Chapter Six — The songs of England
The songs of England
The wildlife service of the Internal Affairs Department has estimated the duck population of New Zealand to be around seven million. I would venture to say that about half this number live in Rotorua, and a large proportion on my streamside lawn.
I am plagued by ducks, rude, aggressive ducks, who swoop in with beaks like front-end loaders to shovel up rations originally issued to the smaller birds. When asked to move on they defiantly stand their ground.
These unemployed layabouts have taken over completely, and the effect on the smaller birds is disastrous—loss of weight, anxiety and withdrawal symptoms. The fault lies with the misguided residents and tourists who persist in feeding them, thus encouraging them to stay on the benefit.
There are three possible solutions—a shooting season which takes in the lakefront and suburbs of Rotorua; the declaration of an open season on people who feed ducks; or a special duck-catching concession to be granted to the owners of Chinese restaurants.
—John Rist, in a letter to 'The Herald', May 1982
Because the eighteenth century travellers found very few species of land animals to write about, the journals of the time have detailed observations of the birds of New Zealand. Banks wrote, 'Of birds there are not many species, and none, except perhaps the gannet, are the same as those of Europe. There are ducks and shags of several kinds, sufficiently like the European ones to be called the same by the seamen, both which we eat and accounted good food, especially the former, which are not at all inferior to those of Europe. Besides these there are hawks, owls, and quails, differing but little at first sight from those of Europe, and several small birds that sing much more melodiously than any I have heard.'
Banks was very taken with the beautiful songs that the New Zealand small birds produced, writing, in January 1770, 'I was awakened by the singing of the birds ashore, from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile. Their numbers were page 105 certainly very great. They seemed to strain their throats with emulation,' he said, 'and made, perhaps, the most melodious wild music I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells, but with the most. . . silver sound imaginable.'
Sir Joseph Banks
In June 1768 Cook was informed by the secretary to the Admiralty that he was to receive on board 'Joseph Banks Esq. and his Suite comprising eight persons with their Baggage, bearing them as supernumeraries for Victuals only, and Victualling them as the Bark's Company during their Continuance on board.' Joseph Banks was a most unusual man: a Lincolnshire landowner of considerable substance, who had been to Eton and Harrow and had insisted on studying botany when he went to Oxford (putting the authorities into a state of embarrassment—a lecturer in Botany had to be imported for the unusual demand, but Banks paid for the fellow's transfer from Cambridge). Joseph Banks had influential friends, so that a note from Lord Sandwich from the Royal Society had been sufficient to guarantee berths on the Endeavour for the young man and his retinue.
Bank's party included the botanist Solander, the naturalist Sporing, two draughtsmen from Scotland, one of whom was an epileptic, two footmen and two coloured servants. Besides these bodies to be housed, there was a mountain of luggage: jars for specimens, easels, writing materials, books, nets, trawls, insect preserving machines, wax for embedding seeds—and two large greyhounds. Perhaps Cook had been chosen for the job on the strength of his reputation for forebearance.
Faced with this abundance of food-fowl and song-bird, it seems, on the face of it, very strange that the settlers should even contemplate the idea of attempting to bring foreign birds into New Zealand. It is undeniable that when they arrived the country was alive with birds—but this situation was to change very rapidly.
The Maoris had already transformed the scenery by burning forest in the South Island, but this was just a fraction of the changes wrought by the European settlers. The sad fact is that 150 years ago two-thirds of New Zealand was covered with bush. Native forest now takes up one fifth of the land—a reduction in area from 18 million hectares to 5.7 million hectares. Even where the Europeans did not destroy the original environment, they modified it by introducing browsing animals. As might be expected, the native birds beat a hasty retreat. Even today, the only native birds that are happy to live in close association with people, in gardens and in fields, are the grey warbler, fantail and white-eye, with the king-fisher becoming more daring than it used to be.
Native birds that did survive in the new landscape often fell victim to hunting parties, providing both food and sport. Crozet wrote in 1772 that a very common bird was a 'quail with the same plumage as our own but bigger.' This native bird was abundant in open grassland, and was found in great numbers on the Canterbury Plains. It was hunted mercilessly by the early settlers, and those not shot were killed by the burning of the runs every spring. Taylor White, who arrived in Canterbury in 1855, wrote, 'Even in those early days quail were becoming very scarce in that part of the country—possibly owing to burning off the native grasses to cause green feed to spring.' Another early Canterbury settler, Edgar Jones, wrote, 'Native birds were very plentiful and there was very good shooting, especially the Paradise duck. The ducks were very fond of my stubbles, particularly the barley stubble, and it was not unusual to see 500 in one flock . . . three guns used to shoot 100 to 200 in a morning. Now one rarely sees a Paradise duck.'
