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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.


In the Introduction to this work (page xxxii) I mentioned a specimen of the leg of Dinornis elephantopus, in the Cambridge University Museum, which Professor Newton had kindly forwarded to me for inspection, and I then referred to an astragalus-like bone, the presence of which had hitherto escaped notice in the osteology of Dinornis. On turning to Professor Owen’s elaborate ‘Memoir on the Anatomy of Apteryx*, I found that he had described a somewhat similar inter-articular bone as existing in that bird in the following terms:—“There is a small cuneiform tarsal bone wedged into the outer and back part of the ankle-joint.”

Having brought this matter under the notice of Dr. Günther, at the British Museum, we together dissected specimens of Apteryx bulleri and Megapodius pritchardi, and found this little bone present in the former bird but not in the latter. At Professor Newton’s suggestion we afterwards made a similar examination of the leg of a Tinamou (Crypturus tataupa) and with a successful result, there being the same interarticular bone attached to the head of the tarso-metatarsus by means of two ligaments, one long and slender, the other broad and short.

The discovery of this new bone seemed to me of so much interest that I made a special journey to York for the purpose of examining the comparatively recent skeleton of Dinornis robustus preserved in the public Museum there, as mentioned at page xxiii of my Introduction. Here I found the same bone, but of a somewhat different form, being scarcely half as thick as in D. elephantopus, although the bird was of much larger stature. It looked more like a cartilage, for which, indeed, it had been mistaken, the label attached denominating it a “knee cartilage.”

Before returning the unique specimen to the Cambridge Museum I had careful drawings of it made by Mr. P. J. Smit, showing the anterior and posterior aspects; and the artist has performed his work very faithfully, even to the minutest details of superficial structure. Plate XLIX. accordingly represents the front view of the left metatarsus of Dinornis elephantopus with two of the toephalanges attached by means of dried ligament; and Plate L. represents the back view.

* Trans. Zool. Soc. ii. p. 293.

page 334
The illustrations are reduced one fourth, the dimensions of the metatarsus being as follows:—
Length9 inches.
Transverse breadth of proximal end4 inches.
Transverse breadth of distal end5 inches.
Least breadth of shaft2·25 inches.
Fore-and-aft breadth of proximal end3 inches.
Circumference of proximal end12 inches.
Least circumference of shaft6·25 inches.
Breadth of middle trochlea1·9 inches.
Length, following the curve4 inches.

The proximal phalanges of the inner and middle toes are still firmly attached to the distal trochleæ by means of a tough ligament, and a small portion of the sole is still present.

The astragalus-like bone to which I have specially referred is well shown, in its natural position, in Plate XLIX. It measures 2·5 inches in width, with a vertical thickness in front of fully an inch, tapering off on the sides and wedge-shaped behind, with a uniform depth of 1·25 of an inch.

Professor Owen in his minute description of the tarso-metatarsal bone of Dinornis elephantopus, says (Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand, vol. i. p. 227):—

“I had, hitherto, regarded the metatarse of Dinornis crassus, described and figured at p. 137, in pl. xl. figs. 4 & 5, as presenting the most extraordinary form and proportions of all the restored species of huge wingless birds of New Zealand; it is strikingly surpassed in robustness and in great relative breadth and thickness by the same bone of the present species, which chiefly on that account I have proposed to name elephantopus. Only in the great Maccaws and Penguins do the proportions of the metatarsus resemble those in this most robust-legged of birds; but the Parrot-like tribe present those peculiar modifications of the distal trochleæ, with the strong articulation for the back toe, which relate to the Scansorial modifications of the bird’s foot; and the Penguins associate with their broad and short metatarsus a characteristic retention of much of the primitive separation of the three constituent bones. In Dinornis elephantopus these elements have become as completely coalesced as in any other species, and the general characters of both proximal and distal ends accord with those in previously described species…… From the metatarsus of Dinornis robustus that of the Dinornis elephantopus differs, most strikingly, in its proportions of length to breadth, being little more than half the length, but of nearly equal breadth; the distal trochleæ, however, being relatively less expanded than in Dinornis robustus… . . Equalling, or nearly equalling, the phalanges of that bird in breadth and thickness, the bones of the foot differ chiefly in shortness, but in a less degree than the metatarsi differ.”

