when eating, especially if pleased; and I have myself attracted it to me by imitating the same sound It also screeches sometimes when handled, not apparently from anger, but more from timidity.” In a note he adds:—“The sound of the bird is not a shrill scream, but a muffled screech, more like a mingled grunt and screech.”
Sir James Hector found the Kakapo very numerous on the west coast of the Otago Province during his exploration of that country in 1861–62; and his collection of birds in the Otago Museum contains many beautiful specimens of it. He succeeded in bringing some live ones to Dunedin; but although they had become perfectly tame, they did not long survive their confinement. Having had good opportunities of studying this bird in its native haunts, the following additional particulars from his pen will be read with interest:—
“The name of Owl Parrot is very appropriate, from the aspect of its head and face, as the bill is short and almost buried among feathers and long bristly hairs like the whiskers of a cat. These whiskers, no doubt, are used in the same manner, as delicate feelers for distinguishing objects in the dark, as the Kakapo is strictly nocturnal in its habits—never stirring from the holes and burrows in which it rests during the day until nightfall. They then emerge from the woods to the sides of the rivers; and, as they feed, their harsh screams can be heard at intervals until they return at daybreak to the depths of the forest. Notwithstanding the shortness of their legs and large size of their feet, they run at a good pace, with a waddling duck-like gait; and though they climb with great facility, page 185 and rapidly take to trees when disturbed or pursued, they never make any attempt to fly. They are found on the mountains at all elevations; but their favourite haunts are either on the flats by the sides of the rivers, or at 3000 to 4000 feet elevation, where the forest is very scrubby and dense and merges into open ground, and where the spurs that lead to the precipitous and rocky ridges are covered with coarse grass. In their nocturnal rambles on the mountain-tops—which the Kakapos seem at some seasons to indulge in—they appear to keep in line along the spurs and ridges, as they beat down broad tracks which it would be quite excusable to mistake for the well-frequented paths leading to some encampment in the woods. They seem strictly herbivorous, their food being principally grass and the slender juicy twigs of shrubs, such as the New-Zealand broom (Carmichellia), which they chew up into a ball without detaching it from the plant—satisfying themselves with the juice which they extract. Their haunts are therefore easily recognized by the little woolly balls of chewed fibre which dangle from the branches of the shrubs, or strew the ground where they have been feasting on the succulent grasses. It is stated by the Maoris that in winter they assemble in large numbers, as if for business; for after confabulating together for some time with great uproar, they march off in bands in different directions. However, they are not gregarious at all seasons of the year, but are generally found in families of two or three together. They breed in February, having two eggs at a time, which they lay in the holes they scrape for dormitories under the roots of decayed trees and fallen rocks.
“The Kakapo can only be successfully hunted with dogs. The best time for hunting these birds is in the early morning, as soon as it is sufficiently light to permit of the sportsman passing rapidly through the bush, as at that time the scent is still fresh of the birds that were abroad during the night. The Maori dogs enjoy the sport very keenly, and follow it largely on their own account—so much so that, when the Maoris encamp in a locality where these nocturnal birds abound, the dogs grow fat and sleek, and the birds are soon exterminated. The Kakapo is esteemed a great delicacy by the natives; but its flesh has a strong and slightly stringent flavour.”
Probably no New-Zealand explorer enjoyed more favourable opportunities for investigating the natural history of the Kakapo than the late Sir Julius von Haast, whose observations on the subject were embodied in a paper, full of scientific interest, read before the Canterbury Philosophical Society on the 4th June, 1863.
A German version of this paper was contributed by the author to the ‘Verhandlungen’ of the Zoological and Botanical Association of Vienna, of October 10, 1863. A translation appeared in ‘The Ibis’ of the following year (pp. 340–346); and, curiously enough, a retranslation was published in the ‘Journal für Ornithologie’ for 1864 (pp. 458–464). But the paper as originally written has never been published; and as the author favoured me at the time with a private copy of it, I have much pleasure in finding room for the following copious extracts:—
“So little is known of this solitary inhabitant of our primeval forests, that the following short narrative of observations which I was fortunate enough to make during my recent west-coast journey may interest you. Although I was travelling almost continuously for several years in the interior of these islands, it was only during my last journey that I was enabled to study its natural history. I was well acquainted with its call, and had often observed its tracks in the sands of the river-beds and in the fresh fallen snow, but I had not actually seen it. The principal reason for this was, that formerly I had no dog with me; and consequently it would only be by the greatest accident that this bird, not at all rare in those untrodden regions, could be obtained.