Because of this sudden silence in the landscape, the settlers were very keen to import birds to fill the gap. The Hawkes Bay Herald, in March 1871, wrote, 'Is nothing going to be done towards forming an Acclimatisation Society; or rather towards revivifying the one already in existence? What with caterpillars, beetles, slugs, and other destructive insects, half the crops attempted to be grown in this Province are, year after year, swept off the face of the country. The cure, and only cure, is a supply of insectivorous birds.' Most settlements of any size had a public aviary, usually run by the local acclimatisation society, and the ambition was to secure as many and as wide a variety of exotic birds as possible. Lady Barker wrote with amusement, in 1865, 'The only public place we have yet visited is the Acclimatisation Garden; which is very beautifully laid out, and full of aviaries, though it looks strange to see common English birds treated as distinguished visitors and sumptuously lodged and cared for.'
It must be remembered that at that time young people had been born and were growing up in New Zealand who had never heard the song of a blackbird, or watched a thrush demolish a snail. So the sentiment that led a lot of people to bring out English birds was certainly strong. However the most pressing reason was that New Zealand in the 1860s was smitten with a plague of insects. The wholesale clearing of the land and the planting of crops had led to a reduction of native birds and their page 107 habitats on one hand, and an enormous increase of insects—both native, such as the grassgrub and the porina moth, and accidentally introduced, such as the codlin moth—on the other.
The Hawkes Bay Herald said in February 1868, 'For some time past there has been a growing desire on the part of the settlers to introduce the insectivorous birds of the mother country to protect the farmer from the ravages of the caterpillar and the grasshopper. We are glad to find that our Superintendent at the meeting of the Agricultural Society on Thursday expressed himself so favourably on the subject.'
When d'Urville visited Northland in 1826 he commented on the curious absence of various kinds of insects in the soil and vegetation of New Zealand. There were no butterflies, he observed, and therefore no caterpillars: 'No Coleoptera, no Lepidoptera, only a few Orthoptera, Hemiptera and Diptera, like locusts, crickets, bugs and flies.' It took only a few years of European settlement to change all that.
Earwigs were first noticed on railway stations, and probably arrived in the bottoms of crates. Cockroaches came in merchandise such as fruit. The cricket arrived from
While this bird, variously called the waxeye, white-eye or silvereye, is often considered to be a native, it is more likely to be a relatively modern introduction from Australia, an intruder that managed to arrive and acclimatise all by itself. The bird was first recorded by Captain Howell in the Milford Sound area in 1832, and then, in the 1850s, it began to migrate northwards, travelling in great numbers up the midribs of New Zealand. Waxeyes first appeared north of the Cook Strait in 1856, when they were suddenly abundant in Wellington, and were called 'the blight bird' by grateful orchardists who noticed that the visitors destroyed great quantities of the 'American blight', or, as it is now much more commonly known, woolly aphis. The waxeyes disappeared entirely after two or three months, to the mystification of all Wellington-ians, and then re-appeared in 1858, when they took up permanent citizenship. The to-ing and fro-ing was apparently, some sort of migration between the North and South Islands, a migratory habit which was probably the reason why the restless little bird arrived here from Australia in the first place. Since its establishment in New Zealand, the waxeye has migrated further: to the Chatham Island, the Kermadecs, the Auckland Islands, and the Campbell and Macquaries Islands.
The waxeye is a very successful colonist, now found in flocks along the coasts, in scrub and fern country, on the outskirts of the forests, and, of course, in suburban gardens. Its natural food consists of insects and nectar, so the farmer and gardener consider it a friend: it takes payment in the form of soft fruits at harvest. It cross-pollinates many native flowers, and is a disperser of native seeds. The bird is a snacky feeder, liking variety and constantly flitting from one type of food to another. It tends to suffer badly in winter and other times when food is short, so it is an eager client for anyone who puts out a bird table. In bad weather it feeds on the ground and doesn't appear to be very alert, so it is often caught by cats. For the same reason, more waxeyes are attacked and destroyed by predatory birds than any other small birds. However it is as adaptable and as reproductive as the sparrow, so despite ravages by cold weather, food shortages and predators, it seems that this visitor is definitely here to stay.
