A History of the Birds of New Zealand.
The Existing Avifauna
The Existing Avifauna.
Having given the reader a rapid glance at the extinct genera and species, it may be useful now to take a general view of the existing Avifauna, for the purpose of indicating the points in which it differs from that of every other zoological region on the earth’s surface, and of showing the close relation of some of our present forms to the types that have passed away.
The leading feature in the Ornithology of New Zealand is thus expressed by a very accomplished zoological writer:—“Recent birds being divided into two great and trenchantly marked groups, of very unequal extent, the smaller of these groups (the Ratitæ) is found to contain six most natural sections, comprising, to take the most exaggerated estimate, less than two score of species, while the larger group (the Carinatæ), though perhaps not containing more natural sections, comprehends some ten thousand species. Now, two out of the six sections of this small group are absolutely restricted to New Zealand; and these two sections contain considerably more than half of the species known to belong to it. Thus, setting aside the Carinate birds of our distant dependency (and some of them are sufficiently wonderful), its recent Ratite forms alone (some twenty species, let us say) may be regarded as the proportional equivalent of one tenth of the birds of the globe—or numerically, we may say, of an avifauna of about one thousand species”*.
A perusal of the following ‘History’ will show that the Avifauna of New Zealand possesses other distinguishing features of a very striking character, a full review and discussion of which would occupy many pages; but some of the more prominent of these may be here mentioned, more, however, in the way of general indication than with the intention of exhaustive treatment.
* ‘Nature,’ July 18, 1872.
Taking the Carinate division of our Avifauna, another very prominent characteristic is the number of endemic genera and species. The families, with a few exceptions to be hereafter mentioned, are the same that occur in other parts of the world; but when we come to examine the subordinate groups, the specialization is at once apparent. Out of a total of 88 genera, 47 belong to the Limicolœ, Herodiones, and the five web-footed Orders, and these, being in a sense cosmopolitan, may for the present be put out of sight. Of the remaining 41 genera, 21 are strictly peculiar to New Zealand. But even in the other more widely-spread genera there are many species that are not known elsewhere. Thus, out of a total of 181 species, composing the present list of our Carinatæ, no less than 93 are strictly endemic. Even among the most diffuse Orders there are genera restricted in their range to the New-Zealand rivers or coasts, or to the outlying islands. Thus among the Limicolæ we have two strictly peculiar genera, Thinornis and Anarhynchus, and among the Anseres two more, namely, Hymenolœmus and Nesonetta.
Of the former, Thinornis belongs really to the Chatham Islands, for although T. novæ zealandiæ is comparatively common there, only straggling flocks are met with, at uncertain intervals, on the New-Zealand coast; and of the latter, Nesonetta is confined exclusively to the Auckland Islands, the only known species, N. aucklandica, never having been met with elsewhere. The other two genera I have instanced, Anarhynchus and Hymenolœmus, are restricted to New Zealand, never having been met with on the outlying islands.
Undoubtedly the most remarkable bird we have among the Waders is the Wry-billed Plover (Anarhynchus frontalis), in which, as the name implies, the bill is asymmetrical, being always turned to the right, a modification of structure admirably fitted to the bird’s peculiar habits of feeding. The curvature in the bill is congenital, being equally present in the embryo chick, although not so fully developed; and this fact furnishes a beautiful illustration of the law of adaptation and design that prevails throughout the whole animal kingdom. A bird endowed with a straight bill, or with an upcurved or decurved one, would be less fitted for the peculiar mode of hunting by which the Anarhynchus obtains its living, as must be at once apparent to any one who has watched this bird running rapidly round the boulders that lie on the surface of the ground and inserting its scoop sidewise at every step, in order to collect the insects and their larvæ that find concealment there. But there is another feature in the natural history of this species that is deserving of special notice, which is this: the fully adult bird is adorned with a black pectoral band, which, in the male, measures ·75 of an inch in its widest part. Now it is a very curious circumstance that this band is, as a rule, far more conspicuous on the right-hand side, where, owing to the bird’s peculiar habit of feeding, page xxxviii there is less necessity for concealment by means of protective colouring*. This character is constant in all the specimens of the male bird that I have examined, although in a variable degree, the black band being generally about one third narrower and of a less decided colour on the left side of the breast,—from which we may, I think, reasonably infer that the law of natural selection has operated to lessen the colouring on the side of the bird more exposed to Hawks and other enemies whilst the Anarhynchus is hunting for its daily food. There can be no doubt that a protective advantage of this sort, however slight in itself, would have an appreciable effect on the survival of the fittest, and that, allowing sufficient time for this modification of character to develop itself, the species would at length, under certain conditions of existence, lose the black band altogether on the left-hand side.