“The true habitat of the Kakapo is the mossy open Fagus-forest, near mountain-streams, with occasional grassy plots; but it also lives both on the hill-sides, amongst enormous blocks of rock, mostly overgrown with roots of trees and a deep covering of moss, and on wooded flats along the banks of the larger rivers, liable to be inundated by heavy rainfalls or by the sudden melting of the page 186 snow …… It is a striking fact that, with the exception only of the valley of the river Makarora, forming Lake Wanaka, I never found the Kakapo on the eastern side of the Alps, although extensive Fagus-forests exist there also. It appears to have crossed the main chain at the low wooded pass which leads from the source of the Heast to that of the Makarora, and reached the mouth of this river at Lake Wanaka, where probably the absence of forest put a stop to its further advance. It is very abundant in the valley of the last-mentioned river, and is found even in the Makarora bush, notwithstanding that numerous sawyers are at work there. When camped on the borders of that forest, we continually heard its call near our tents; but none of the sawyers had any idea of the existence of such a large bird in their neighbourhood, although the irregular shrill call had sometimes attracted their attention. It also occurs in the valley of the Wilkin, but is less numerous there, which may be accounted for by the existence of wild dogs in this locality. We may therefore safely assume that from the junction of this river with the Makarora the Kakapo ascended toward the sources of the former. In the valley of the Hunter, only divided by a mountain-range of great altitude but with some low saddles, no sign of it was to be observed, although large Fagus-forests would appear to offer a propitious abode…… This bird has hitherto been pronounced to be of true nocturnal habits; but I think, from observations I was able to make, that this opinion ought to be somewhat modified. It is true that generally an hour after sunset, the dense foliage of the forest giving additional darkness to the country, its call began to be heard all around us. It then commenced to rove about, and, attracted by the glare of our camp-fire, frequently came close to our tent, when the heedless bird was immediately caught by our dog. But as we met with it on two occasions in the daytime, occupied in feeding, and as I observed that it knew and understood perfectly well the danger which approached, we may safely assume that it has, at least in this respect, some relation to diurnal birds. In order to show why I come to this conclusion, I will particularize the two occurrences I have mentioned, especially as they appear to bear directly upon some other important points in the structure of this bird. When returning from the west coast, we observed, in the afternoon (the sky being clouded), a Kakapo sitting on the prostrate trunk of a tree in the open forest. When about ten yards from it, the bird observed us, and disappeared instantly in its hole, from which, with the aid of the dog, we afterwards took it. It is clear that in this case the bird was not overtaken by the coming day, when far away from its abode, but that it left its retreat voluntarily during daylight The second instance I shall mention is more striking, and shows that the Kakapo feeds also during the day. It was towards evening, but still broad daylight, when we passed along the hill-side near a deep rocky gorge, and saw a large Kakapo sitting on a low fuchsia tree, about ten feet from the ground, feeding on the berries. When close to it, the bird saw us, and instantly dropped down, as if shot, and disappeared amongst the huge fragments of rocks strewed along the hill-side. But the most remarkable circumstance was, that the frightened bird did not open its wings to break its fall, but dropped as if it did not possess any wings at all …… In order to see whether they would fly, or even flutter, when pursued by an enemy, I placed on the ground a full-grown specimen, which had been caught by the dog without being hurt. It was on a large shingle-bed; so that the bird had ample room for running or rising on the wing, if for this purpose it wanted space. I was not a little astonished to observe that it only started running towards the nearest point of the forest, where a dark shadow was apparent—and quicker than I had expected, considering the position of its toes and its clumsy figure, resembling closely a Gallinaceous bird in its movements. As I was standing sideways to it, I thought that it kept its wings closed upon its body, so little were they opened; but my companion, who was equally anxious to see how our prisoner would try to escape, and who stood a little behind it, observed that it opened its wings slightly, but without flapping them in any degree, using them apparently more for keeping its balance than for accelerating its movements. This would almost lead to the conclusion that the Kakapo does not travel far, especially as I have already shown page 187 that its whole structure is ill adapted for running. But having myself frequently followed the tracks, and found them to extend a great distance over the sandy reaches along the river, such a conclusion as that suggested above would be erroneous. It