Australia in the very early years of settlement, and it multiplied at an enormous rate, eating whole paddocks bare. Aphids arrived without human help, being so light that they were blown to New Zealand from Australia. Weevils and borer beetles were carried in timber and produce. The hawk moth came with convulvulus, and immediately began to attack the kumara. The codlin moth arrived from Australia in some apples in about 1855 and quickly became very widely spread, a dreaded pest in orchards all over New Zealand. Flies were introduced in blown meat, and lice and ticks arrived on animals, all early in the history of settlement. These pests responded to the new environment and the lack of predators by multiplying at a horrendous speed, so that stories of armies of caterpillars and squadrons of beetles were rife throughout the colony James Drummond, for the Department of Agriculture, wrote in 1907, 'The country was smitten with blasting plagues of insects, which crawled over the land in vast hordes ... a settler who was driving his dray along the road, drove through a colony of caterpillars which happened to be crossing the road at the time. They were present in such countless numbers that the wheels of his dray ran in a puddle caused by the crushing of the insects.'
Caterpillars once stopped a train. 'In the neighbourhood of Turakina, in the Rangitikei district,' wrote Drummond, 'an army of caterpillars hundreds of thousands strong, was overtaken by a train as the insects were crossing the rails to reach a field of oats. Thousands were crushed under the wheels of the engine, and the train suddenly stopped. It was found that the wheels had become so greasy that they revolved without advancing, as they could not grasp the rails. The guard and engine driver placed sand on the rails, and a start was made. It was found, however, that during the stoppage the caterpillars had crawled in thousands over the engine and all over the carriages, inside and outside.'
Some farmers found it worthwhile to drive their mobs of sheep back and forth over infested paddocks, by this means crushing travelling armies of insects. By all accounts the smell was awful.
Some of the native birds, such as kingfishers, fantails, white-eyes and bellbirds, helped kill the insects, but most of these birds would not live near human settlements, so the settlers turned their attention to the prospect of importing insect-eating birds. The acclimatisation societies studied the situation, and concluded that to be successful, the importations must be insect-eaters, non-migratory, and prolific breeders, so they could increase in numbers quickly in order to combat the insect pests.
'The insectivorous birds of England,' wrote the editor of the Hawkes Bay Herald, 'are chiefly those which live singly and make their nests in hedgegrows. With the exception of the starling, which is both gregarious and almost wholly insectivorous, the gregarious birds are partly granivorous.' The problem was to choose birds who would 'pay' for the small amounts of grain they took from the farmers by ridding those crops of insect pests. 'Of these,' continued the editor, 'the rook requires trees. This bird destroys many insects, which few others can reach, and therefore does more good than harm. On the other hand, the sparrow does not do much good, and field-fares and the like, blackbirds, etc., do a great deal more harm than good. Stonechats, chaffinches, tomtits, robins—all these are valuable auxilaries to the farmer, and do no appreciable harm.' page 109 And so the discussion went on and on, in clubs, meetings, parties, committees and drawing rooms. People in local and central government, in particular, were bombarded everywhere they went with arguments concerning the advisability of bringing in that bird or the other. Mr Kerr, the Member of Parliament for Motueka and a Borough Councillor for Nelson, became totally bored with the topic: at a meeting of the Nelson Borough Council, when it was proposed that half a dozen Venetian gondolas be imported and placed on the lake in the Public Gardens, he leapt to his feet to protest such extravagance. 'Why not import a pair, and let Nature take its Course!'
In the meantime, bringing the birds out to New Zealand was turning out to be more easily planned than carried out. The Canterbury Acclimatisation Society, like other societies, circulated details of payments it would make for any birds that settlers or seamen might bring into the country. Lady Barker wrote, on her voyage from Melbourne to New Zealand in 1865, 'Ill as I was, I remember being roused to something like a flicker of animation, when I was shown an exceedingly seedy and shabby-looking blackbird with a broken leg in splints, which its master assured me he had bought in Melbourne as a great bargain for only £2.10s.' The gentleman in question intended to sell his bird to the Canterbury Society, but if he did, he made nothing out of the deal, as the list of prices circulated in 1864 was: ten guineas for a pair of black cock or grouse; five pounds for English partridges; two pounds for pairs of thrushes, blackbirds, skylarks, and rooks: one pound ten shillings for robins and wrens; and fifteen shillings for pairs of grey linnets, green linnets, house sparrows and hedge sparrows. These were not insignificant prices: at that time shepherds got £60 a year. However there was little response. The travellers were trying to bring birds into New Zealand, but the birds were simply not surviving the voyage.
In early 1864 Mr Charles Prince of Christchurch was in England collecting 300 birds which he intended to take back to Canterbury in that June, on the British Empire. Mr Prince had sent instructions to the ship's company—Shaw Savill and Co—to make arrangements for the accommodation of the birds, but when he arrived on the wharf with his charges he found that nothing had been done about cages or coops. The captain had to do his best for Mr Prince. The birds were given a cabin on the poop, and some of them were put in the ship's coops with the shipboard fowls.
