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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Majaqueus Parkinsoni. — (Black Petrel.)

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Majaqueus Parkinsoni.
(Black Petrel.)

  • Procellaria parkinsoni, Gray, Ibis, 1862, p. 245.

  • Majaqueus parkinsoni, Gray, Hand-1, of B. iii. p. 108 (1871).

  • Procellaria parkinsoni, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 302 (1873).

Native names.—Taiko and Kuia.

Ad. oraninâ brunnescenti-niger, interscapulio scapularibusque pallidioribus marginatis: rostro flavicanti-brunneo, culmine et apice brunnescentibus: pedibus nigris: iride nigrâ.

Adult. Entire plumage brownish black, the feathers of the back and mantle narrowly edged with a lighter shade. Irides black; bill yellowish horn-colour, shaded with dark brown on the culmen and towards the tips of both mandibles; legs and feet black. Total length 18 inches; wing, from flexure, 1375; tail 5; bill, following the curvature of upper mandible 2, length of lower mandible 2; tarsus 2; middle toe and claw 2·75.

Young. Plumage, as in the adult, glossy black; down adhering to underparts long, thick, and blackish brown in colour; bill black, marked with horn-grey on the sides and unguis; feet black.

Nestling. The young is first thickly covered with sooty down, which adheres to the plumage for a considerable time, as in other Petrels, imparting to the body an appearance of unnatural size. It comes off first from the head, breast, and upper surface; and in this operation the bird itself no doubt assists.

Obs. The above description of the adult is taken from a New-Zealand specimen in the British Museum, presented by Miss R. Stone. Some examples have the underparts much tinged with brown.

This species, which appears to be peculiar to the New-Zealand seas, is by no means uncommon in the Hauraki Gulf, resorting to the Little Barrier and adjacent islands to breed. Mr. Kirk, the well-known botanist, who has carefully explored these islands, informs me that he found both this and Gould’s Petrel breeding in subterranean burrows. He observed that the two birds differed entirely in character—M. gouldi being extremely vicious, fighting savagely even with a dog when attacked, whereas M. parkinsoni would allow itself to be seized by the hand in its burrow almost without resistance.

It is diurnal in its habits, hunting in the open sea like the Albatros. I have watched several at one time following our steamer, not immediately in the ship’s track, but wheeling about with angular wings, like black kites, occasionally mounting high in the air, then descending almost to the surface, and always maintaining a circular course of flight.

It has a soft whistling cry of kuia, whence its name. It is also said to make at certain times a mewing sound, like a young cat.

I have not often been able to identify them on the wing, for, at a little distance, dark Petrels are all very much alike. A pair which I saw, in fine, calm weather, off the port of Napier early in December, were flying low, keeping close to the surface of the water, and with a somewhat rapid movement of their wings.

page 243

The stomachs of several which were examined contained blubber-like matter and the sharp-pointed beak of some cephalopod.

My son Walter obtained at Manawatu, in the month of September, an adult bird which had been captured by the Maoris far inland; and at this season it was so fat that he had the utmost difficulty in detaching the skin.

It breeds in communities, often resorting for that purpose to the tops of low mountains far removed from the sea. The Maoris soon discover these breeding-places, and not only collect the young, but capture large numbers of the old birds by lighting fires on calm nights and thus decoying them to their destruction.

In the Bay of Plenty, about four miles north of Matata, there is a high sea-cliff of soft sand-stone called Te Tuhi-o-mahuika. The softer parts of the rock have been eroded by the weather, leaving the harder contorted strata intact and projecting from the face of the cliff in all sorts of eccentric shapes; and here it was, according to Maori tradition, that their famous ancestor, Mahuika*, obtained most of his patterns in the art of ornamental “tattooing.” That is doubtless a myth, but after allowing the eye to rest for some time on these curious natural devices in the face of the rock, I found I could trace a resemblance to many of the typical forms in the highly artistic moko of the present day. In the deeper cavities caused by this singular erosion of nature the Black Petrel forms her nest and hatches her brood in perfect security, no one ever attempting to scale these perpendicular cliffs.

Mr. Cheeseman writes to me from Auckland:—“This species breeds on the coast-ranges north of the Manukau, and on the Cape Colville peninsula, also on many of the small islets off the eastern shore. A friend fishing a short time ago in Rangitoto channel, caught a small shark, which he cut up for bait, throwing portions overboard. He was soon surrounded by large numbers of M. parkinsoni, and by continuing to throw over small pieces of the shark, he induced them to come so near the boat as to enable him to kill several with the blade of his oar, some of which he brought to the Museum.”

Mikaera, a Wainuiomata native, brought to the Colonial Museum, on the 1st February, an egg of this species which he had taken from a burrow in the hills on the north side of Wellington harbour; and I have received eggs from the Little Barrier in the beginning of December.

