A History of the Birds of New Zealand.
Larus Dominicanus. — (Southern Black-Backed Gull.)
(Southern Black-Backed Gull.)
Larus dominicanus, Licht. Verz. Doubl. p. 82 (1823).
Larus littoreus, Forster, Descr. Anim. p. 46 (1844).
Larus antipodus, Gray, Cat. Anseres, Brit. Mus. p. 169 (1844).
Dominicanus antipodus, Bruch, J. f. O. 1853, p. 100.
Clupeilarus antipodum, Bonap. C. R. xlii. p. 770 (1856).
Larus vociferus, Burm. Syst. Uebers. Th. Bras. p. 448 (1856).
Dominicanus azaræ, Bonap. Consp. Gen. Av. ii. p. 214 (1857).
Lestris antarcticus, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7472.
Larus fuscus, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7472.
Larus antipodum, Gray, Ibis, 1862, p. 248.
Larus pacificus, Layard, Ibis, 1863, p. 245.
Larus azaræ, Pelz. Reise Nov. p. 151 (1865).
Karoro; the young bird distinguished as Ngoiro, Koiro, and Punua.
Ad. capite toto cum collo undique et corpore subtùs toto albis: interscapulio, scapularibus cum dorso summo et tectricibuas alarum cinereo-nigricantibus: remigibus nigris, latè albo terminatis, secundariis latissimè, primario primo fasciâ subterminali albâ notato: dorso postico, uropygio, supracaudalibus et caudâ totâ purè albis: subalaribus cum axillaribus et secundariis intùs albis: rostro citrino, mandibulâ maculâ præapicali sanguineâ notatâ: pedibus viridi-flavicantibus vix grisescentibus: iride argenteo-albâ.
Juv. suprà brunneus, dorsi plumis latè albido marginatis, dorso postico et uropygio albis brunneo irregulariter notatis et fasciatis: capite et collo postico brunneis albido striolatis; tectricibus alarum brunneis pallidiùs marginatis, medianis et majoribus albido terminatis: remigibus nigricanti-brunneis, secundariis pallidioribus, internis pallidiore brunneo marmoratis et albido terminatis: subtùs albicans, ubique brunneo maculatus aut semifasciatus: rostro cinerascenti-brunneo, versùs basin mandibulæ, pallidiore, ad apicem corneo: pedibus saturatè brunneis.
Pull. ubique saturatè cinerascenti-brunneus, pileo nigricante marmorato: dorso obscuro brunneo notato: rostro nigro: pedibus plumbeis: iride nigrâ.
Adult. General plumage pure white; back and upper surface of wings slaty black; the secondaries and scapulars crossed by a broad terminal bar of white; the primaries black, the first with a broad irregular bar across both webs, and beyond it a small terminal spot of white; the rest are largely tipped with white, and on the inner web of some of them there is likewise a semilunate mark of greyish white. Irides silvery grey; bill bright lemon-yellow, changing to red on the prominence of the lower mandible; legs and feet greenish yellow, inclining to grey. Length 24·5 inches; extent of wings 57; wing, from flexure, 16·5; tail 6·5; bill, along the ridge 2·25, along the edge of lower mandible 3; bare tibia 1·25; tarsus 2·5; middle toe and claw 2·5.
Young. General plumage dark slaty grey, obscurely mottled and freckled with white, especially on the underparts, and suffused on the shoulders and wings with brown; the sides of the face uniform slaty grey, the page 48 chin whitish, and the plumage below the cheeks and around the neck lighter than the surrounding parts, giving a slightly hooded appearance to the head when uplifted; the feathers of the upper surface margined with creamy white, producing a speckled effect, the margins of the wing-coverts, however, being darker; the rump and upper tail-coverts white, conspicuously marked with greyish black, each feather being crossed by several broad irregular bars, presenting a pretty spotted surface; the vent and under tail-coverts similarly marked; the quills and tail-feathers slaty black, the latter narrowly tipped with white. Irides and bill black; legs and feet dark brown.
