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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Phalacrocorax Varius. — (Pied Shag.)

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Phalacrocorax Varius.
(Pied Shag.)

  • Pied Shag, Lath. Gen. Syn. iii. pt. 2, p. 605 (1785).

  • Pelecanus varius, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 576 (1788).

  • Carbo hypoleucus, Brandt, Bull. Acad. Imp. Pétersb. i. p. 55 (1837).

  • Phalacrocorax leucogaster, Gould, P. Z. S. 1837, p. 156.

  • Graucalus varius, Gray, in Dieff. Trav. ii., App. p. 201 (1843).

  • Gracalus varius, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terror, Birds, p. 19 (1844).

  • Pelecanus pica, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 104 (1844).

  • Phalacrocorax hypoleucus, Gould, B. of Austr. vii. pl. 68 (1848).

  • Carbo fucosus, Peale, U. S. Expl. Exp., Birds, p. 268 (1848).

  • Hypoleucus varius, Reich. Syst. Av. p. vii (1852).

  • Carbo leucogaster, Cass. U. S. Expl. Exp. p. 373 (1858).

  • Graculus varius, Gray, Ibis, 1862, p. 251.

  • Graculus leucogaster, Gray, Hand-l. of B. iii. p. 128 (1871).

Native name.—Karuhiruhi.

Ad. pileo colloque toto, dorso postico cum uropygio et supracaudalibus sordidè indigotico-nigris: interscapulio, scapularibus et tectricibus alarum saturatè cinerascentibus, plumis omnibus angustè viridi-nigro marginatis: remigibus brunneis, extùs cinerascentibus, secundariis interioribus cinerascentibus externé viridi-nigro marginatis: caudâ nigrâ: loris nudis lætè aurantiacis: facie laterali totâ et corpore subtùs albis, pectoris lateribus et hypochondriis imis tibiisque indigotico-nigris: subalaribus brunneis viridi lavatis: rostro saturatè corneo, versus apicem et ad basin mandibulæ pallidiore: pedibus nigris: iríde pallidè thalassino-viridi: regione ophthalmicânudâ lætè indigoticâ: maculâ anteoculari aurantiacâ: gula flavâ, nudâ.

Juv. similis adulto, sed corpore subtùs et collo laterali brunnescenti-nigro variis.

Adult. Top of the head, back of the neck, lower part of back, rump, flanks, and thighs shining greenish black; shoulders, mantle, scapulars, and upper wing-coverts deep bronzy grey, each feather bordered with velvety black; quills and tail-feathers black, with polished shafts; under surface of wings and axillary plumes black, slightly glossed with green; sides of face, throat, front and sides of neck, and all the under surface pure white. Irides pale sea-green; in the bare space in front of the eyes a bright yellow spot; eyelids and naked skin below indigo-blue; gular membrane yellow; bill dark horn-colour or brownish yellow, paler at the tips and towards the base of lower mandible; legs and feet black. Total length 33·5 inches; wing, from flexure, 12·25; tail 6; bill, along the ridge 3, along the edge of lower mandible 4; tarsus 2·5; longest toe and claw 4·25.

Young. Differs from the adult in having the plumage duller, the feathers composing the mantle and the scapulars being narrowly margined with brown; also in having the fore neck and underparts of the body irregularly spotted with blackish brown, this appearance being caused by the apical portion of some of the feathers being of that colour. In some instances the brown assumes the character of clouded markings over the entire under surface.

Nestling. Covered on the upper surface with thick sooty-brown down, and on the lower sides of the face, throat, page 150 fore neck, and all the underparts with thick, cottony, white down; bare space round the eyes and rictal membrane bright yellow. Bill dull yellow, veined with brown, which colour prevails on the culmen; legs and feet black. The newly-hatched chick, befoe the down appears, looks as if burnished with black-lead.

Fledgling. The first plumage to appear is on the wings and that composing the mantle, these feathers being very acuminate in form, with a filamentous fringe, of a slaty-brown colour, very slightly glossed and narrowly margined with an edging of velvety brown; also the tail-feathers and their upper coverts, which are black, the latter being glossed with green; next the feathers of the underparts appear, coming up for the most part pure white, but with an admixture of brown as described above.