Commenting upon the above remarks, in my first edition, the accomplished Editor of ‘The Ibis’ (Mr. Salvin) indulged in the following reflections:—
“It would appear that the peculiarly shaped bill would only be an efficient weapon for obtaining food in this way so long as the bird walked one way round the stone, i. e. bearing to the off side or from west to east! The wider portion of the pectoral band would thus be always next the stone, and more hidden than the narrower or left portion. Has running round stones always the same way been the cause which enabled those birds which practised it to survive and transmit this habit to their offspring? and has their success been further promoted by the tendency to reduce the exposed side of their pectoral band, a secondary sexual character? Or has the process been reversed and the protection given to those birds which ran one way round stones, keeping the prominent portions of their pectoral bands from sight, tended to produce the curvature of the bill? The development of both characters seems to hang upon the birds acquiring the habit of running only one way round stones”†.
It seems to me that the more correct way of putting it is that the bird must, under any circumstances, keep the stone around which it is feeding to the right; for, in whatever way the habit may have been acquired, it is obvious that inasmuch as the curvature of the bill is always to the right it can only serve as an efficient scoop when the bird is in the left position in relation to the stone.
I do not propose to enter here into a discussion of the theory which a consideration of these facts seems necessarily to involve; but such cases as this can be rationally accounted for only on Darwinian principles, and I see myself no difficulty whatever in reconciling this view of the evolution of species by means of natural selection with a belief in the unity of design in Creation, and with the acceptance of the great truths of revelation. It is not a question of the Creation itself, as divinely revealed to man, but as to the plan and method of the Creation; and when, instead of the old literal interpretation of Sacred Scripture, we understand by the “six days” of the Mosaic record so many vastly extended geologic epochs, every difficulty in the way of orthodox belief disappears‡
* Mr. Seebohm states that in the two specimens which his collection contains this unsymmetrical character of the pectoral band is not observable, but he does not give the sex; and it is a curious fact, for which I do not pretend to offer any explanation, that in the female bird, in which the pectoral zone is quite inconspicuous, the peculiarity I have mentioned is hardly noticeable, if it is not entirely absent. As to the feature itself in relation to the male bird, I can only say that I have never met with a single example in which it was not more or less manifest; indeed the first to call my attention to it was Sir James Hector, with whom, years ago, I examined the fine series of specimens in the Colonial Museum, and with the result I have stated.
† Ibis, 1873, p. 93.
‡ “Allowing that Almighty Power has worked by constant laws, we have to consider the lapse of time during which our globe may have revolved in its orbit, in a condition approximating to the present, i. e. capable of sustaining vegetable and animal life upon it. We have to allow time for those forgotten migrations of our race, for the previous rise of their religious and other cultured ideas in the East, and for the possible transmutation of animals from the saurians &c., revealed by geological investigations, to the present species. The several thousand years which have elapsed since some of the existing species were preserved as mummies in Egypt appear to have effected no change. But when we contemplate even 10,000 years as relatively a long period, are we not somewhat in the natural state of error in which the mind of an ephemeral summer-day’s insect might fall if able to reflect and form estimates of time from the duration of its own existence? Living for one day after its rise from the chrysalis, it might conceive sixty days a long period for the life of the man who can crush it, just as we, able to live towards a century, have allowed about sixty centuries only for the duration of humanity upon the earth. The insect might fancy the statement wickedly preposterous if informed that our existences might extend to some 20,000 times the duration of its day. As a simile, it does not seem an irrational proportionate comparison by ‘rule of three’ to say that, as the insect’s one day is to the 25,550 days of man, so may the human 70 years be to 1,788,500 years for the life of the world, past and future, after the completion of its primary formations. If we allow about a fourth of these for the past changes of species’ (viz. 400,000 years), and about the thirtieth part (viz. 50,000 years) for man’s growth from infancy, from crude civilization to our present state of scientific culture, the computation seems reasonable in the light of scientific facts. It is at all events more consonant with them than our old dogmatic chronology.”—Cradle-land of Arts and Creeds.
“From a consideration of the possible sources of the heat of the sun, as well as from calculations of the period during which the earth can have been cooling to bring about the present rate of increase of temperature as we descend beneath the surface, Sir William Thomson concludes that the crust of the earth cannot have been solidified much longer than 100 million years (the maximum possible being 400 millions), and this conclusion is held by Dr. Croll and other men of eminence to be almost indisputable…… So far as the time required for the formation of the known stratified rocks, the hundred million years allowed by physicists is not only ample, but will permit of even more than an equal period anterior to the lowest Cambrian rocks, as demanded by Mr. Darwin—a demand supported and enforced by the arguments, taken from independent standpoints, of Professor Huxley and Professor Ramsay.”—Island Life.
To quote the language of one of the ablest and most liberal-minded of our theologians:—“Science discloses the method of the World, Religion its cause, and there is no conflict between them, except when either forgets its ignorance of what the other alone can know.”