must be exceedingly fond of water, because in many localities its tracks were observed for half a mile over shingle and sand to the banks of the river; and I am unable to explain the curious fact, unless the object be to mix river-water with the enormous mass of pulpy vegetable matter which is to be found in its crop. With the exception of two specimens, the crops of which were filled with the large berries of a small-leaved Coriaria, by which their flesh was flavoured, all the birds examined by me had their crops widely distended by a mass of finely comminuted vegetable mosses, weighing many ounces …… I carefully examined the subterranean abode of this bird. From the account given by the natives, I thought that it would be found living in well-excavated holes, resembling in their construction those of the fox or badger, that the entrance would be so small as to enable only the inhabitant to enter, and thus to exclude larger animals from persecuting it. This, however, is not the case, because, with one exception, all the specimens obtained were either in fissures amongst rocks, or in cavities formed by huge blocks, tumbled one over another, and overgrown with moss, or in holes formed by the roots of decayed trees. The cavities in the rocks were generally sufficiently large to allow of my dog (a good-sized retriever) freely entering them. The openings to the other holes being smaller, it was sometimes necessary to cut away a few roots at the entrance. Inside, the cavity was invariably of very large size, because we could plainly hear the dog advancing several yards before commencing his scuffle with the occupant; and on returning, with the bird in his mouth, he always emerged head foremost, thus proving that the chamber was large enough to enable him to turn himself round. Before he had become accustomed to the work, the dog was often punished severely by the bird’s powerful beak and claws; but he ultimately became quite an expert, always seizing his prey by the head and crushing the skull. He appeared to take a delight in searching for these birds, and was never tired of providing for us in this manner…… The holes or abodes of the Kakapo were not only on the mountain-sides, but also on the flats near the river-banks, which are liable to be overflowed. There can be no doubt, that, when a sudden inundation takes place, the bird can save itself upon a bush or neighbouring tree. I do not think, however, that it can climb the boles of standing trees, because it never resorted to them during the night or when persecuted by the dog—except in one single case, when the bird ascended a leaning tree close to our camp, and remained till the dog had given up the attempt to obtain it But, notwithstanding that almost all the abodes that came under examination were natural cavities, I met with one hole which seemed to have been regularly mined. On the northern bank of the river Haast, just below the junction of the river Clarke, a large flat occurs, formed by deposits of sand, over which a thin layer of vegetable mould is spread, and on which a luxuriant vegetation has sprung up. The river, in washing against these deposits, has in some places formed nearly perpendicular banks, about six to eight feet high. At one spot, about two feet below the surface, several rounded holes were observed; and the dog tried in vain to enter them. After carefully scenting the ground, he began to scratch the surface with his paws, and soon succeeded in widening the entrance sufficiently to admit his body; and he immediately afterwards emerged with the bird in his mouth. There is no doubt, in my own mind, that this hole, at least, had been excavated; and the burrowing-faculty of the bird may be considered so far established. On a flat, in the valley of the Makarora, the dog brought one from the interior of a hollow drift-tree, which was lying amongst sedges and grasses in an old river-channel. There was never more than one individual in the hole, although very often within twenty or thirty yards of it another specimen would be scented out by the dog, the two being generally of opposite sexes. At night-time, in visiting our camp-fire, they generally came in pairs, the two being successively caught by my dog, a single or sometimes a repeated angry growl from the bird informing us that he had hold of it. These circumstances lead me to conclude that page 188 during the day each inhabits separately its hole, and that only after dark do they meet for feeding and for social intercourse.”
In his Nelson report*, the same naturalist informs us that “in former years the Maruia Plains were a celebrated hunting-ground of the Maoris for this bird. They generally went there on fine moonlight nights, when the berries of the tutu (Coriaria sarmentosa), a favourite food of the Stringops, were ripe, and ran them down partly with dogs, or even killed them with long sticks upon the tutu bushes. Another mode of capture was, when they had found their holes, to introduce a long stick, to which they had fastened several strong flax snares. Feeling the bird with the end of it, they twisted the stick until some part of the bird was caught in the snares, and thus drew it out. The cry of the Kakapo, heard during the night, very much resembles the gobble of a Turkey.”