More advanced state. General plumage dark brownish grey, varied more or less with white. On the head, neck, and underparts the grey and white are blended, presenting a mottled appearance; the feathers composing the mantle are barred and margined, and the wing-coverts are margined and vandyked with white; the primaries are brownish black and the secondaries dark brown, changing to white at the tips; the tail-feathers are blackish brown, the outermost one on each side spotted on its outer web, and all of them marbled towards the base with greyish white; upper and lower tail-coverts white, conspicuously barred with brown; axillary plumes uniform dark grey. Bill greyish brown, horn-coloured towards the tips of both mandibles; legs and feet dark brown.
Progress towards maturity. As the change of plumage is gradual, individuals present much diversity in their progress towards maturity, the tendency being towards a lighter grey in the ground-colours, with less of the spotted character. The following is a description of a well-advanced bird:—Upper parts dark grey, marked and obscurely spotted with white, lighter on the head, neck, and upper tail-coverts; on the scapulars a central spot of black; underparts light grey, mottled with darker; under tail-coverts white, transversely barred with black; primaries and secondaries black, the latter tipped with white; tail-feathers black, with a narrow terminal mark of white.
During the transitional state, birds are met with in very different conditions of plumage, as the following selected examples will show:—
No. 1. Has the mantle and upper surface of wings mottled grey as in the young bird; tail blackish brown; rest of the plumage pure white.
No. 2. Back and interscapular region slaty black as in the adult; upper surface of wings mottled grey; tail with a terminal band of black; rest of the plumage white.
No. 3. Similar to No. 2 but with a dark tail, and with the plumage of the wings much abraded and faded.
No. 4. Plumage as in adult, but having the head and neck marked all over with lanceolate touches of brown; the first primary with a broad spot of white on its inner web.
No. 5. Merging into the adult plumage, but retaining all the youthful markings on the wing-coverts.
No. 6. In adult livery, but with the tail black in its apical portion instead of being white.
No. 7. Upper surface as in adult; throat and fore neck white, but the whole of the underparts light mottled grey, the line of demarcation across the breast being well defined.
Nestling. Covered with thick down of a dark ash-grey, varied on the back with dull brown, lighter on the underparts; the head and nape marked with large irregular spots of blackish brown; irides black; bill black, with a whitish ridge; feet dark lead-colour.
Varieties. I have met with one pure albino, with another having a conspicuous white spot on each wing, and a third with a broad terminal band of black across the tail.
An example in the Otago Museum is stained with brown in irregular patches on the face and sides of the neck. One which I saw in Auckland harbour, in March, was in the greyish-white transition plumage, with a black tail and pure white back and rump, and exhibited a broad white spot on each wing. Another which I observed in Wellington harbour had what appeared to be a narrow pectoral band of blackish brown forming a conspicuous zone. And on four occasions I have seen, on different parts of the coas; an apparently adult bird with a dark fore neck and breast, as described above, the dark colour being, in one instance at least, as sharply defined as on the breast of a Wood-Pigeon. One pair in particular, which I scanned closely through a strong binocular, followed our steamer for many miles between Napier and Wellington; they left us as we entered the heads, although several others in the ordinary plumage followed us in. One of the former had the whole of the upper surface brownish black, except the rump, upper tail-coverts, and page 49 basal portion of rectrices, which parts were conspicuously white, leaving a broad terminal band of black on the tail; no white edging to the wing; head, neck, and breast apparently sooty grey; underparts white, the pectoral line of contact between the two colours being even and well defined. The other was similarly marked, but with duller plumage; and I noticed that more than once these dark-breasted birds, acting in concert, attacked and dispossessed an adult bird of some garbage that had been thrown overboard. I felt a strong temptation to regard this as a new Gull; but I have seen so many phases of the transitional plumage that, in the absence of better evidence, I must register it under the above heading.
Obs. Mr. Edgar Layard was, I believe, the first to introduce L. pacificus into our list, stating in a communication to ‘The Ibis’* that he had seen it on the wing off Fort Britomart, Auckland. Our bird, even after assuming the adult livery, sometimes retains for a season the dark terminal band on the tail; and Mr. Layard may have been misled by this, although Larus pacificus is a more robust bird with a bill nearly twice as broad as that of Larus dominicanus. Mr. Howard Saunders, in his ‘Revision of the Laridæ,’ has extended the range of the last-named species to our seas, but there is no satisfactory evidence that it ever occurs there. I am aware that there are now in the British Museum several specimens of L. pacificus, labelled as from New Zealand, in the collection brought home by the Antarctic Expedition; but I am persuaded that this is the result of some mistake, as the species has never turned up since on our shores, as it must otherwise have done.