The next point to be noticed is the comparative abundance, in comparison with the rest of our Avifauna, of Rails, Ducks, and Cormorants. The first-named group contains in addition to Notornis and its allied form, Porphyrio, four, if not five, species of Ocydromus, three of Rallus, two of Ortygometra, and the diminutive Ocydromine representative in the Chatham Islands. Of Ducks, New Zealand possesses 11 species, belonging to ten genera, this number being far in excess of the proportion of Anseres to the general number of birds in other countries of similar extent. Of these Ducks, seven species are endemic, two of them (Nesonetta and Mergus) being confined to the small area of the Auckland Islands. Of Shags or Cormorants, including two at present doubtful forms, there are no less than fourteen species, of which eight, if not nine, are endemic, so that New Zealand in this respect takes the palm against all competitors. Some of the species, too, are of singular beauty, whereas in all other parts of the world the members of this family are noted for their plain faces and sombre plumage.
Seeing that New Zealand is so rich in Cormorants, it is indeed remarkable that there is no indigenous species of Plotus, a form so characteristic of Australia on the one hand and South America on the other. I have already recorded the occurrence of Plotus novœ hollandiœ as a straggler, which serves only to accentuate the inexplicable fact of its not being a native.
The entire absence of Woodpeckers might have been expected, as these birds do not extend beyond Celebes, never having been met with in the Moluccas or in Polynesia, New Guinea, or Australia. But it is difficult to account for the non-appearance of Swifts and Swallows, except as occasional visitants from Australia.
On the other hand, the Parrots are well represented. Besides the very typical Stringops habroptilus, page xl already mentioned, we have seven species belonging to the genera Platycercus and Nestor, all of which are peculiar to New Zealand and her satellites.
As compared with the Avifauna of Australia, the paucity of species is particularly noticeable in the following well-distributed families, namely, Sylviidœ, Campephagidas, Muscicapidœ, Alcedinidœ, Columbidœ, and Tetraonidœ.
The families belonging exclusively to New Zealand are five in number—the Turnagridœ, Xenicidœ, Nestoridœ, Stringopidœ, and Apterygidœ—and, as already indicated, possibly a sixth represented by the remarkable genus Glaucopis. The great development of the Procellariidœ, or Family of Petrels, is a feature which New Zealand shares in common with Australia and Southern Polynesia. The South Pacific is the great nursery, so to speak, of this extensive Family, and no less than 33 species have, from time to time, been recorded on the New-Zealand coasts or from the surrounding seas. These include nearly all the known species of Albatros, and a number of oceanic birds of considerable interest, although as a rule not conspicuous for their beauty. Some of these have a range extending over both hemispheres; others are confined to apparently small tracts of ocean; while others again are migratory within certain degrees of latitude and longitude. Altogether they comprise a well-defined group of Birds (raised now to the dignity of an Order, under the name of Tubinares), whose economic and domestic history, owing to their pelagic and semi-nocturnal habits, has not yet been fully investigated or recorded.
The occasional capture in New Zealand of such tropical forms as Phaethon rubricauda and Tachypetes aquila, although interesting occurrences per se, cannot be regarded, in any strict sense, as a feature in the Avifauna.
Of Meliphagine birds New Zealand possesses a fair number in the genera Prosthemadera, Anthornis, Pogonornis, and, in a lesser degree, in Zosterops and the brush-tongued Nestor, all of which are endemic; but the honey-eating genera of Australia, such as Ptilotis, Meliphaga, and Tropidorhynchus, are entirely absent. Acanthochœra carunculata has occurred in a wild state, but only as an extremely rare straggler from the Eucalyptus-brushes of its native country.
Among the Limicolœ there are several species which touch at New Zealand in their seasonal migrations to and from the higher latitudes of the Eastern Hemisphere, or make this country their winter residence. Dr. Otto Finsch, as far back as 1867, in the Notes appended to his German translation of my ‘Essay on the Ornithology of New Zealand,’ expressed his surprise that such species as Strepsilas interpres, Totanus incanus, and Tringa canutus had not been recorded among these seasonal migrants. Since that time all of these, as well as Phalaropus fulicarius, Numenius cyanopus, and Tringa acuminata, have been added to the list. The two most remarkable instances, however, of this class are, on the one hand, the occasional occurrence of the Eastern Golden Plover (Charadrius fulvus), whose range extends over Australia, New Guinea, the islands of the Indian Archipelago, and Polynesia, and northwards to its breeding-grounds in Siberia and Kamtschatka, and, on the other, the regular autumnal migration of the Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa novæ zealandiæ), which goes northwards to breed in the high latitudes of Eastern Asia. To my mind, in the whole romance of natural history there is nothing to be compared with this seasonal migration of the Godwit. This bird is the Eastern representative of the European Limosa lapponica, to which it bears a close resemblance; and, like that species, it has a very extensive geographical range. Both of them are migratory in their respective hemispheres; and while the other species breeds in, the high Northern page xli latitudes of Europe, and returns in winter to North-west and East Africa, our bird spends a portion of the year in Siberia, and visits, in the course of its migration, the islands of the Indian Archipelago, Polynesia, Australia, and New Zealand! Towards the end of March, or beginning of April, large flocks may be seen at the far North taking their departure from our country. Rising from the beach in a long line and with much clamour, they form into a broad semicircle, and mounting high in the air, take a course due north: sometimes they rise in a confused manner, and, after circling about at a considerable height in the air, return to the beach to reform, as it were, their ranks, and then make a fresh start on their distant pilgrimage. After foreign travels and adventures which the pen of Audubon alone could do justice to, the flocks begin to reappear at the north during the first week of November, and then rapidly disperse along the coast.