Professor Owen’s figure of this bone (op. cit. vol. ii. pl. lvii.) shows the proximal articular surface of the metatarsus; but in the specimen under notice this is partly covered by the interarticular bone already described; whilst the ectocalcaneal and the mesocalcaneal processes are completely hidden by the dried integument, or heel-pad, which, as already mentioned (Introd. p. xxxii) and as shown in the Plate, is still adhering to the base.

I have already discussed fully (Introd. pp. xviii to xxxv) the controversial question of the antiquity of the Moa, and I do not think it necessary to add anything further on the subject except to mention page 335 that at a recent meeting of the Wellington Philosophical Society, Lieut.-Colonel McDonnell brought forward some remarkable Maori evidence in support of the view advanced by me*.

The number of species described in my former edition was 147. Of these two have been omitted in the present work, namely, Nestor occidentalis and Tribonyx mortieri, the former being now treated as a mere variety of Nestor meridionalis, and the latter because, as already stated (Introd. p. xiv), there is no authentic record of its occurrence in New Zealand. On the other hand, 48 species have been added. Of this number three new species were described and named by myself in the ‘Transactions of the New-Zealand Institute,’ and four more are characterized for the first time in the present work. Professor Hutton and Dr. Finsch have each added two new species. Gerygone sylvestris, Potts, Ocydromus brachypterus, Lafr., and Eudyptes pachyrhynchus, Gray, have now been admitted as good species. The other additions to the list, 34 in number, are made up of stragglers from Australia, and species inhabiting the New-Zealand seas that have hitherto escaped observation.

In the Introduction I gave the number of Cormorants (including two doubtful forms) as fourteen; but, as fully explained in my account of Phalacrocorax brevirostris (Vol. II. p. 169), I have since treated Mr. Sharpe’s P. finschi as a mere variety of that species, thus reducing the number to thirteen. On the other hand, the number of Petrels has been increased, by a closer investigation of the subject, from thirty-three to thirty-nine. Of those now added only one is a new species, Puffinus bulleri, Salvin (Ibis, 1888, p. 354).

Those who possess my former edition, or who may otherwise have an opportunity of comparing the two works, will see how much new material has been embodied in the present one, the book having been practically rewritten and the amount of reading matter increased threefold.

It must not be supposed, however, from this that there is nothing left for the future ornithologist in New Zealand. Most, if not all, of the species inhabiting the mainland (the so-called “land-birds” and waterfowl) have no doubt been pretty thoroughly worked out; but a great deal has yet to be done among the shore-birds and sea-birds. Since the publication of my former edition, no less than 38 species of this class have been added to the list, and even whilst the present volume was passing through the press several more have been discovered.

I have described at page 88 (Vol. I.) the causes of the rapid disappearance of many of the New-Zealand

* “At the meeting of the Philosophical Society of Wednesday night the vexed question whether the Maori had ever actually known the Moa, or only through tradition, was briefly discussed upon a paper by Lieutenant-Colonel McDonnell, read by Mr. J. Park. The paper, which was entitled ‘The Ancient Moa Hunters at Waingongoro,’ was ostensibly a reply to Mr. Colenso, of Napier (a gentleman who, as is well known, has always held the theory that the Moa was extinct when the Maori arrived from Hawaiki), who had stated that there was nothing in the stories or proverbs of the Maoris to show that they actually knew the Moa. Colonel McDonnell expressed surprise that a statement of that kind should have come from such a Maori scholar as Mr. Colenso. As showing that the Maoris had known the Moa, and had hunted and eaten it, he related an incident within his own experience which happened on the West Coast of the North Island in 1866. Sir George Grey (then Governor) was visiting the locality, and an old Maori named Kawana Paipai stated that in his youth he had joined his people in hunting the Moa on the Waimate Plains. In answer to questions, he described the mode of hunting, which was that when a party of young men started a Moa they pursued it until they were tired, when another party took up the chase and so on until the Moa tired, when it was killed with stones and sticks. Doubts were expressed as to the truth of Kawana Paipai’s statements, whereupon he became exceedingly angry, and said that if men were brought with spades he would show them where they could uncover the bones of the Moas from the old ovens. This was promptly done, and as Kawana had promised, about three feet down large quantities of Moa bones were found among the old ovens. It was explained by Kawana that the Moa, when brought to bay, fought fiercely, striking out with its feet. The time when the old man took part in the hunt, Colonel McDonnell reckoned, would be early in the present century.”—New Zealand Times, Nov. 1, 1888.