This fine Gull, which ranges over the whole southern hemisphere, is extremely plentiful on all our coasts, preferring, however, the smooth sea-beaches and the sandy spits at the mouths of our tidal rivers; in these localities it is always to be met with either singly or associated in large flocks, and mixing freely with the smaller species of Gulls, Terns, Oyster-catchers, and other shore-birds. It frequents the harbours, and hovers around the vessels with much clamour, waiting to pick up any morsel that may chance to be thrown overboard†. It follows in the wake of the departing steamer as it quits the still waters for the stormy offing, and often accompanies it far out to sea, eagerly watching for stray bits of food as they float astern, and disputing their possession with the Albatros and Giant Petrel, on whose domain it has thus far trespassed. It is amusing to watch it on these occasions. A flock of a dozen or more will be hovering astern, with a vigorous motion of the wings, keeping up with the steamer, and one or two occasionally making a rapid circuit around the ship, although going at full speed. A piece of garbage is thrown out from the galleys, and is soon taken possession of by one of the Gulls, which “backstays” (as sailors express it) with its wings, drops down to the surface with back arched and legs spread, and lifts the object in its beak, with a cry like “Caliph.” Instantly all the other Gulls make for the spot, clamouring for their share of the spoils, the younger birds uttering a shrill kind of squeal and the old ones a loud harsh cry sounding ridiculously like “Divide, divide”!‡
* Ibis, 1863, p. 245.
† The result of our protective legislation has been a perceptible increase in the number of Sea-Gulls frequenting our bays and harbours. At Pitone, at the northern extremity of Wellington harbour, where boiling-down works have recently been established, flocks numbering several hundreds are daily to be seen crowding on a narrow spit or hovering in the air, the pearly whiteness of their general plumage contrasting finely with the black of the upper parts, especially in the strong sunlight of the morning.
‡ It is notorious how early impressions often cling to one through life, even as to matters quite trivial in themselves; and I never see a flock of these birds crowding over an object in the water, in the manner described above—filling the air with their cries and with the rapid flutterings of their wings—but one of my boyish recollections of a picture in “Peter Parley’s Tales” is vividly brought to mind. It was a scene on the ocean, and represented an eager crowd of sea-birds hovering over the floating carcase of a whale.
The several species of Gull hover together promiscuously, and apparently on terms of perfect amity, although I have occasionally seen the larger species pursuing and persecuting its weaker congeners.
It is interesting to observe the extreme buoyancy of this bird on the water. It springs into the air and then downwards, head foremost, having apparently great difficulty in submerging the body at all.
When riding by moonlight along the sandy beaches I have often disturbed the sleeping Sea-Gull. It would always rise in the air without uttering a sound, wheel round overhead in a wide circle, and then alight again on the sands near the water’s edge.
During very stormy weather it often travels some miles inland; and at the breeding-season it occasionally penetrates far up the river-courses in search of a secure nesting-place. It also frequents the pastures at a distance from the coast in quest of food, doing good service to the farmer by its large consumption of caterpillars and other insect pests. On the plains near Waitaki South I saw in the month of April a flock of these birds numbering, I should say, at least a thousand individuals, and nearly the whole of them in the adult plumage. Further on, near the banks of the river, I saw another flock of about four hundred*. To the agriculturist these birds, coming in such numbers and preying upon insect-life, must prove of incalculable service. It is said that on the sheep-farms they are destructive to the young lambs. This is quite possible, although I think it more likely that they confine their attention to the dead or dying; and the latter would undoubtedly be attacked by having their eyes torn out, because that is the habit of this bird.