This subject of the seasonal migration of certain birds is a very wide one and full of interest. There is probably nothing in the whole field of ornithological research more remarkable than this traditional habit, acquired no doubt by experience accumulated through countless generations. The same unerring instinct which guides the Ground-Lark to her nest under some particular tussock in the midst of a wilderness, miles in extent, of exactly similar tussock, or which enables the sea-bird to single out her own eggs from among the thousands clustered together on the bare rock or sandy beach, likewise guides the movements of the migrant when the time comes round for its annual pilgrimage.
We have in New Zealand two species of Cuckoo belonging to different genera—both migratory and both parasitic. One of these (the Long-tailed Cuckoo), which is a native of the Society Islands, visits this country in the summer and breeds with us, entrusting the task of rearing its young to a little Warbler not larger than an English Wren. It arrives, year after year, during the second week of October, and leaves us again before the end of February—this migratory habit, persevered in through long generations, having become a necessary part of its natural existence. In the whole range of ornithological biography, there is perhaps nothing more marvellous than this punctual annual migration across some fifteen hundred miles of ocean. The other species, known as the Shining Cuckoo, visits us from Australia, performing its journey of a thousand miles with the same wonderful precision as to dates of arrival and departure, my register showing only a maximum variation of five days during a continuous period of ten years. Curiously enough, this mild little caterpillar-hunter entrusts the rearing of its young to the same bird that performs that friendly office for its predatory congener four times its size. But apart from these regular summer visitants, with which most colonists are familiar, we have numerous instances of eccentric and casual migration which are indeed very curious. The history of the little Zosterops, or Blight-bird, is a case in point. This migrant crossed Cook’s Strait, for the first time within the memory of man, in the winter of 1856, coming over in numerous flocks, as if to explore the country; then retired for two years, and reappeared in greater numbers than before in the winter of 1858, since which time it has been a permanent resident in the North Island, breeding in every district, and becoming more plentiful every year. This migration was no doubt induced, in the first instance, by a scarcity of some particular food-supply in the South Island, which must have occurred again two years later. The exceptional feature, however, in this case is, that after the second migration the natural impulse to return home had lost its influence.
In Australia we have several records of non-migratory birds performing a kind of exodus from their own part of the country, swarming into some distant region, where they have remained for five or even ten years, and then disappearing as suddenly as they had come. Take, for example, the page xlii beautiful little Warbling Parrakeet (Melopsittacus undulatus), which, prior to 1838, was so rare in the southern parts of Australia that only a single example had been sent to Europe, but arrived in that year in countless multitudes. Or take the case of the Australian Moorhen (Tribonyx ventralis). ‘This bird, although not endowed with any extraordinary powers of flight, acting under some mysterious influence, left its home in the remote interior and visited South Australia in 1840, coming in such countless myriads that whole fields of corn were trodden down and destroyed in a single night, and the streets and gardens of Adelaide were alive with them. But the casual occurrence with us of migratory species from Australia is even more singular, because it seems impossible to assign any definite cause. In March, 1851, a flight of the Australian Tree-Swallow appeared at Taupata, near Cape Farewell; ten years later they were observed again at Wakapuaka, near Nelson, and a specimen obtained; and after a further lapse of fully twenty years another flight—from which a specimen is now in my possession—appeared for several days in succession in the outskirts of Blenheim. More recently, the Press Association announced the appearance of “Swifts” at the White Cliffs, near Taranaki, and on receiving the only specimen that was shot, I found it to be the true Australian Swift (Cypselus pacificus), a bird common enough on the Hunter but migratory northward, and believed by most naturalists to be identical with the species inhabiting China and Amoorland. The two instances of the occurrence in New Zealand, after an interval of twenty years, of the Australian Wattle-bird (Acanthocera carunculata), and more recently, in both North and South Islands, of the well-known Australian Roller (Eurystomus pacificus), are cases in point; and other instances might be given of the mysterious, overpowering impulse, under the influence of which certain birds, without any apparent motive, perform almost incredible aerial journeys without a break of any kind.