page 336 birds; but I have not thought it necessary to do more than refer incidentally to the extraordinary manner in which many of the introduced birds have established themselves in the country, displacing in some districts the indigenous species, or at any rate adding by their competition another factor to those already in operation*. On the outskirts of the bush everywhere, the notes of English birds predominate; and I have met with the ubiquitous Sparrow, not only among the steaming geysers of Wairakei, but on the barren heights of Owhaoko. I have already given (Introd. p. xlvii) a list of the other English birds that have already been successfully established. There will, ere long, be a welcome addition to the number, as Mr. H. R. Russell of Hawke’s Bay (now in this country) is taking active steps for the introduction of that sweetest of British songsters, the Nightingale. It will be interesting to see whether transportation to a new country, with a comparatively mild climate all the year round, will affect its migratory character; for it cannot be denied that one or two of the species already acclimatized in New Zealand have, to some extent, changed their habits of life.

Among the native species apparently doomed to extinction at no distant date are the Bell-bird and the Tui. The former of these has entirely disappeared from the North Island, but its delicious note is still to be heard in the gardens and shrubberies of Nelson and Christchurch; and on the western side of the Southern Alps this bird is still to be found in all suitable localities. Tuis also, although greatly diminished in numbers during the last twenty years, are still comparatively plentiful in many parts of both islands. It is indeed pleasing to record that they sometimes frequent the shrubberies in and around our principal towns, and that in Mrs. Walter Johnston’s pretty garden at Wellington they are to be seen every spring, disporting themselves among the exotic flowers surrounding the house, and nesting, as I am assured, in an Australian bottle-brush almost within reach of the ball-room windows.

On the other hand, some of the indigenous species find the new conditions of life favourable to their increase. For example, the Banded Rail (Rallus philippensis) is now comparatively plentiful in all suitable localities. On the low-lying sandy lands near the sea-shore, where fields of pinky-red rushes alternate with flax and toetoe, it may be flushed by the sportsman’s dog, almost at his very feet; and in the bosky fringes of the forest, where the native bramble casts a mantle over the low vegetation, and tangles of kohia and other creeping plants make progression well-nigh impossible, its note is now familiar, although a few years since its very appearance was unknown to many of the natives.

I have mentioned (Introd. p. xlviii, footnote) the unfortunate fate that befell one of the Queen’s White Swans at Kawau. I am glad, however, to learn from Professor Hutton that the experiment was not so unfruitful as I had supposed. Writing to me, from Christchurch, under date of Oct. 17, he says:—“Sir George Grey gave me a pair of White Swans, in 1868, to take up to the Waikato. I turned them out in Lake Whangape, and when I left in 1870 there were thirteen of them. I have been told that they are now commonly seen on the lakes in the Lower Waikato.” He adds:—“Also Rooks were introduced into Canterbury from Lincolnshire, many years ago, by Sir Cracroft Wilson. They have done very well, and there must be over 200 now, in spite of poisoning. The Hedge-Sparrow is also naturalized here; and I see a pair in my garden occasionally.”

