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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Ocydromus Australis. — (South-Island Woodhen.)

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Ocydromus Australis.
(South-Island Woodhen.)

  • Troglodyte Rail, Lath. Gen. Syn. v. p. 229 (1785).

  • Rallus australis, Sparrm. Mus. Carls. t. 14 (1786).

  • Rallus troglodytes, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 713 (1788).

  • Ocydromus troglodytes, Wagler, Syst. Amph. p. 98 (1830).

  • Ocydromus australis, Strickl. Ann. N. H. vii. p. 39 (1841).

Native name.—Weka.

Ad. suprà læté stramineus, dorsi plumis medialiter brunneis, quasi laté striatis: pileo saturatiore, magis rufescente: supercilio distincto sordidè albicante, posticè cinereo: facie laterali brunneâ vix cinerascente: genis et gutture toto clarè et pallidè cinereis: scapularibus lætè stramineis, medialiter brunnescentibus et irregulariter saturatè brunneo transfasciatis: alis et caudâ rufis, stramineo marginatis, nigro irregulariter transfasciatis, secundariis magis stramineo lavatis, dorso concoloribus: pectore superiore aurantiaco-fulvo, laterali stramineo, plumis medialiter brunnescentibus: pectore medio cinereo lavato: abdomine cinerascenti-olivaceo: hypochondriis et subcaudalibus stramineis, brunneo vel nigro transfasciatis: subalaribus olivascentibus, imis rufescentibus nigro transfasciatis: rostro brunneo, versus basin rufescente: pedibus pallidè coccineis: iride lætè rufescenti-brunneâ.

Adult male. Upper parts generally yellowish buff, varied on the back with a broad dash of black down the centre of each feather, and on the scapulars and wing-coverts with irregular transverse markings of reddish brown and black; crown of the head and nape rufous brown varied with black; the primaries with their superior coverts and the secondaries bright rufous, beautifully marked with regular transverse bars of black; the tail-feathers dark rufous barred and margined with black, and edged near the base with fulvous; upper part of chin, and a line from the base of the upper mandible passing over the eyes, dull greyish white; lores and region of the ears dull rufous brown; throat and sides of the head cinereous grey; sides of the neck, the whole of the fore neck, and upper part of breast bright fulvous, obscurely marked and shaded with brown; lower part of breast, and the whole of the abdomen, cinereous brown, varied more or less with grey, especially on the former; the soft plumage covering the tibiæ pale umber; sides of the body, flanks, and under tail-coverts yellowish brown, conspicuously barred all over with brownish black. Irides bright reddish brown; bill pale reddish brown at the base, brown at the tip; tarsi and toes pale lake-red, claws brown. Total length 24 inches; extent of wings 24; wing, from flexure, 8; tail 7; bill, along the ridge 1·75, along the edge of lower mandible 2; tarsus 2·75; middle toe and claw 3·25; hind toe and claw 1·25.

Female. Smaller than the male, with darker plumage and duller-coloured legs. Total length 21 inches; extent of wings 21; wing, from flexure, 7; tail 5·5; bill, along the ridge 1·75, along the edge of lower mandible 2; tarsus 2·25; middle toe and claw 2·75; hind toe and claw 1.

Young. In immature birds the tints of the plumage generally are lighter, the transverse markings are less distinct, and the colours of the bill and legs are paler; the irides are dark brown; there is less rufous on the head, and often considerably more of the cinereous grey colour on the breast and abdomen.

Chick. Covered with thick but soft tawny-brown down, which changes to smoky brown as the chick gets older darker on the sides of the face.

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Varieties. Examples from different localities exhibit so much variety in size and plumage as to suggest the existence of another, closely allied species. Mr. Potts says that when he was “camping in one of the gorges of the Rangitata, a very striking variety used to visit the tent constantly: the individuals of either sex were above the average size; the general colour of the plumage light greyish brown, the feathers marked or barred with shades of dark brown; the rump, and in some instances the tips of the primaries, rich chestnut; throat and cheeks grey.”

Albinoes, more or less pure, are occasionally met with. The ‘Canterbury Press’ recorded the capture of one, on the Four-Peaks run, by one of Mr. Walker’s shepherds. This beautiful bird had the entire plumage ashy white, with obsolete spots and markings of pale grey, the bill and legs pale red, and the irides reddish brown. It was forwarded to England by the Canterbury Acclimatization Society as a gift to the Zoological Society, but did not long survive its arrival in the Gardens.

In the Otago Museum I examined a beautiful series of albinoes:—No. 1, obtained near Lake Wakatipu, has the whole of the plumage creamy white, being very soft and silky to the touch; on close examination, and on moving the covering plumage aside, there is the faintest indication of colour, with obsolete markings on the webs but very indistinct; the shafts of the quills pure white. Bill whitish horn-colour. Feet appear to have been originally red, with paler toes; irides stated as red. No. 2 is a less pure albino, also from Lake Wakatipu, presented to the Museum by Miss White. General plumage silver-grey, shading into greyish brown on the head and throat, and again on the breast and abdomen; all the markings that are brown and black in the ordinary bird are represented in this by darker shades of grey, having a washed-out appearance, but not faded, the whole of the plumage being delicately harmonized. On the quills there is a faint wash of chestnut, and, in a lesser degree, on the under surface of the tail-feathers. Bill and feet as in ordinary examples. No. 3 (from South land) shows a progressive step, the whole of the plumage being of a rich tawny colour, brightest on the forehead and breast, and shading into grey on the abdomen; the quills are handsomely barred with chestnut-brown; the plumage of the flanks and under tail-coverts similarly marked, but obscurely; the lores are whitish, and around the eyes there is a shade of grey which imparts to the face a very expressive look. Bill light horn-colour; feet as in the ordinary bird. No. 4 is similar to the last, but of a somewhat darker shade, with the obsolete markings on the plumage more pronounced, although the bars on the quills are not quite so distinct, whilst on the tail-feathers these markings are hardly perceptible. The dark shade around the eyes is absent, and the face has consequently a less coquettish look about it. Bill uniform yellow horn-colour; feet as in the last.