The following notes were contributed to ‘The Ibis’ (1875, pp. 390,391) by the Baron A. von Hägel:—
“One thing I can boast of already is having been in the midst of the Kakapos: but I did not accomplish this without some trouble; for the Stringops, unfortunately, is driven yearly further and further up country by the settlers, and now it is only met with in the most lonely mountains-districts. But I hardly think that any trouble and labour would be too great to see the bird as I saw it, at home, and, what is even better, procure a fine series of specimens. My trip was undertaken from Invercargill, and consisted of forty miles by rail, twenty-four in a coach, and some fifty more on horseback, with finally a ten-mile row up and across Lake Te-Anau. This brought me into the midst of the Parrots. The whole ground in the bush, which is covered with thick moss, is honeycombed with their burrows—which emit a strong scent, a sort of greasy essence of Parrot-bouquet. The entrance to each—as in fact is the whole ground—is strewn with their excrement, so as almost to make one believe that a flock of sheep had been grazing there. I had an old Scotch shepherd and his dog with me, and they both proved very useful. The latter caught the birds very cleverly by the back, and invariably brought them already killed to us with their feathers in perfect order; but some we lost through his killing them in the bush instead of on the open tract of bracken where we were posted, and then feeding on them quietly before we could make out his whereabouts. The note of the Stringops is very peculiar, quite unlike that of a bird. I think it is when feeding that they indulge in a. series of the most perfect porcine squeals and grunts. It is really as like a young pig as any thing can be. Then their other, note, which I think answers more to a call or warning, is a very loud aspirated scream, with a sort of guttural sound mixed in with it, almost impossible to describe. Then, when pursued and caught by the dog, it emits a low harsh sort of croak; but some were perfectly silent to the last …… The food I found to consist of the bracken (Pteris aquilina), both frond-tips and roots, but chiefly the former. I examined six; and all were crammed with it; but what surprised me much was to find parts of two moderate-sized lizards in the gizzard of and old male. I think this is quite a new fact in the Stringops life-history”†.
* Loc, cit. p. 7.
† In this communication the Baron mentioned that although he was unable then to give a complete life-history of the Kakapo, his observations did not altogether agree-with those recorded by me on the authority of Sir J. von Haast, who was the first to study the bird in its native haunts. As, however, he did not either then or subsequently point out in what respects the account appeared to him faulty, I have, since my arrival in England, written to Baron von Hügel asking him for the desired information, and he has kindly sent me the following:—“The notes I promised, about the habits of the Kakapo, to ‘The Ibis’ (which fact until yon reminded me of it I had completely forgotten) were never sent. I do not remember now the point in which I thought Haast in error.”
“The Kakapos leave their burrows after sunset and return before daylight. If they cannot reach their own home during the darkness, they will shelter in any burrow which may be unoccupied, as they travel long distances. They consume large quantities of food, which consists of grass, grass-seed, and other alpine vegetation. In July they are in splendid condition, those found having as much as two inches of fat upon them. I was much surprised and interested to find in the intestines of the old birds parasites from six inches to two feet long. These parasites are flat, about a quarter of an inch wide, milky white, and jointed very closely. I have found three of these parasites knotted together and many single ones tied in three or four knots.
“In the spring, when the sun begins to shed its warmth, the Kakapos emerge from their burrows, and select some favourable spots in the sunshine, where they crouch down and remain the whole day. In September I selected a suitable day for observing this peculiarity. The snow had disappeared from all the sunny places. I found three birds in different places, sitting upon low silver-pine scrub. They took no notice of my approach until I had them safely in my hand, when they endeavoured to release themselves by biting and scratching.”
On two occasions I have myself kept a live Kakapo, for the purpose of studying its habits. My first bird was somewhat vicious and would not allow itself to be handled. It had a great penchant for raw potato, of which it could stow away a surprising quantity. It was an adult bird when caught and did not long survive the complete change in its condition of life. My other Kakapo was brought to me as a young bird, being readily distinguishable as such by its dark cheeks, with little or no page 190 admixture of yellow, and its delicate pale grey bill. This proved a far more satisfactory pet, and soon became attached to the surroundings of its new home. On our first interview, it gave me a severe bite in the hand, fairly cutting out a piece of flesh; but at the end of a day or two, on being taken from its cage, it would spring upon my arm, mount to the shoulder, and nibble my beard in a playful way. It would partake freely of almost any kind of food, eating as readily of fat mutton as of a green apple or potato; but it seemed most at home when nibbling grass and other succulent herbage. It uttered at times a low grunt, and when excited a peculiar growling sound. It was sometimes allowed the freedom of the garden; and on these occasions I have been much struck with its wonderful assimilation of colouring to the surrounding vegetation, it being quite impossible at a little distance to distinguish it, the singular distribution of green and brown markings in the plumage being very deceptive.