Since writing my account of the various species of Ocydromus inhabiting New Zealand, I have

* In my account of the well-nigh extinct Pogonornis cincta (Vol. I. p. 104), I stated that the only collections in this country that could boast the possession of a female of this species were the British Museum and the University Museum at Cambridge. On this point, however, Canon Tristram sends me the following note:—“I have had for years a lovely female skin, in most perfect condition. It was given to me by the late Dr. Lyall, R.N., who shot it in 1850.”

page 337 examined Forster’s original drawing of Ocydromus troglodytes at the British Museum, and although a very unfinished production, it certainly represents a highly-coloured specimen of Ocydromus australis. I trust I have succeeded in elucidating the very confused synonymy of this group and in giving something like finality to the nomenclature. But the manner in which some of the forms intergrade renders the subject a very puzzling one. Under more than one aspect the Woodhen is a bird of considerable interest, and I have therefore endeavoured to do full justice to its natural history*.

With the kind assistance of Mr. Salvin, who has made a special study of the Procellariidæ for the purposes of his forthcoming ‘Monograph,’ I have made a very complete list of our Petrels up to date, but I am persuaded that many more have yet to be added. As mentioned in my Introduction, the wide ocean which surrounds New Zealand is, so to speak, the great nursery of this family, and their breeding-grounds are the numerous rocks and islets which abound off our coasts or the small groups of islands lying in mid-ocean and far out of the track of our ordinary commerce. Here is still a most promising field for future workers in New-Zealand ornithology.

In his excellent ‘Critical Notes on Procellariidæ’ (Orn. Miscell. vol. i. pp. 249–257) Mr. Salvin says:—“The exceedingly extensive range of many species of this family of birds adds to the difficulties of their study when the evidently close specific relationship between many of them is considered. But could we compare specimens taken from the breeding-stations, much of our perplexity would, I believe, vanish, and the slight differences observable in specimens captured at various points on the high seas would at once assume a greater value, and definite laws of geographical distribution would be found to prevail in these as in other birds. It is on certain islands that the Procellariidæ assemble in the

* Even in the Rev. Mr. Green’s charming account of his ascent of Mount Cook, the ubiquitous Weka comes in for a passing notice. Camped at the edge of a little blue lake, fringed with scrub, at the foot of the Tasman glacier, he writes:—“Here, for the first time, we found the New Zealand edelweiss (Gnaphalium grandiceps), and my men seemed to take fresh heart after all their fagging work, when we had our hat-bands adorned with the familiar little felt-like flowers. After a good night’s rest on a bed of Veronica hectori, we continued our ‘swagging,’ and on the next afternoon, Feb. 23, we reached our fifth and final camp. We were now 3750 feet above the sea, having gained by a week’s labour only 1450 feet of actual elevation, and Mount Cook still towered 9000 feet above us. Our advance was here checked by the ice of the much broken Ball glacier coming down from our left, and though we carried our swags on to its surface in hopes of camping farther up, the absence of scrub on the further spurs, of sufficient size to promise a supply of firewood, made us retrace our steps and pitch our tents on a gravel slope close to the mountain side, in the angle formed by the Ball and Tasman glaciers. Here a glacier stream provided us with water, and the vicinity of our camp was strewn with dead wood brought down by landslips and avalanches from the steep slopes above. Whilst looking for a suitable nook for our tent, Boss came upon a little square patch of dwarfed gnarled Coprosma exactly the square of our tent. It grew by itself on the gravel in a snug corner, and seemed as if prepared so specially for our use that we did not wish to decline the hospitality of nature. Filling up, therefore, the centre of the square with some cut bushes we pitched our tent on it. Never was a bed more comfortable; its spring was perfect, we never sank to within less than 5 inches or 6 inches of the ground; and so long as the Wekas contented themselves with squeaking and grunting, and not pecking upwards, we did not wish to deny them the comfortable lodging beneath us, which they seemed to appreciate. From this camp we made a long day’s excursion up the main glacier and completed our reconnaissance of the ridges of Mount Cook; and from a point on the medial moraine I took a circle of angles with a view to making my map, and secured a couple of negatives of the Hochstetter ice-fall. But the light was so brilliant, there not being a cloud in the sky, that over-exposure of my plates was almost unavoidable. A brisk breeze, occasionally blowing in sudden strong squalls from south-west or north-west, prevailed in the valley, while on the mountain ridges a steady, fierce wind seemed to blow continuously from the west. The Woodhens or Wekas (Ocydromus australis) were a source of constant amusement; they seemed to know no fear, and would come picking and examining every article in our camp, and were always ready to bolt off with any small object left on the ground. They cared little for the stones we threw at them, and all night they kept up a constant whistling, accompanied by a kind of grunting noise. On the stream hard by we had an inexhaustible supply of Blue Ducks (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchus); there were never many to be seen at a time, but when we shot three or four one day a couple of brace more would occupy the same part of the stream next morning. They were not wild, so in order to save cartridges we generally pelted stones to get them close together, and then tumbled two or three in the one shot.”