Another remarkable feature in the New-Zealand Avifauna is the inherent tendency to albinism*. The condition itself, is no doubt due to the absence of the colouring-pigment in the feathers; but the difficulty is to find any sufficient cause for this in a temperate climate like that of New Zealand. In India, as is well known, the tendency is in the opposite direction, melanism being of very frequent occurrence.
* In the body of the present work will be found carefully recorded instances of albinism, more or less pronounced, in the following species, viz.:—Glaucopis wilsoni, G. cinerea, Heteralocha acutirostris, Creadion carunculatus, Myiomoira macrocephala, Anthus novæ zealandiæ, Anthornis melanura, Prosthemadera novæ zealandiæ, Platycercus novæ zealandiæ, P. auriceps, Nestor meridionalis, Spiloglauæ novæ zealandiæ, Sceloglaux albifacies, Circus gouldi, Carpophaga novæ zealandiæ, Hæmatopus longirostris, H. unicolor, Himantopus novæ zealandiæ, Limosa novæ zealandiæ, Larus dominicanus, Ocydromus earli, O. australis, Porphyrio melanonotus, Ardea sacra, Phalacrocoraæ novæ hollandiæ, Ossifraga gigantea, Anas superciliosa, A. chlorotis, A. gibberifrons, Podiceps rufipectus, Apteryx australis, A. mantelli, and A. oweni.
To the above list Mr. Kirk has recently added Myiomoira toitoi, having described (‘Ibis,’ 1888, p. 42) a specimen in the possession of Mr. J. H. Drew of Wanganui, in which the only indication of the normal colouring is a small patch of faint grey on one of the primaries, the whole of the remaining plumage being pure white.
In my account of Anthus novæ zealandiæ I have stated (at p. 64) that albinos, more or less pure, are of common occurrence. In the above-cited communication Mr. Kirk says of this species:—” While travelling through the bush on the east coast of the Wellington province, I came on a Maori plantation, and was shown by one of the natives a Ground-Lark exhibiting a tendency both to albinism and melanism. The following is a description, jotted down in my pocket-book:—Top of head, and down as far as a line through the eye, dull black; the whole of the body and wings, with the exception of the two outer primaries, were a delicate creamy white; the outer primaries retained the normal greyish-brown colour. The outside tail-feathers, which in an ordinary specimen would be white, were in this case jet-black. This bird, which was one of the most curious freaks of nature I ever saw, had been tamed, would come when called and allow itself to be picked up and examined, as though conscious of deserving attention on account of its extraordinary and fantastic dress. I endeavoured to effect a purchase, but without success, the Maoris appearing to set great store by their pet.”
Among the Parrots I have recorded some beautiful crimson and yellow varieties, and in the case of Platyoercus novæ zealandiæ a single instance of cyanism. But the only New-Zealand birds in which I have ever detected any tendency whatever towards melanism, and then only in a slight degree, were Anthornis melanura and Miro albifrons.
Many travellers in New Zealand have remarked on the notable absence of bird-life, especially in the woods; and at certain seasons of the year this is indeed very noticeable. But, as fully explained in my history of the Wood-Pigeon at page 232, the relative abundance or scarcity of birds is entirely regulated by the food-supply, which, in turn, is governed by the seasons. At all times, however, in winter and summer alike, the New-Zealand woods, whether alive with birds or not, possess an indescribable charm owing to their evergreen character. In my several accounts of their feathered inhabitants I have, as the reader will perceive, never lost an opportunity of paying my tribute to the luxuriant beauty of these woods; but I have always felt that it was quite impossible to do full justice to the subject*.
In the strictest sense of the term, New Zealand is without “song-birds”; but such species as the Tui, the Korimako, and the Piopio possess vocal powers of a very respectable kind, the compass and variety of their notes adding greatly to the charm of the New-Zealand woods. For example, the North-Island Thrush (Turnagra hectori) has many notes exactly resembling those of its English namesake. As fully explained at pp. 28, 29 this handsome species is rapidly dying out and will soon be but a memory of the past. But with the disappearance of this native Thrush, the English songster is fast becoming established in the country, frequenting the outskirts of the bush in the neighbourhood of European settlements and supplying to the loyal colonist yet another link of attachment to “dear old England.”
Setting aside, however, their claim to the highest order of song, the birds of New Zealand do not fail, especially in the early morning, to make their native woods echo with delightful music, “each one giving out his own notes without any regard for the others, the score having evidently been written for the whole, since the innumerable strains make one divine harmony.” In the midst of this melody of song, the harsh cry of the Kaka calling to its fellows will sometimes for a moment break the spell, but the performers, heedless of the discordant note and with bursting throats, continue their morning concert, till, as if by common consent, they cease altogether and disperse in quest of their daily food.