It likewise frequents the mouths of all our tidal rivers. Near the outlet of the Whangarei there are extensive mangrove-flats which look dreary enough when the tide is out, but have a very pretty effect when the sea is at the full, the pale green tops of the bushes resting on the surface, with occasional spaces of open water. On the last occasion of my seeing this it was a bright summer’s day with the water placid as a mirror, and the picturesque effect was greatly heightened by a flock of these Gulls, some of them playing joyously on the surface of the water, others resting on the floating mangrove tops, their white plumage showing conspicuously against the light green surroundings. In the distance beyond there was a high fern-ridge with a few clumps of bush in the hollows, and away to the right a lovely grove of young puriri (Vitex littoralis), the dark hue relieved by an edging of tree ferns, with their star-like crowns of soft pale green. I could not help thinking, as I watched the playful evolutions of these holiday-making Sea-Gulls, that the scene was in every respect very different to the stormy ones on the ocean wave with which these birds are so familiar and amidst which they spend so much of their existence.
* Mr. Cheeseman informs me that in January, 1883, when crossing the mountains from Hokitika to Christchurch, he observed, near Lake Pearson, a large number of these Gulls feeding amongst the tussock-grass. On watching them with a pocket-glass he made out that they were catching the large grasshoppers which were very plentiful there.
In Napier, where the cultivated grounds were at one time infested with the introduced snail (Helix hortensis), this Gull was found to be quite invaluable. In Mr. Tiffen’s beautiful garden a pair of them lived for a considerable time, subsisting entirely on the snail, and performing good service among the ferneries. In another place, however, the gardener complained that he was unable to keep them on account of their inquisitive habits, all the labels being torn out of the seed-beds as soon as they were put down.
I do not think it has ever been recorded yet that the Sea-Gull has a natural love for music. I have seen a tame one in a settler’s garden run up to the house as soon as the children commenced their morning practice on the piano, enter at the open door and stand in the passage in a position of eager attention. I was assured that this was an invariable habit, showing incontestably that the bird was not insensible to music. On one occasion, long after dark, attracted by the strains of a lively waltz, it posted itself under the bay-window and began to scream as if in eager accompaniment!
It appears to be semi-nocturnal in its habits, for I have found it moving about on the sands long after dark. And often, when travelling by a coastal steamer, after the sun had gone down in his splendour behind the rugged crests of the mainland and the pall of night had settled down upon the waters, I have observed one or two of them still hovering in our wake. It certainly is the first of the shore-birds to be astir in the morning, and unless the frost-fish* hunter commences his search on the beach in the early dawn, he finds that the Sea-Gull has been before him and has mangled and partly devoured the object of his quest.
On the memorable 9th September, 1885, during the total eclipse of the sun, one of the objects that especially attracted my notice was a Gull of this species hovering in the sky. With many other eager spectators, I had been watching this grand phenomenon of nature through an astronomical telescope from a good point of observation on the slope of Mount Victoria. The progress of the eclipse was accompanied by an extraordinary exhibition of heavy dark shadows on the undulating hills at the back of Wellington, the appearance being wholly unlike anything one had witnessed before. As totality approached these shadows became fused or merged into a deep neutral tint, and the whole landscape was plunged in a livid, unnatural twilight. At the moment of total obscuration—when, although the corona presented a nimbus or luminous halo of lustrous beauty, the surface of the earth was overspread with an almost appalling, shadowless gloom—a flight of Sparrows, keeping close to the ground, swept past us in silence and disappeared in a hollow, whilst a solitary Sea-Gull, on firm pinion, was to be seen mounting high in the air, in the very line of vision; and when, after eighty seconds of indescribable emotion to the spectator, the solar orb, preceded by red flashes of lambent flame without the moon’s periphery, burst forth in all his glorious effulgence of dazzling light, and nature assumed once more her wonted aspect, the Sea-Gull was still to be seen hovering high in the heavens as if in utter bewilderment at this unusual scene.
* The frost-fish (Lepidopus caudatus), the most delicately flavoured of all New-Zealand fishes, is an inhabitant of deep water, and on frosty nights, owing probably to its air-bladders becoming choked, it is cast up by the surf on the ocean-beach. It often attains to a length of four feet, is shaped like a whip-snake, and its smooth skin has the sheen of burnished silver.