I have seen an example in pied plumage, similar to the partial albino of Ocydromus greyi mentioned at page 106, that is to say, with straggling pure white feathers all over the body.

A specimen obtained by M. Filhol, and now in the Natural History collection at the Jardin des Plantes, has the entire plumage pale cinnamon-brown, shaded with dull rufous.

Much of what I have said in treating of the North-Island Woodhen is equally applicable to the present species, which is spread all over the South Island, being extremely plentiful in certain localities. It has never been met with in the North Island as an indigenous bird, although of late years it has been successfully acclimatized by Sir George Grey at Kawau, where, on account of its predatory habits, it has already become a nuisance.

The tendency of this bird to vary, in a very remarkable degree, has occasioned much difficulty in discriminating the form. The North-Island species, on the contrary, is very distinct in character from the other species, exhibiting only a slight degree of individual variation.

It has the same general habits as the North-Island Weka, and its cry is exactly similar. It differs, however, conspicuously in its nature, being as bold and fearless as the former species is timid and retiring. It frequents the settler’s homestead, enters the farmyard, and occasionally ventures inside the shepherd’s hut, in its prosecution of certain thievish propensities. Many amusing stories are told of its carrying off, out of pure inquisitiveness, such things as forks and spoons, tin pannikins, clasp-knives, and meerschaum pipes, &c. At Alford Forest it is said to have levanted with a silver watch (afterwards accidentally recovered) from a bushman’s hut; and on another occasion one of these page 118 birds stole, among other movable property from a surveyor’s tent, a valuable little aneroid, which was hopelessly lost. Smoking-caps, slippers, and other bright-coloured objects of the kind, if within reach, are equally insecure when this mischievous marauder is about.

It is more diurnal in its habits than O. greyi, and may often be seen in the broad sunshine feeding about among the tussock-grass and stunted vegetation in the localities it inhabits. It is very pugnacious in character, rival males fighting freely when they meet, each bird spreading forward first one wing and then another, to present a better front to the adversary, and to receive the aimless thrust of his beak in a shield of pliant feathers. It has the same shrill whistling cry as the former species, uttered by a pair in concert or responsively; and on a near approach a loud drumming note may be distinguished as a prelude to the cry. Its food consists of lizards, mice, insects of every sort, certain berries when in season, eggs of all kinds, and the offal round about the stations. When it visits the farmyard it proves very destructive to the chickens, and has even been known to attack and kill a Spanish pullet, six weeks old.

Mr. W. W. Smith writes to me:—“In your first edition you mention the circumstance of very large birds having sometimes been met with in the hills. I was lately among the ranges in the Ngapara district and discovered a huge pair. As they were quite isolated in a bleak spot, I was puzzled for a time to know what they fed on. After searching for some time I found some large worm-castings of the Lumbricus uliginosus, Hutton. This species measures 12 and 14 inches in length, and is of sluggish habits. As both worms and Wekas are of nocturnal habits, the latter will have no trouble in seizing the worms and dragging them from their burrows. They are superior food to any other the Woodhen could obtain. These worms, I may observe, are limited in their distribution; but where they do exist they are found in considerable numbers. I have no doubt that the excessive size and fatness of the birds I have mentioned may be accounted for by the abundance of this particular food.”

The breeding-habits of this species are in no respect different from those of the North-Island Woodhen; but the eggs, which are from five to seven in number, are more richly coloured. There is a fine series of these in the Canterbury Museum, all of which were collected between the 20th of October and 25th of November. Ordinary examples measure 2·4 inches in length by 1·6 in breadth, and are white, sometimes with a yellowish tinge, marked over the entire surface, but particularly at the larger end, with irregular spots and blotches of pale reddish brown, among which are spots of purplish grey having the appearance of markings under the surface. In some specimens the reddish-brown spots are very rounded and distinct; in others they are splashed or smudgy; and one specimen has a broad irregular blotch of purplish brown near the thicker end.

A nest of this bird (in the Canterbury Museum) from Ohinitahi is a massive bed of dry grass, measuring 20 inches by 14, with a uniform thickness of about 4½ inches. In the centre there is a slight depression, which contains five eggs. These are yellowish-white, irregularly spotted and marked with yellowish-brown and pale washed-out markings of purple. In form they are slightly ovoidoconical, measuring 2·25 inches by 1·6, and presenting very little variety in colour, the spotted markings being generally thickest at the larger end. Mr. Enys states that the ground-colour varies in specimens from different localities, from a pure white to a rich cream-colour. I have observed that they are often much soiled, probably from contact with the bird’s feet during incubation.

My son’s collection contains upwards of twenty specimens exhibiting a considerable amount of individual variation, some of them being very richly marked with reddish brown, particularly at the larger end, others having widely scattered round spots over the entire surface (like the egg of Rallus philippensis), while others, again, have the larger pole washed with reddish brown, irregularly blotched and spotted with purplish brown, diminishing in the middle circumference, and disappearing entirely towards the smaller end, where the shell is creamy white.