Mr Prince, with a couple of assistants, had to work from four o'clock every morning until late at night attending to all the birds. There was plenty of food and water, but within a month, despite all he could do, the birds began to die like the proverbial flies. By August 16 Prince had lost 17 blackbirds, 39 linnets, 29 thrushes, 63 skylarks, 18 rooks, one cuckoo, seven starlings, 23 goldfinches, six pheasants, two partridges and several valuable domestic fowls. By the time he arrived at Lyttelton on September 8 only thirty pigeons and doves were left.
In June 1871 the ship Asterope left London for Port Lyttelton, carrying sixty rooks from Sir Edward Dering's estate in Kent. The shipping company very generously carried the birds free, again in a cabin on the poop deck. However the man put in charge of the birds became seasick, and while he was confined to his berth the birds died from starvation or drowning—a wave, while off the Cape of Good Hope, flooded their cabin.
A keen member of the Canterbury Society, Mr J. R. Hill, paid a visit to England in page 110 1866, and bought 444 birds, which he shipped on the Matoaka. He consigned them into the care of the captain, Captain Stevens, who received £15 for his trouble. There were many deaths: Captain Stevens said the weather had been most unusually cold, with icebergs in the sea after the Cape of Good Hope, close by the ship. However 166 birds survived the journey, so the Society was tolerably well pleased, and contracted with Captain Stevens for another shipment, in 1867. This shipment was also fairly satisfactory. The birds arrived in Lyttelton on 11 February 1868, having been cared for by the ship's carpenter, John Langdown, as well as by Captain Stevens. This fresh batch included some house sparrows, a robin, seventy-seven pairs of blackbirds, twelve pairs of thrushes, seven redpolls, four hedge-sparrows, and one bramble finch.
There was great excitement in the ranks of the acclimatisation societies when, in early 1871, the news arrived that a man called Richard Bills had landed at Port Chalmers in the ship Warrior Queen, with well over a thousand birds, all alive and thriving, for the Otago Acclimatisation Society. This was an extraordinary feat, considering the depressing death rate in other consignments. The Canterbury Society wrote him a letter immediately, commissioning him to bring in a consignment for them. The letter, dated 12 April 1871, ran as follows:
'You are to sail without delay for England, your passage money to and from England to be paid by the Society: —nine pounds per month to be paid to you by way of salary while employed by the Society from the date of your sailing ... to fourteen days after your arrival with the birds in Canterbury (say for eight months), and a bonus of one shilling per bird to be paid to you for every small bird, and two shillings for every large bird landed in good condition. (Large bird to mean rooks and partridges.)'
In December 1871 the Society received a message that Bills had collected a thousand birds, and that he, and the birds, were arriving in the Charlotte Gladstone in February. The secretary hurried down to the harbour on the date in time to hear reports of a splendid lot of birds. However Bills was not as happy with the consignment as he could have been, as many of the birds had moulted in the heat of the tropics, and then died of the cold as the ship travelled south—the common reason for the multitude of bird deaths on the journey over. Of the thirteen kinds of birds that arrived, the blackbirds and thrushes had done best, with no losses at all, and some 64 partridges, 60 goldfinches, 50 redpolls and 32 starlings were thriving. There would have been more starlings if some had not escaped while being carried to London. As well as these birds, Bills had cared for pairs of Brent geese, Mandarin ducks and Caroline ducks, which the Zoological Society of London had sent to the Canterbury Society as a gift, part of an arrangement for exchanging exotic birds for New Zealand native birds. All of these survived the journey except the Caroline drake.
Bills was sent to England by the Canterbury Society again, in May 1872, taking with him kiwis, some blue mountain ducks and a pair of keas. The Hawkes Bay Herald reported on 26 April 1872, 'A large collection of New Zealand birds, numbering about 350, was lately shipped on the Queen Charlotte, from Lyttelton for exchange and sale in England. Mr Bills, the gentleman in charge, has also taken with him a considerable number of bird-skins, moa relics, etc., and will bring out a large number page 111 of English birds on his return.' The keas died, but Richard Bills was able to deliver the ducks and kiwis to the Zoological Society. They gave him a pair of Mandarin ducks and a pair of crassow, and he brought these back, together with a consignment of 552 birds. His son Henry was sent on a similar bird mission in July 1874, arriving back in Lyttelton on the Tintern Abbey with 814 birds which included 74 partridges.