page 338 breeding-season, sometimes in countless numbers; and after the duties of incubation and rearing their young are accomplished, these colonies disperse at large over a vast tract of ocean, to assemble again the following year. Thus, then, for a considerable portion of the year birds of closely-allied species may be found flying together; but they separate to their respective breeding-quarters at the proper season. From this it may be gathered that the fact of two or more closely-allied Petrels found together on the open ocean is not by any means so strong a proof of their specific identity as would be the case in most other birds. It is by the uniformity or otherwise of birds when assembled at their breeding-stations that characters of real specific value are to be traced.”

At page 24 (Vol. I.) I have stated my reasons for not including the Kermadec Islands in this work; but as any information relating to the birds of this group must be of interest to the student of New-Zealand ornithology, especially in regard to the subject of geographical distribution, I have much pleasure in quoting the following observations recorded by Mr. T. F. Cheeseman, Curator of the Auckland Museum, who has lately visited those islands in the Government steam-boat ‘Stella.’ Much of the information was obtained from Mr. Bell, a resident on Raoul Island, which is the furthest of the group, being about 640 miles from Auckland, or midway between New Zealand and Tonga. The following New-Zealand species are, he states, the commonest birds on the Kermadecs, namely, the Harrier (Circus gouldi), the Kingfisher (Halcyon vagans), the Tui (Prosthemadera novæ zealandiæ), the White-eye (Zosterops cærulescens), the Pipit (Anthus novæ zealandiæ), the Red-fronted Parrakeet (Platycercus novæ zealandiæ), the Pukeko (Porphyrio melanonotus), and the Grey Duck (Anas superciliosa). Mr. Bell states that both the Long-tailed Cuckoo (Eudynamis taitensis) and the Shining Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx lucidus) are yearly visitants; and that a large Fruit-Pigeon, supposed to be identical with the New-Zealand species, was abundant till it had been exterminated by the introduced cats. A similar fate has befallen the Red-fronted Parrakeet on Sunday Island; but this bird is still plentiful on Meyer Islet, an outlying wooded rock, whilst on Macaulay Island it is to be seen in great numbers, going about in flocks of from twelve to fifty, hopping amongst the short grass, and apparently feeding on the seeds of Erigeron and Gnaphalium. Mr. Cheeseman adds:—“So tame was it and so unused to man’s presence, that I caught two by simply walking quietly up and suddenly putting my hat over them while they were walking on the grass. Several more were caught by the sailors in a similar way.” As might have been expected, many of the Petrels belonging to the New-Zealand avifauna are to be met with among these islands; but Mr. Cheeseman writes of a Puffinus:—“A species of this genus, clearly different from any of the New-Zealand forms, breeds on Sunday Island in September and October, laying its eggs on the bare ground among the trees on the hill-sides. The young birds, when cured, form no inconsiderable portion of the food of the residents, and are by no means bad eating. The old birds had only just commenced to arrive at the time of our visit, but during the middle of the season they are present in enormous numbers. Large portions of the island are then entirely covered with them, and the noise and confusion is said to be almost indescribable … A fine Gannet, differing from the New-Zealand species in wanting the buff-coloured feathers on the head, was not uncommon, but I was unable to obtain a specimen.” Subsequently, in a letter to myself, he says:—“Since I wrote, Captain Fairchild has made another trip in the ‘Stella’ and has kindly brought me living specimens of the Ganuet referred to in my paper. I believe it to be Sula cyanopus (Ramsay), but have not yet fully compared it with the descriptions. I have also received skins and eggs of the Tropic bird (Phaethon rubricauda), which breeds there yearly in great numbers, also of Gygis candida. Mr. Bell writes me that the Gygis breeds in the branches of Metrosideros polymorpha, page 339 often selecting a branch not much thicker than a man’s wrist, and placing its eggs in a little depression thereon. I hear of several Petrels breeding on the same islands, clearly different from our species, and hope to get specimens next season.”