To illustrate the extreme vitality of this Parrot, I may mention that on one occasion the Kakapo’s cage was left for a whole day in an outhouse where some painting operations had been carried on. The fumes of red lead and probably the absorption of the poison by the water which the bird had been drinking produced their natural effect; and at nightfall the Kakapo was found at the bottom of his cage, lying on his side quite helpless and to all appearance in articulo mortis. Restoration to fresh air, aided by a small quantity of spirit poured into his crop, brought the bird out of this state of asphyxia; and, although he continued very weak and tottery for twenty-four hours, he ultimately regained his full vigour and sprightliness.
On its general conduct I find the following entry in my note-book:—It is decidedly nocturnal in its habits, making for any dark corner or shaded recess immediately on being liberated from its cage. It walks in a measured deliberate way, and when hurried expedites its movements by flapping its wings. Sometimes it utters a scream not unlike that of the Kaka when excited or alarmed. It partakes freely of every kind of vegetable food: it nibbles grass, rolling up and detaching a blade at a time in a very deliberate manner; it devours with avidity lettuce, ripe tomatoes, apples, and raw potatoes; it sucks up the contents of ripe grapes with great relish; and it is at all times ready to make a substantial meal off fat mutton or soaked bread; so that, in point of fact, the bird is omnivorous.
It loves to move about among the herbage in our shrubbery, exploring with its bill and nibbling off the leaves, but never attempting to climb. In the evening it becomes more active in its movements, perambulating its cage when confined, and showing every inclination to be abroad. One night it succeeded in effecting its escape by twisting some of the wire bars, and after foraging about to its heart’s content it voluntarily returned before daylight to its prison-house, squeezing its body through the aperture it had made.
Its distinguishing characteristic, however, is its playfulness. When not permitted to climb one’s arm and “make-believe” at biting, it thrusts its head into the little tin drinking-vessel, visor-like, and struts about its cage, with every appearance of delight.
On examining my captive Kakapo at night, by the aid of a candle, I was much struck with the resemblance of its general contour to that of the Laughing Owl. It had the same habit of standing almost bolt upright, with the feathers of the head raised and the brows arched, as if in an attitude of contemplation. I mention this as among the many superficial characters justifying the appellation of Owl Parrot.
Mr. Kirk, the well-known botanist, informs me that this bird, as observed by him in captivity, evinces a great partiality for the male flowers of Pinus pinaster.
A specimen, sent to England by Mr. Murdoch, the Inspector of the Bank of New Zealand, lived for a considerable time in the Zoological Society’s Gardens, but in the same retired way as its predecessor, closely concealing itself in its box by day, exhibiting itself to the public only under coercion of the keeper, and then manifesting the utmost impatience to regain its dark retreat.page 191
A life-sized drawing of this species was given in Gray and Mitchell’s ‘Genera of Birds’ (1842), admirably coloured, but placed in an attitude quite foreign to the habits of the bird. Mr. Gould gave a portrait of it in the Supplement to his ‘Birds of Australia,’ executed in his usual masterly style; and other figures, of less note, have appeared at various times. The coloured drawing of this bird in the ‘Student’ for 1870, as well as the woodcut in the ‘Field,’ although in other respects excellent pictures, possess a fault in common–namely, in having the tail broad and fan-like, instead of being compressed, narrow, and inclined inwards. This, as I have been informed, was owing to the damaged condition of the tail in the particular bird from which both of these figures were taken.
The egg of the Kakapo, of which there is a figure (from the pencil of Mr. Wolf) in the ‘Proceedings’ of the Zoological Society for 1852, is broadly ovoido-conical in form, and of pure whiteness till discoloured in the process of incubation. A specimen in the Canterbury Museum, much stained and slightly damaged, measures 2 inches in length by 1·4 in its greatest breadth: the surface of the shell is smooth, but without any gloss or polish; and on close inspection it is found to be finely granulate. Another in the Otago Museum is of almost exactly similar size, measuring 2 inches in length by 1·45 in breadth: this specimen is somewhat discoloured, probably by contact with the bird’s feet; the shell is minutely granulate, having a slightly rough surface to a sensitive touch. Another in my son’s collection is appreciably smaller, measuring 1·85 inch in length by 1·35 in breadth, and, originally of a greenish-white colour, is stained and discoloured, though somewhat unequally, to a pale yellowish brown.
A specimen from Preservation Inlet is rather larger than the last mentioned one, measuring 2 inches in length by 1·4 in breadth. It is yellowish white and somewhat soiled, the surface being without any gloss, and slightly granulate, or marked with extremely fine points.
Kakapo chick, just hatched: natural size. (See page 178.)