“This bush scenery is indeed very wonderful. The enormous cabbage-trees, the gorgeous creepers clinging in a green network to the tall pines, the dense undergrowth of shrubs, the tree-ferns, the great kauris, and the exquisite tints of the whole mass of riotous vegetation are beautiful beyond description. Then the strange silence, unbroken even by the whir of a bird’s wing, the unchanging sameness of the bush, that confuses you until you cannot tell how far you have travelled, the charred tree-trunks on either side of the road that have been burnt down to clear a passage, and the oppressive loneliness of it all, tell that you are far away from the beaten track of travel, and far into the heart of Maoriland.”
* As with all questions of this kind, there is much to be said for and against the Sparrow, and numerous experiments have been made by friends and foes for the purpose of demonstrating the actual truth of the case. The following newspaper record contains the result of one of these experiments, and, so far as my observation goes, the weight of evidence is invariably in favour of the bird:—“A hundred and eighteen Sparrows have been offered upon the altars of science. As was the case with the Pagan sacrifices, their entrails have been carefully inspected, in order to furnish guidance to the inquirers. But it has not been in search of the cabalistic information to be derived from quaint contortion, or the credited, though impossible, absence of the heart, or some other vital organ, that the sacrificial knife has been bared. The contents of the stomachs of the victims have been examined, tabulated, recorded. Three culprits alone, out of this hecatomb of the favourites of Cytherea, were proved, by the unsparing search, guilty of having lived for the past four-and-twenty hours upon grain. In fact, there were three thieves out of the 118; all the other victims had worked, more or less, for their living. Beetles, and grubs, and flies, and larvæ of all obnoxious kinds had been their diet. In 75 of the birds, infants of all ages, from the callow fledgling to the little Pecksy and Flapsy that could just twitter along the ground, hardly any but insect remains were detected. What would the starved and industrious pioncers who have reared their wonderful temple and city by the Great Salt Lake have given for the aid of an army of English Sparrows against that greater and more formidable host of grasshoppers which thrice all but annihilated the settlement?”
To give the other side of the argument, and to show that the prejudice against the Sparrow and its consequent punishment is not confined to New Zealand, I may quote the following newspaper account of its status in Australia:—“Rome once owed its salvation to a Goose, but it has been reserved for the Sparrow in these degenerate modern days to threaten a flourishing young State with serious loss, if not, as the farmers assert, absolute ruin. Rabbits have for some years played an important part in directing legislation in some of the Australasian Colonies, and now in South Australia the Sparrow is becoming a power in the land, and calls for all the machinery of special Acts of Parliament to keep it within bounds. The bird, which only a few years ago such efforts were made to acclimatize in Australia, and whose first arrival was hailed with greater enthusiasm than would now be displayed on the landing of a Bend Or, a Duchess, or a prize merino, is now doomed to extermination—if that can possibly be achieved. So rapidly have the few pairs which were introduced a few years ago multiplied under the congenial skies and amid the luxuriant vegetation of the Australian Colonies, where there are few or none of the checks on their increase which exist in the Old Country, that the agriculturists complain of the serious injury done by them to their wheat and fruit crops, and have called upon the Government to devise some means of ensuring their destruction…… Its work is done on a scale disheartening to the cultivator, and under conditions he cannot control, for the seed is taken out of the ground, the fruit-bud off the tree, the sprouting vegetable as fast as it grows, and the fruit ere it is ripe, and therefore before it can be housed and saved. Neither apricots, cherries, figs, apples, grapes, peaches, plums, pears, nectarines, loquats, olives, wheat, barley, peas, cabbages, cauliflowers, or seeds or fruits of any kind, are spared by its omnivorous bill; and all means of defence tried against its depredations, whether scarecrows, traps, netting, shooting, or poisoning, are declared to be insufficient to cope with the enemy. It remains to be seen whether the reward offered by the Government for the heads and eggs of these destructive little birds will result in any diminution in their numbers.”
* Under the sensational heading of “Trains stopped by Caterpillars,” the following telegram once appeared in the colonial papers:—
“(UNITED PRESS ASSOCIATION.)
Wanganui, February 13.
“The trains this morning and evening between Waverley and Nukumaru, on the way to Wanganui, were brought to a stand-still through countless thousands of caterpillars on the rails. The officials had to sweep and sand the metals before the trains could proceed.”
Another similar case is thus recorded in the ‘Rangitikei Advocate’:—“In the neighbourhood of Turakina an army of caterpillars, hundreds of thousands strong, was marching across the line, bound for a new field of oats, when the train came along. Thousands of the creeping vermin were crushed by the wheels of the engine, and suddenly the train came to a dead stop. On examination it was found that the wheels of the engine had become so greasy that they kept on revolving without advancing, as they could not grip the rails. The guard and the engine-driver procured sand and strewed it on the rails and the train made a fresh start, but it was found that during the stoppage caterpillars in thousands had crawled all over the engine and over all the carriages inside and out.”