The Charlotte Gladstone was a fine clipper ship of 1 304 tons, built at New Brunswick in 1865. She was a good comfortable ship and during her three voyages to New Zealand she brought out about 900 government-assisted immigrants. On her second voyage to the Dominion she left London on 5 November 1871, and arrived at Lyttelton on the 2nd February 1872. Among her passengers on this voyage was Richard Bills, who was carrying birds for the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society. The Society was so pleased with Bills and the success of this venture, that they sent him straight back to England for more birds, when the Charlotte Gladstone left Lyttelton three months later. They were equally pleased with this next shipment, which included nine green plover.
Richard Bills used to trap his small English birds with large folding nets in the streets of London, in the early mornings. The London residents, he said were surprised that any country would want such birds. So Richard explained to them, no doubt with a perfectly straight face, that the caterpillars in New Zealand were so numerous and huge that farmers had to dig trenches round their houses to trap and bury the voracious creatures, lest after eating up all the crops, they should turn to and eat up the farmers themselves.
The Bills family, Richard and son Charles, and his other son Henry, were all well-liked. They were considered real rough diamonds, but of cheery and happy dispositions. They were highly respected for their integrity—although Mr Binnie, who was Richard's assistant, gossiped that when Richard brought out robin red-breasts, he made sure that the birds were all cocks—as who would buy the drab little wrens?
In the North Island, the Hawkes Bay Acclimatisation Society imported a large shipment of birds in that same year, 1874—650 birds on the Queen Bee. These birds were in the care of a passenger, a Mr Joseph Burton, who was paid £1 a week—£17 in all. In England the birds were obtained for the Society by a Mr Manning Thatcher, who sent in an account for £143/9/6d, which sum included the prices paid for the birds (blackbirds and thrushes were around two shillings each, while partridges cost seven shillings), the cost of the cages (these varied from five shillings to twelve shillings each), and wages for carters and catchers. The food for the birds was bought from Thomas P. Bartholomew, and cost just over one hundred pounds, including thirty-three pounds for over one and a half tonnes of patent poultry food, one pound ten shillings for a similar amount of bird gravel, four pounds for eight bushels of hemp seed, three pounds four shillings for sixteen bushels of fig dust, three pound twelve shillings for nine bushels of pheasant and partridge mixture, and two pounds eight shillings for four bushels of canary seed. Also shipped were eight live sheep, together with their fodder (the 2.5 metre pen for them cost two pounds) and 200 eggs (variety unspecified). In the quantity of bird seed, fodder and gravel brought into the country in this manner, one can see the origins of at least some of our accidentally introduced weeds.
Richard Bills went to Britain again in 1880, to obtain 240 partridges. He made the mistake of travelling back in an iron ship, the Waimate. The metal sides trapped the heat in the tropics, so that only nineteen partridges survived the journey. The Canterbury Acclimatisation Society did not have the time to bewail this, however, as in the meantime the Society had become the centre of a storm of controversy, being blamed for the importation of a small-bird pest—the sparrow. Back in 1868 Captain Stevens had arrived in Lyttelton with some of these birds, and no-one had thought much of it, except that soon afterwards there were reports of flocks of house-sparrows in and around the town, and comments that there was a group of twenty or thirty sparrows nesting in the Christchurch Railway Station.
The story, according to James Drummond, was that the Society had ordered twelve dozen hedge-sparrows from England, placing the contract for the ordering and consignment of the birds with Captain Stevens, because they had been satisfied with his earlier shipment. The captain ordered the birds from a bird fancier in Knightsbridge. Somebody blundered, and the captain took on board not twelve dozen hedge-sparrows, but thirteen dozen of its much less valuable relative, the house-sparrow. There was the usual appalling death-rate so that when the captain reached Lyttelton only five were left. 'The officers of the society,' wrote Mr Drummond, 'realising that a mistake had been made, refused to accept the strangers. The captain then took them out of their cage, and, remarking that the poor little beggars had had a bad time, set them at liberty. They flew up into the rigging and remained there twittering for some time ...' At the annual meeting of the Canterbury Society in 1885 (17 years after the shipment) the Chairman, the Hon. J. T. Peacock, said: 'The Society used to give bonuses to captains of ships for bringing out small birds. One captain brought five sparrows, which the Society refused to purchase, and which the captain let go himself. From these five, the whole of the sparrows in the (Canterbury) Province have sprung.' page 113 This rate of expansion appears, on the face of it, incredible. A favourite pastime of pundits and laymen became, for a time, the calculation of the breeding rate of house sparrows. As Taylor White said to the Hawkes Bay Philosophical Institute, 'Some people point to the wonderful increase of the house-sparrow in its new home, and say, 'Look at that; who'd ha' thought it!' The naturalist T. W. Kirk read a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society, titled, rather ponderously, 'A Note on the Breeding Habits of the European Sparrow (Passer domesticus) in New Zealand.' 'Being struck with the spirit of partisanship on the so-called sparrow question,' he set out to calculate the natural increase of a pair of sparrows, commenting in passing, T have myself dissected fifty-three birds, taken at all seasons of the year, and am forced to admit that the remains of insects found in them constituted but a very small proportion of the total food.' In working out his figures, Mr Kirk allowed for a loss of a third of hatched sparrows to predators and disease, 'as the natural enemies in this country are hardly worth mentioning, we will allow only for accidental and natural deaths.'