The Hon. Mr. Ballance related to me an anecdote which has furnished my artist with material for the pretty woodcut at the end of this article. On the Wellington west coast Mr. James Gear had cut some large water-courses for the purpose of draining the Ngakaroro swamps. For some considerable time after they were opened, these drains carried out to the sea masses of swamp vegetation, clumps of negrohead, &c., and occasionally live eels of considerable size. This was in the old coaching days; and on one occasion when Cobbs’ coach was passing this spot (my informant being one of the passengers) a Sea-Gull was observed tugging at some object on the beach and apparently in difficulty. The coach was stopped, and it was then found that the bird was held firmly by the bill and unable to make its escape, the captor being a large eel, weighing probably 6 lbs. or more. The Gull had evidently, in its inexperience, inserted its bill into the open mouth of the eel for the purpose of tearing out the tongue; when the jaws of the latter closed in upon it, the teeth becoming firmly fixed on the bird’s forehead and rendering escape impossible. It was another illustration of “the biter bit,” and all the unfortunate Sea-Gull could do was to flap its wings violently and by raising the head of the eel off the ground, drag its body slowly along the sands. The Native Minister of course liberated the bird, and the eel was consigned to the boot of the coach.
On the Otaki beach I once saw a Sea-Gull with only one leg. It moved about with apparent comfort and safety, using its wings pretty often to steady its body.
Simpkins, a publican at Whakatane, obtained a female of this species, when quite young, from White Island, a distance of some thirty-five miles. It became perfectly tame, answering to the name of “Hinemoa,” and coming into the house at meal-times to be fed. When about two years old it suddenly disappeared, and after a lapse of six months it returned with two young ones, which have since become quite domesticated. By last advices both old bird and young were still inhabitants of the yard, and evinced no desire to leave it*.
The young bird has a very shrill cry, and as it grows older this changes to a prolonged squeal. It runs after its parents long after it is fledged and able to take care of itself; and it may be distinguished, almost at any distance, by the peculiar manner in which it arches its back and follows the movements of the older birds on the sands.
The adult bird utters a loud laughing note when alarmed or excited, and at other times a short peevish whistle like keeo-keeo. The last occasion on which I visited a nesting-ground of this species was on the island of Motiti, in the Bay of Plenty, on January 17, 1885. It was situated on the summit of a high table rock, covered thickly with native Mesembryanthemum. The nests were neatly formed of dry grass and placed right in the midst of the spreading plant, which, in this exposed position, was of very stunted growth. The young birds in their woolly jackets had left the nests but were still on the rock, and allowed us to handle them without any resistance. On our departure, however, they descended and hid themselves, whilst the old birds mounted guard on the highest crags, their snowy plumage gleaming in the sunlight and their forms strangely magnified against the background of blue sky. On our return, an hour later, the “woolly jackets” had commenced their ascent of the rock, but paterfamilias with a low note of ko-ko-ko, which was apparently quite intelligible to the young birds, warned them of impending danger, and they were immediately invisible.
* I remember, when I was a boy, having a tame one on the Mission Station at Tangiteroria, ninety miles up the Wairoa river. On reaching maturity it suddenly disappeared, and we supposed it had fallen a victim to some predatory hawk; but six months afterwards it returned, bringing with it a mate from the sea, and after sojourning a few hours took its final departure. This remarkable exercise of memory in the bird, for it could be nothing else, is very interesting and suggestive.
It is easily domesticated, and becomes much attached to those who show it any attention. Some years ago I saw a very beautiful albino, having the entire plumage of the purest white, in the possession of Captain Robinson at Manawatu. A similar albino was kept, for a long time, as a pet, by the Maoris at Tahoraiti. I have also seen one exhibiting a white border on both edges of the wings.
At Wi Parata’s settlement at Waikanae I saw a tame one that had been in his possession for three years. It was perfectly domesticated and answered to the name of “Dick”—responding when called, taking food from the hand, and ruling the poultry-yard in a spirit of despotism. I saw it on one occasion valiantly attack a cocker-spaniel in order to dispute possession of a bone which it succeeded in carrying off. Another which I obtained from the nest in the month of February, and kept in my garden for more than five years, afforded me the opportunity of studying the habits of this species and of marking its successive changes of plumage before it finally assumed the adult livery of “black and white with yellow mountings”*.