Then, again, to pursue the argument in another direction, if the Sparrow is fond of ripe grain it is still fonder of the ripe seeds of the variegated Scotch thistle. This formidable weed threatened at one time to overrun the whole colony. Where it had once fairly established itself it seemed well-nigh impossible to eradicate it, and it was spreading with alarming rapidity, forming a dense growth which nothing could face. In this state of affairs the Sparrows took to eating the ripe seed. In tens of thousands they lived on the thistle, always giving it the preference to wheat or barley. They have succeeded in conquering the weed. In all directions it is dying out, and simply because it has no chance of propagating itself in the only way possible, that is to say, by a dissemination of its seed. I would ask, is not this a benefit to the agriculturist of a kind to entitle the bird to the care and protection of the whole community?
It should be remembered, also, that the services of the Sparrow as a scavenger in our colonial streets are not to be despised. The droppings of the horses are turned over by these industrious little birds and scattered to the winds, and in a variety of other ways they contribute to the cleanliness and purity of our thoroughfares.
The resultant fact is that for all these inestimable benefits we must be prepared to pay something; and it seems to me that the small tithe of grain which the Sparrows levy at a time of the year when everything else fails them is a very moderate consideration indeed. But it is the old story over again of ignorant prejudice and popular clamour. In Hungary, as we are informed, the same indiscriminate crusade was carried on some years ago, and was persevered in till not a Sparrow remained; then, after sufficient time had elapsed to show what an error had been committed, the Government had to offer a bonus of so much per head for the birds in order to reestablish them in that country†.
* Even Mr. J. H. Gurney, Jun., whose pamphlet ‘On the Misdeeds of the Sparrow’ is the most recent contribution to the subject, and who urges the necessity of keeping down this bird, feels bound to say:—“It may be that in some exceptional seasons (when a great plague of insect-life shall again occur), as in 1574, when it is said cockchafers gathered in such numbers on the banks of the Severn as to prevent the working of the water-mills, and in 1868 when they formed a black cloud in Galway, which darkened the sky for a league, destroying vegetation so completely as to change summer into winter (‘Wild Birds’ Protection Report,’ p. 170), Sparrows will do good. Bearing this in mind no one should advocate their extirpation.” He candidly says “that they mix the corn with considerable quantities of wild seeds, including, be it freely admitted, the destructive knotgrass and corn-bindweed; but even then they take corn by preference.” And he concludes: “Although it is desirable to keep them down at all times, it should be remarked that the mischief done by them at harvest-time is 20-fold greater than at seed-time.”
† Thus writes the accomplished historian Miohelet:—“The ‘miserly agriculturist’ is the accurate and forcible expression of Virgil. Miserly, and blind, in truth, for he proscribes the birds which destroy insects and protect his crops. Not a grain will he spare to the bird which, during the winter rains, hunted up the future insect, sought out the nests of the larvæ, examined them, turned over every leaf, and daily destroyed myriads of future caterpillars; but sacks of corn to the adult insects, and whole fields to the grasshoppers which the bird would have combated! With his eye fixed on the furrow, on the present moment, without sight or foresight; deaf to the grand harmony which no one ever interrupts with impunity, he has everywhere solicited or approved the laws which suppressed the much-needed assistant of his labour, the insect-destroying bird. And the insects have avenged the bird. It has become necessary to recall in all haste the banished. In the island of Bourbon, for example, a price was set on each Martin’s head; they disappeared, and then the grasshoppers took possession of the island, devouring, extinguishing, burning up with harsh acridity all that they did not devour. The same thing has occurred in North America with the Staring, the protector of the maize. The Sparrow even, which attacks the grain, but also defends it—the thieving, pilfering Sparrow, loaded with so many insults, and stricken with so many maledictions—it has been seen that without him Hungary would perish; that he alone could wage the mighty war against the cockchafers and the myriad winged foes which reign in the low-lying lands; his banishment has been revoked, and the courageous militia hastily recalled, which, if not strietly disciplined, are not the less the salvation of the country.”