Obs. The sexes are precisely alike in plumage, but differ slightly in size.

The adult colours are acquired in the nest, but undergo a subsequent change. The nestling has the upper parts covered with blackish-brown down, which deepens into black on the hind neck, whilst the down covering the fore neck and all the underparts is pure white. But on the fledgling the colours are not so well marked, the dark plumage of the upper surface being suffused with grey, and the white of the underparts being lightly streaked and freckled all over with greyish brown. In addition to this the feathers have a frayed-out appearance.

This species frequents the lakes and freshwater rivers, and is seldom met with on the sea-coast except during the breeding-season. In other respects its habits do not appear to differ in any material point from those of the preceding bird. Its usual station is a fallen tree or a stump projecting from the water; and it may frequently be seen spreading its wings to the sun, and sometimes remaining in that position for a considerable time.

It is far more plentiful on the shores of the North Island and particularly so in the provincial district of Auckland, becoming scarce in Hawke’s Bay, and very rare indeed south of Cook’s Strait.

On the wing, its snow-white underparts gleaming in the sunshine, or artistically posed on some projecting stump near the river-bank, it is always a conspicuous object.

They are very destructive to the introduced carp in the lakes and lagoons in the neighbourhood of Auckland. Their crops are often found completely crammed with them, and in one instance a carp measuring 10 inches in length was taken from a Pied Shag’s throat. From time to time the Acclimatization Society prosecutes an active crusade, but the Shags appear to be as plentiful as ever in all suitable localities.

Sir J. von Haast writes:—“They are capital fishers; and one day I was witness how well they understood how to procure their food. It was near the spot where one of the northern spurs of Mount Murchison slopes down to the Buller, which here forms small falls and rapids. A Cormorant was standing on an isolated rock, round which the foaming waters dashed down; and I was not a little surprised to see him jump down into the white foam. In the first instance I thought he would not get out again, but would be dashed to death by the whirling waters; but soon he reappeared, swimming rapidly towards the edge, and then flying on to his old observatory to continue his sport. It is probable that small fishes are taken down by the falls, and, being stunned by the force of the water, are easily caught by the courageous bird. This is a new proof that nature has given to every animal the requisite physical strength to contend with the elements in which it has to look for its subsistence.”

This species nests in trees in the vicinity of water and always in communities. Far up the courses of the freshwater rivers, on a single tree overhanging the stream, five or six pairs may be found associated, their nests formed of twigs and other dry materials pressed into a compact structure and fixed firmly among the branches. Many such places are known to me, and one in particular, some fifty miles up the Wairoa river, north of Auckland, was occupied, within my own knowledge, for ten or twelve years in succession, in spite of repeated molestation by the natives. In other suitable page 151 localities on the shores of large inland lakes, on wooded islands, or on the sea-shore much larger communities are often formed—sometimes as many as fifty or a hundred pairs—and a breeding-place of this kind once selected is seldom deserted. I visited one of these “shaggeries” on the Rurima rocks, off Whakatane, about the middle of January, just at the most interesting time, the young birds being then fledged and preparing to take their flight.

The Rurima rocks, which are situated about five miles from Whale Island and four from the mainland, consist of three small semi-conical hills, which have so far resisted the erosive or wasting forces of the ocean, two of them being connected together by a low-lying area of rock and sand-drift forming a sort of atoll. The detached one is known as Motoki, and this is one of the few last refuges of the expiring tuatara lizard, the wonderful Sphenodon punctatum. It is a long flat rock with a cone in the centre covered with beautiful pohutukawa trees (Metrosideros tomentosa). Around the base of this cone there is a dense growth of stunted angiangi (Coprosma lucida) looking very fresh and green. Among the rocks and in the burrows under the shade of this dense vegetation the tuatara may still be found in considerable numbers. Rurima proper is of similar formation, and the central cone is thickly covered with pohutukawa. On the side toward Whale Island the birds have established a shaggery of considerable extent. The trees on this side are whitened and leafless, being apparently killed by the excessive amount of ordure which covers them. As our boat approached we could see scores of the birds perched on the trees, above and around their nests, and scores more standing in ranks on the hard beach below.