Kirk calculated that the average increase on sparrows is five broods a year of six eggs each, so that each pair would produce, on the average, eleven pairs at the end of the first season, 121 pairs by the end of the second, and so on until there would be an actual increase of 322 100 birds from one pair, in five years. 'Both parent birds,' he wrote, 'work in feeding the young till they leave the nest, and at first I was much puzzled to account for the fact that the second laying of eggs was not spoiled during the absence of the mother. From my observation I am convinced that the chief portion of the work of incubation—that is, after the first brood is hatched—is thrown on the young birds; for it must be apparent that the heat arising from the crowding of five or six young birds into a nest would be sufficient to cause incubation: so that by the time the young birds are finally turned out the earlier laid of the next batch are within a few days of issuing from the shells. Therefore the mother is confined to the nest for little more than half the time required to hatch the first brood of the season. Then, after a very few days, the process is again repeated.' The incubation period is about 13 days and the young are fed for eight or nine days, so this is a good indication of the fertility of this productive little bird.
The celebrated French naturalist Buffon calculated that a pair of sparrows eats four thousand caterpillars a week. The nestlings are fed almost entirely on insects, and the adult bird itself consumes large quantities of insects, including many pests—indeed, the sparrow helped greatly in ridding North Auckland of cattle ticks. Nevertheless by 1875 the sparrow was considered an infernal nuisance. Farmers, gardeners and orchardists were complaining that the bird was eating immense quantities of grain just before harvesting, that it was destroying buds and young fruit and flowers on fruit trees, that it was pulling up seedlings in the fields, and it was stealing grain thrown out for domestic fowls. It was also building its large untidy nests in inconvenient places—and often stole its nesting material from the nests of other, more highly regarded, birds.
In 1882 the sparrow became a target of debate in the New Zealand House of Representatives, during which the Member for Waimate, Mr W. J. Steward, called the animal 'a pert, mischievous and immensely reproductive little bird.' In a page 114 passionate speech he pointed out that the progeny of one pair of sparrows would reach 200 at the end of the second year, at the end of the third year 2 000, at the end of the fourth year 20 000, and so on, adding noughts, so that at the end of the eighth year the total would reach two hundred million birds.
Acclimatisation societies were attacked from all quarters. Farmers swore that sparrows were destroying crops of grain. Orchardists insisted that sparrows were taking their fruit. Gardeners thought the sparrows were tearing their flowers. In 1889 the Canterbury Society issued a statement headed 'The Sparrow', asserting, 'We most deliberately deny ordering or introducing this questionable bird.' Bathgate wrote, for the Otago Institute, 'I believe our Society turned out one or two, but the sparrows came to us from Christchurch... I have been told that the sparrow was not voluntarily introduced by the Christchurch society but that a few pairs were brought out by a ship captain ... the society would have none of them, so he liberated the lot. If the tale be true,' went on Mr Bathgate with relish, 'how often must the members of the society who declined the purchase have regretted that they did not buy the sparrows and wring their necks.' The Hawkes Bay Society declared, 'Enormous increase of small birds and their damage upon all classes of settlers is viewed with alarm by the public, in general; but the Society takes the opportunity to remind the said public that the Acclimatisation Society is not responsible for the introduction of linnets, sparrows, larks, or Hares.'
The facts according to G. M. Thomson, historian of acclimatisation in New Zealand, are that the Nelson Society, in a shipment in 1862, landed a single sparrow; then, in 1865, two sparrows, the survivors of a consignment of six dozen, were landed at Auckland; in 1866 the Wanganui Society imported some sparrows; in the following year both the Canterbury and Auckland Societies brought in some more. It seems that the Wellington Acclimatisation Society was the only society that didn't import any sparrows at all. The quarrel was revived as recently as 1915, when Mr Cheeseman page 115 the botanist was quoted by The Auckland Star as saying that the sparrow was introduced by a Mr Morrin and a Mr Hill, who arrived with them in the Morning Star in 1861. Mr Hill, at the time of the publication of this news, was still alive, and he became very upset. He wrote to Mr d'Esterre, the editor of the Auckland Weekly News, asking him to contradict the information, saying that he, Mr Hill, had merely been a purchaser, and what's more, had heartily regretted his purchase, as by the end of the first breeding season all the spouting of his buildings had been choked up with nesting material. Mr Hill also hinted that, as Mr Cheeseman had been secretary of the Auckland Acclimatisation Society at the time, some sort of cover-up was being attempted 'although I don't think for a moment my friend Mr Cheeseman made the statement intentionally.'