The Sparrow in New Zealand has an able and ever-ready champion in Mr. W. T. L. Travers, the well-known barrister, who thus attacked a proposal in the Colonial Legislature to exterminate it:—“War is to be waged against the Sparrows, under the authority of Parliament. The following short extracts show the wisdom brought to bear in discussing the question. The Hon. Mr. Chamberlain says that the Hawk is the natural enemy of the Sparrow, a deduction, no doubt, from the name ‘Sparrowhawk’ applied to one species of Hawk, but no New-Zealand Hawk that I know of ever touches a Sparrow. Mr. Oliver tells us that it was a mistake to introduce the Sparrow, and so does Mr. Gray. Mr. Miller says that none but the agriculturist was fit to discuss the question, and drew a comparison between the Sparrow and the Starling, which was about as appropriate as if he had attempted to compare the Sparrow with the elephant. Mr. Acland said that the Sparrow did not destroy insects. Mr. Holmes read some extracts in support of his opinions against the Sparrow, and I can supply him with any quantity more of the same kind, emanating from equal ignorance of the subject. It would be well if hon. gentlemen, in dealing with this question, would take the trouble to read the evidence given before a committee of the House of Lords on the subject of Sparrowclubs in England, and if they should still entertain any respect for the intelligence of that august body, they would probably be disposed to change the opinions above expressed. Not many years ago the agriculturists of Hungary succeeded in getting the Sparrow proscribed by law, and he disappeared from the land. Within five years from that time the Government were compelled to spend 230,000 rix dollars in reintroducing him from other countries. In the North Island, and in the northern parts of the South Island, the cultivation of valuable deciduous trees was practically impossible until the large cicada had been greatly reduced in numbers, and if Mr. Acland had seen, as I and many others have, the Sparrow actively engaged in destroying these creatures and devouring them, he might probably change his opinion. The nestling Sparrow cannot eat hard food, and careful observation has shown that a pair of parent Sparrows will bring upwards of 3000 insects to the nest in the course of a single day to feed its brood.”
But the same popular prejudice was for a long time directed against the Common Pheasant. Gradually the country settlers were won over to a due appreciation of this valuable bird*.
In addition to those already mentioned, the following English birds may now be considered permanently established in the country:—the Common Thrush, Blackbird, Sky-Lark, Greenfinch, Linnet, Chaffinch, Redpoll, Goldfinch, and Starling. Some years ago a number of Rooks were imported by the Auckland Acclimatization Society, but they do not appear to have spread far beyond the district in which they were first liberated.
In addition to two species of Quail, we have imported very successfully from Australia the Indian Minah and the Native Magpie, both of which are useful and ornamental birds.
Many other species have been introduced, and have appeared to thrive in their new home, although they cannot yet be looked upon as fairly established.
I am not aware that any serious effort has been made to introduce Owls of any kind, but this is a matter well worth the attention of the local Acclimatization Societies. In 1873 I sent out from England a pair of Wood-Owls (Syrnium aluco). They arrived safely at Napier, and after recruiting their strength were turned loose in a distant part of the Province. The Hon. Mr. Ormond, as superintendent of the Province, gave orders for their protection under the Act; but notwithstanding all these precautions, the unfortunate immigrants fell victims to popular prejudice.
* A practical farmer thus writes to one of the newspapers:—“As much has been written and said for and against this beautiful bird, I will add my experience on the subject. On the one hand the Pheasants completely cleared a patch of maize for me; but on the other hand, when, some time after, I shot one of the depredators, its crop was found to contain about half-apint of fragments of black crickets. I have therefore resolved for the future to endeavour to scare them away from my crops, but on no account to exterminate them,”
Another bird that bids fair to be well acclimatized is the Cape or Egyptian Goose (Chenalopex œgyptiaca). Just before I left the colony one of these Geese was shot on Te Aute Lake, and submitted to me as a supposed addition to the New-Zealand Avifauna. Recognizing the species, and being satisfied that the individual bird was a wild one, I wrote to Sir George Grey for the purpose of ascertaining whether he had brought any of these Geese from the Cape. The information in reply was exactly what I had expected. Sir George Grey brought eight or ten of these birds with him to the Colony in 1860. They bred freely at the Kawau, and many of them crossed over to the mainland. Judge Rogan informed Sir George that he had seen as many as four shot at the Kaipara during his residence there. The fact that it has already found its way to the Hawke’s Bay district shows how this species is establishing itself in a country where certainly all the conditions are favourable to its existence.
* It is popularly supposed that the Black Swan and the White Swan will not live together on the same waters; but the fact is that no systematic attempts, so far as I am aware, have yet been made to acclimatize the White Swan, either in Australia or New Zealand. Years ago, Baron von Mueller showed me a small flock of White Swans commingling with their dark cousins on a fine sheet of water in the Melbourne Acclimatization Gardens. A few tame pairs have been placed on ponds and ornamental waters in the South Island, and these have bred freely enough notwithstanding the constant presence of the Black Swan. In the North Island the experiment has not yet been tried. Sir George Grey was unfortunate enough to lose one of the beautiful pair presented to him by Her Majesty, or the North Island might have been ultimately stocked from Kawau. I am now arranging to send out some of these noble birds as a present to the Ngatiraukawa tribe, in order that they may be placed on the Horowhenua Lake, where the other species is already established, and it will be interesting to note their future history.