We found the Shags in great force, and it was most interesting to watch the operations of both old and young birds. There were perhaps 80 or 100 nests, many of which were vacant owing to the lateness of our visit, the breeding having commenced in October. The nests are large, round structures, composed, as already mentioned, of dry sticks and twigs and other loose materials, bound together by means of a peculiar kind of kelp, for which the Shags may be observed diving in the sea, sometimes in four fathoms of water. They have a somewhat compact appearance and are usually placed in a thick fork among the branches or between two limbs of a tree lying close together. In each of those still tenanted there were two fully-fledged young birds; and these youthful Shags kept up a constant “squirling” noise, accompanied by a perpetual swaying of the head from side to side, in an impatient sort of way. The old bird comes up from the sea with her gullet full of small fish, and takes up her station on a branch adjoining to or overlooking the nest. The young birds, after craning their necks almost to dislocation, quit their nest and mount up alongside the parent, when the peculiar feeding-operation commences. The mother bends down her head in a loving way, opens wide her mandibles, and the young Shag, with an impatient guttural note, thrusts his head right down the parental throat and draws forth from the pouch, after much fumbling about, the first instalment of his dinner. No sooner has he swallowed this than he begins to coax for more, caressing the mother’s throat and neck with his bill in a very amusing fashion. The old bird waits till she has recovered the discomfort of the last feed, then opens her mouth again, and the action is repeated, first by one young Shag, then by the other. When the pouch is emptied, the mother spreads her ample wings and goes off for a fresh supply of auas, whilst her offspring shuffle themselves back again into their nest to await her return. But this feeding-process and the squirling cries which herald it are going on at the same time all over the camp, and as a consequence there is a perfect din of voices. In the midst of these may be heard deep guttural cries; but these are probably the occasional scoldings of the old birds to repress the inconsiderate eagerness of their young ones, for during the operation of feeding there is sometimes a good deal of apparent squabbling among the young fraternity for the first attention, accompanied by a vigorous fluttering and flapping of the wings. In one of the nests, where the young birds were not sufficiently advanced to leave it, I observed that the occupants during the intervals when their parents were absent kept up an incessant flapping of their wings and swaying of page 152 their long necks, first to one side then to the other, with a never-ceasing cry as if in great bodily distress. Poor little Shags!

This breeding-colony consisted exclusively of P. varius*. I noticed a single Spotted Shag (P. punctatus) consorting with the flock, but none of any other species.

At a place called Whakarewha, near Matata on the East Coast, there is a colony of the Pied Shag where many hundreds of them breed together. The nests are crowded together on the branches of a clump of pohutukawa trees growing on the cliff; and at the commencement of the breeding-season, when the Shags assemble to refit their nests, the old birds may often be seen fighting fiercely for the possession of a dry stick or piece of seaweed, required for building-purposes, or endeavouring to dispossess each other of nests already made. Owing probably to the crowding, the young birds are not unfrequently knocked out of the nests, and numbers of dead ones are found lying on the beach at the base of the cliff. The Harrier (Circus gouldi), attracted by these dead bodies, hovers about this breeding-place and makes an occasional attempt to carry off a young Shag from the nest by boldly attacking it; whereupon numbers of the old birds sally forth with loud guttural cries and chase the intruder to a considerable distance.

Captain Mair visited a similar shaggery on Whale Island, on the 10th November, and sent me the following report:—“I found the young in every stage, from partly developed ones in the egg to young birds just ready for flight.”

The eggs, which are elliptical in form, and greenish white, are generally two in number; but there are sometimes three, and Mr. Reischek informs me that he has occasionally found as many as four in one nest.

Shag feeding young.

Shag feeding young.

* As far back as 1841 the Rev. Mr. Colenso wrote:—“On a tall, branching pohutukawa tree (Metrosideros tomentosa), which grew on the rocky cliff at the northern end of the beach at Owae (a small village in Wangaruru Bay), I observed several Cormorants had built their nests. These birds had inhabited this tree for many years; yearly increasing the number of their nests, which they build of dry Algæ, sticks, and small plants. Their social habits and large nests forcibly reminded me of an English rookery. Two species inhabit these shores; one, with entirely black plumage, which the natives call Kawau—the other with white fore neck, breast, and belly, and olive-black neck, back, and wings, called by them Karuhiruhi; this last is the most common.”