Apart from the serious work of the naturalist, whose duty it is to observe and record, there is pleasure in the mere watching of birds in their native haunts: to witness the ever-varying evolutions of the sea-birds in their tireless flight; to follow the stately White Crane or the Bittern in their lonely wanderings through the swamp; to sit on some mossy bank, with the scented karetu at your feet and the soft hum of insect-life all round, watching the playful flight of the Tiwaiwaka, as it opens its pretty fan and hunts in the air for invisible flies; or even to gaze on the solitary bird whose life is thus charmingly sketched by Sir Emerson Tennent (in his ‘Natural History of Ceylon,’ p. 249):—“In solitary places, where no sound breaks the silence except the gurgle of the river as it sweeps round the rocks, the lonely Kingfisher, the emblem of vigilance and patience, sits upon an overhanging branch, his turquoise plumage hardly less intense in its lustre than the deep blue of the sky above him; and so intent is his watch upon the passing fish that intrusion fails to scare him from his post.”

Some curious facts relating to the distribution of New-Zealand birds have been recently recorded by Dr. Finsch in ‘The Ibis’ (1888, pp. 307–309) from specimens obtained by Mr. A. Reischek. The latter naturalist lately accompanied the ‘Stella’ on one of her trips to the outlying islands in search of castaways on the Snares, two small wooded islands with rocks adjacent lying about sixty miles to the south-west of Stewart’s Island, and among the birds collected on the larger of the islands was a specimen of Sphenœacus fulvus. This species is very rare in New Zealand; but its congener, S. punctatus, is common in both islands, frequenting the stunted fern in the open land, but more generally the thick vegetation of the swamps. In its island-home, where there is no open land and no swamp, it has changed its habits and lives in the bush. As I have stated at page 62 (Vol. I.) there is another allied, but very distinct species (S. rufescens), inhabiting the Chatham Islands, which does not occur in New Zealand. Another bird met with on this island was the Black Tomtit (Miro traversi), a form absent from New Zealand, but common at the Chatham Islands. Several examples were observed, and it is stated that their habits are exactly similar to those of the North-Island Tomtit (Myiomoira toitoi). After leaving the Snares, the ‘Stella’ visited the Auckland, Campbell, Antipodes, and Bounty Islands. Neither of the above mentioned birds was found in any of these localities; but, curiously enough, another allied species, the South-Island Tomtit (Myiomoira macrocephala), was met with on the Auckland Islands.

Mr. Reischek reports that on the Auckland Islands he found a species of Skua feeding on the young Penguins. This was doubtless Stercorarius antarcticus, the form which I have described above at page 63. Mr. Howard Saunders, in writing of this species (Journ. L. S., Zool. vol. xiv. pp. 392, 393), says:—“The largest birds are from the Southern Ocean, between New Zealand and the Cape of Good Hope, and they are also the duskiest in colour; those from the South Atlantic are smaller, and have a tendency to a pale frill of acuminate feathers, similar to that which is more or less marked in all the other Skuas; whilst the three individuals obtained by the ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ Expedition from the edge of the pack-ice, now in the British Museum, are wonderfully bleached and weird-looking birds…… . Both these species possess great powers of flight, so that they are able to pursue and rob, not only the smaller Gulls, but also the Terns; and as the latter are found in an uninterrupted succession throughout the whole of the indicated range, there is at once an assignable reason for great extension in the range of the latter of these two Skuas.”