And so the acrimonious discussions continued. The sparrow in the meantime had increased to such an extent that many local bodies were driven to form sparrow clubs, organisations set up with the express purpose of destroying as many sparrows as possible. The members of these clubs paid small boys for bringing in eggs, young birds, and sparrow heads. In 1882 the Small Birds Nuisance Act was passed, 'to authorise Local Governing Bodies to appropriate Funds and to levy Rates for the destruction of Sparrows or other birds injurious to crops.' This Act was repealed in 1889, and replaced by a new Act, giving increased powers to the local bodies for the use of poisoned grain. It is a tribute to the sparrow's undoubted rate of reproduction, as well as to its admirable adaptability, that it is still so very common today.
The 'other birds' included the skylark, first liberated by the Nelson Society in 1864. In every part of New Zealand this bird increased rapidly, and it came to be considered by farmers as, after the sparrow, the most destructive of the introduced small birds. Skylarks were observed to pull up sprouting wheat in spring and also to attack young cabbage and turnip plants. A curiosity about the skylark in New Zealand is that it sings from a perch: in Europe it sings only when in the air.
Another bird to become unpopular was the thrush. There were several determined attempts to introduce this bird, and Mr Bills was congratulated when he brought in 48 live thrushes in 1869, but by 1881 the tone had changed. In the Otago Society's report for that year thrushes were blamed for destroying fruit. The Society suggested that this habit had been adopted only since the thrush's arrival in New Zealand—an attempt to avoid blame for introducing another injurious bird to New Zealand. Despite the bird warfare that began at that date, thrushes have multiplied amazingly and are now enormously abundant throughout the country. Botanically, both the thrush and its kin, the blackbird, proved important because of their seed-dispersing habits. The seeds of many succulent berries pass unharmed through their digestive systems, and the seedlings benefit from the fertiliser that is deposited with the seeds. It is largely because of the thrush and the blackbird that introduced plants such as gooseberries, currants, blackberries and elderberries have become so prevalent in the native bush.
The mynah is another bird that became unpopular because of its fruit-eating habits. The Daily Telegraph reported, in 1876, that 'seventy mynas, the insectivorous birds recently imported from India, have been turned out by Mr Tanner, and are now thriving in the Big Bush. Settlers at Clive complain that they are raiding their strawberries and cherries, and as well, driving the doves out of the dovecotes to take page 116 possession. Mr Sturm, however, does not mind what they eat of his fruit, because at the same time they are ridding the small fruits of insects.'
This tolerant attitude had certainly changed by the middle of this century, when the general unpopularity of the mynah inspired a study of the bird as a problem species. Mr P. R. Wilson of Havelock North shot 100 mynahs during 1964 and 1965, to investigate their stomach contents. He found that the birds ate both insects and fruit, particularly berries of deadly nightshade, so it would appear that as well as stealing fruit from orchards, the bird is an important disperser of a noxious weed. The insects did however include many pest species, such as grasshoppers and army worms.
The thrush, the slug and the snail
In 1867 a Mr Fereday of Christchurch complained that he had seen ten common English slugs on one cabbage in his garden and used this as an argument for the introduction of birds such as thrushes.
Along with their close cousins, the snails, slugs had been unwittingly introduced to New Zealand in the soil around plants and other garden stuff. In spite of the introduction of birds and other enemies such as hedgehogs, they are now extraordinarily abundant and everyone is familiar with them as a pest. Suter, in the Manual of New ZealandMollusca, 1913, reported, 'In 1887 I was living on a ten-acre [four hectare] clearing in the Forty-Mile Bush, surrounded by native bush. This clearing had been laid down in grass about ten years earlier, and was used for feeding horses. Everywhere (slugs were) common, but these slugs never penetrated the native bush. They evidently must have been brought to that place with the grass seed, and no doubt in the egg state.'
The study of another introduced slug, Limax (the tiger or leopard slug) produced evidence that it was infested with a mite similar to one found infesting it in England. A theory was put forward that the animal had arrived in New Zealand in the adult state, but this seems unlikely, as it is commonly 15-20 centimetres long!