The most remarkable phase of character it developed was the romantic attachment it formed for a large black-and-white Newfoundland dog. For more than two years it had enjoyed the constant companionship of a tame Skua (Stercorarius antarcticus) and seemed then to be perfectly happy; but on the death of the latter, the Sea-Gull moped for a time and then fixed her affections on “Crusoe” in a very unmistakable way. Whenever the dog appeared on the lawn the bird would run to meet him with loud clamour, and dance round him with every expression of delight; when the dog had coiled himself to rest, the bird would peck him all over in a loving way with its bill, and finally nestle down beside him or even squat upon his soft coat, and if disturbed would utter a long squealing note as if in mild protest. Early one morning, although previously seen by the gardener, it unaccountably disappeared and was never recovered. Its affection for the dog seems to have proved fatal in the end, for there is little doubt that the bird followed the dog out and fell a victim to the street larrikins. We had become familiar with its noisy clamour and many peculiar ways, as it had been an inhabitant of our garden for so many years, and as it was in perfect plumage it was decidedly ornamental to the grounds; consequently its sudden disappearance was a matter of general regret to the household.
* The following particulars extracted from my note-book may be useful as marking the progressive history of the species:—It first began to show signs of a change of plumage in the month of April, the grey on the sides of the head and nape becoming lighter and imparting a slightly hooded appearance to the crown and face, whilst the scapulars began to present white terminal fringes. By the middle of June it had undergone a further change; the plumage of the shoulders and back had got perceptibly darker, the new feathers covering these parts being of a slaty-grey colour with darker centres, whilst the sides of the face, the fore neck, and breast had become lighter, the transition from dark grey to whitish grey having quite altered the expression of the face and given the eyes a fretful look. No change in the colours of the soft parts was observable till January, when the irides had turned to greyish brown, the legs had become tinged with pale green and the bill appreciably lighter in colour. At this period also the back was moulting, the new slaty-black feathers being very conspicuous. After an absence from home of several months I observed a considerable change, the condition of the bird at the end of December being as follows:—Head and neck white, somewhat clouded and spotted with brown; shoulders and underparts of the body white, more or less blotched with greyish brown; wings shaded with blackish brown; rump white; the interscapulars changing from blackish brown to the slaty-black colour characteristic of the adult bird; tail black; under tail-coverts white, broadly barred with blackish brown; bill greenish yellow, changing to reddish towards the symphysis of the lower mandible; legs pale greyish green; irides pale grey. In the following month there was a rapid whitening of the head and neck, and the primaries and secondaries, which had been cut short more than a year before, were replaced by new ones, black instead of brown, the broad white tips on the two middle secondaries being very conspicuous. By the end of February (the bird being then three years old) the adult livery had been fully assumed, except that there were some clouded markings of grey on the head, neck, and underparts; but as the latter rapidly diminished and finally disappeared it was evident that the change to perfect whiteness had taken place in the feathers themselves; the tail had become pure white, and the bill uniform dull yellow, washed with reddish brown on the symphysial prominence of the lower mandible; the irides pearl-grey, and the legs and feet dull greenish grey.
* A remarkable nest of this species, in the Canterbury Museum, affords, to my mind, an explanation of a point raised about the nesting-habits of L. bulleri, in my controversy with Captain Hutton in 1874 (Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. vi. pp. 126–138). In my account of the last-named species, I had stated that “its attempts at forming a nest are of the rudest kind, a few bents of grass or other dry materials loosely collected round the edges being deemed a sufficient preparation.” Captain Hutton contradicted this, and stated that it “forms a very good nest.” As a rule the Black-backed Gull likewise forms a somewhat indifferent nest, and as often merely deposits its eggs in a depression in the sand. In some localities, however, where the ground is damp or swampy, or liable to be overflowed, the bird appears to adapt its building to the requirements of the situation. The nest in question is a massive agglomeration of seaweeds, rushes, twigs, grasses, and other rubbish, closely pressed together, and forming a flattened globular cushion two feet in length by eighteen inches in breadth and nine inches in thickness; in the centre there is a slight depression, for the reception of the eggs. Mr. Enys (who was present when this nest was found) informs me that it was placed between the roots of a drift stump of totara, near a river-mouth (Milford Sound), being surrounded by water at every high tide.
In the Canterbury Museum there is a similar nest of the Mackerel-Gull (L. scopulinus) formed of dry twigs, grasses, and seaweed, a foot long by eight inches across, and raised five inches from the ground. This was found under similar conditions as the other. And we may fairly assume that the same would happen in the case of the closely allied species L. bulleri.