Mr. Reischek found it nesting under the root of a tree, near the top of the Waikomiti hill, fully twelve miles from the sea. He likewise met with it on the Little Barrier, principally on the tops of the hills and about the centre of the island. He generally found it in natural cavities, dug round and adapted to the wants of the bird. When not breeding two were often found associated in the same hole; but when the nest contained an egg, only the female remained in charge. In the month of November he has seen the old birds assisting each other in the labour of cleaning out and adapting the hole they have selected, and afterwards in collecting dry leaves and pieces of moss wherewith to make it comfortable and form a nest, which is usually placed in a depression at the further end of the cavity. These breeding-holes are generally from one to two feet deep; then comes the nest-chamber, measuring often two feet in extent and about half that in width. One nest was found in the hollow of an old puriri stump. At the end of November a single egg is produced and, according to the natives, the young bird is hatched out at the end of December or beginning of January. In April or May the canoes visit the island to collect the young Petrels, which by this time have grown to the full size and are excessively fat. Except at the breeding-season, when they are to be seen about the island in the early morning and again in the evening, these birds are only to be met with far out

* Mahuika was the Maori “Ulysses.” It was he who discovered the art of making fire by the friction of two dry sticks. He had dominion over the animal creation and was exacting in his demands. On one occasion, according to mythical tradition, being thirsty he appealed to the Kiwi to bring him water. The bird refused, whereupon he kicked it and broke its back, which accounts for the crouching attitude of the Kiwi as compared with other birds.

page 244 at sea, hovering about the ship till darkness closes in the view, but always refusing to take the hook. Off the West Coast of New Zealand, in lat. 36°S., and about a hundred miles from land, numbers have been met with at one time, and no doubt its range extends far over the South Pacific. Mr. Reischek’s experience of the nesting-bird differs from Mr. Kirk’s, for he informs me that in every instance he found the old birds very fierce when their nest was invaded, scratching vigorously with their claws, which have extremely fine points and are capable of inflicting nasty wounds on the hand. On coming in from the sea, the old birds show great caution in approaching their nests by moonlight, making first a circuit in the air around the spot, then dropping suddenly to the ground and remaining a short time at the entrance, as if to make sure that all is safe before disappearing in their burrows. They have a deep call, only uttered when on the wing in the vicinity of the nest, and this may be heard both morning and evening all through the breeding-season. He writes*:—“This Petrel is gregarious, and I have seen them in large flocks together resting on the water. Their power of flight is marvellous. In July 1879, outside the Kaipara, on the west coast of New Zealand, I had an opportunity of observing these birds, having to lay by outside the bar for several days, being unable to enter, as it was blowing one of the severest gales experienced in these seas. They cruised about, dipping the points of their wings at intervals in the water, then suddenly swooping down through the foaming waves for their prey; rising with the next wave, and repeating their former action. From July to November these birds are always out at sea. In November they come ashore to their breeding-places, on the top of high and steep mountains, which they choose for the purpose of easier flight, as they have difficulty in ascending from the level ground. They are expert climbers. I saw them by the aid of their sharp claws, their bill and wings, climbing up trees out of the perpendicular, from which they flew away. In November 1882, on the eastern slope and near the centre of the Little Barrier or Hauturu Island, situated north of Auckland, at about 2300 feet above sea-level, on a steep, precipitous ridge, I noticed my dog repeatedly setting at burrows, which, on examination, I found contained Procellaria parkinsoni. They were clearing out their old burrows; and staying to observe, I noticed them digging with their bills, removing the earth by a backward motion of their feet, till the burrow was cleansed. In most cases I found them working; in others the burrows were clean and the refuse outside. Some burrows were in loose soil, others under the roots of trees and under stones, also in hollow trees. I have found them sometimes very far inland, and always on the tops of mountains. When they have finished cleaning out the burrows, which process male and female accomplish together, they remain quiet till the last rays of the sun have disappeared, then any one can hear their call, which is similar to that of the Black Swan; and on coming out they stop a moment, pick up a few leaves or grass, and go back into the burrows; this operation they repeat several times, and always on entering the chamber they make a peculiar noise together. After dark, both come out, rise and circle round, calling until they attract others; and when a large flock is assembled, they fly away to their haunts on the ocean, returning before daylight. At this season, before they lay, they are very fat. When caught, on their return from the ocean, if they cannot protect themselves by scratching and biting, they expectorate a lot of oily matter on their assailant. The first time I caught one of these birds it treated me in that manner. In December 1884, on the Waitakerei ranges, 1000 feet above sea-level, and twelve miles from the ocean, I found the female sitting on an egg, nearly hatched.”

An egg in my son’s collection is broadly elliptical, measuring 2·7 inches in length by 2 in breadth; originally white, it is much soiled over its entire surface by contact with the bird’s feet. Other specimens which I have examined are slightly narrower or more elliptical.

* Trans. N.-Z. Inst, vol. xviii. pp. 87, 88.