According to Mr Suter, the common or garden snail, Helix aspersa, was noticed first at coastal towns, indicating that it might have arrived attached to the underneath of shipboard crates, or even in dumped ballast. In the early colonies of North America, when snails made their appearance in the gardens, some people accused French pioneers of deliberately importing them for food. However this theory was not advanced in New Zealand, and there is no evidence that snails are more plentiful in the Akaroa area.
The hardiness of the snail family is not appreciated by most people. H. W. Kew recorded a case in England where thirteen snails were taken from the three-day-old corpse of a wood pigeon as part of the stomach contents, which were put in a bowl containing water. Most of the snails immediately began creeping about.
Thrushes are very fond of snails, which they carry to some favourite hard surface, known as an 'anvil stone', where they smash the shell so they can eat the succulent interior. Because of this they were among the earliest of exotic birds to be imported into New Zealand, being first landed in 1862 at Nelson. Many more shipments followed and the thrush established itself quickly and is now abundant throughout the country.
Mynahs use nest sites similar to those of starlings, and sometimes they destroy the eggs or young of starlings, which most farmers consider undesirable, as the starlings are now valued as a control of grass grub.
Mynahs have had an odd acclimatisation history. At one stage their introduction looked unsuccessful: they were liberated in all centres, increased rapidly, then suddenly, for no apparent reason, they began to disappear. They are now not found at all in the South Island, and at one time were not present in Auckland. They did become established in Hawkes Bay, and are rapidly extending their range into the Waikato where they can be seen perched on cattle, feeding on parasitic insects. Although they prefer to live in close association with man, they are spreading into the countryside along the main roads: mynahs have a knack of sauntering jauntily out of the way of speeding cars, timing it so well that they are never panicked into scattering like other birds.
The magpie was imported in large numbers from its Australian home to help with the insect invasion. It has acclimatised well, being found in large numbers in the south of the North Island and the north of the South Island. The magpie is an intelligent bird, and makes a good pet; it also eats large numbers of grass grubs. However it has the damaging habit of feeding its nestlings on the nestlings of other birds, including tuis, bellbirds, fantails and grey warblers; and an unpleasant tendency to peck out the eyes of farm animals that are weak or sick.
The finches—the greenfinch, chaffinch, redpoll, goldfinch, yellowhammer and cirl bunting—have all acclimatised well. Like the sparrow, they were imported as insect-eaters and came to be reviled for their seed-eating habits.
The starling, like the sparrow, is an exceedingly prolific bird. It is on record that in Napier there were four starlings in 1875; these birds presumably liberated by a private individual, as while the Hawkes Bay Acclimatisation Society did receive a consignment of birds that year from the barque Hudson, according to their records the birds in that consignment were robins, goldfinches and chaffinches, partridges and larks. The four starlings increased rapidly, taking over the limestone bluff that looks out over the bay, and boring their burrows into the soft cliffs. After eleven years they were estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands. A report from a Mr Fowler of Marton, to Thomson in 1912, claimed that starlings used a piece of native bush about 2 hectares in area near his property as their roosting place, and their numbers were so great that the trees were dying under the load of the birds' droppings. Up to the First World War great flocks of starlings were a common sight in Wellington Harbour, as they roosted on Soames Island, but the birds abandoned it when it was used as an internment camp for German prisoners of war, not liking to share their habitat with people.
It is now so commonly believed that starlings are beneficial birds—apart from their habit of getting into the engines of aircraft—it is difficult to understand why they came in for so much criticism in the last years of the century. The most usual claim was that starlings were taking grain and insects from game birds such as pheasants, resulting in poisoned grain being laid to control small nuisance birds. The ironic truth is that once this custom of laying poison became common, more valued game birds were killed by it than ever died because of competition with starlings for page 118 food. At a meeting of the council of the Canterbury Society in 1886, a member, Mr Boys, declared that he did not see the point of trying to introduce game birds as they 'would all be poisoned off very soon.' At the same meeting Doctor Frankish reported that 27 pheasants had been found lying in a ditch as a result of their having eaten poisoned grain put out to catch small-bird pests.
King Edward VII and Princess Alexandra.
While the introduction of small birds was motivated by a mixture of sentimental nostalgia and a practical desire to do something about the hordes of insect life that were slithering, flying and creeping around New Zealand, the introduction of game birds was due, simply, to the desire to have the sport that was so popular in English and Scottish society.'Pheasant and partridge shooting was a phenomenon of the times. Up until the Victorian age game birds had been killed for food—an Elizabethan recipe recommended that a freshly killed pheasant be hung up by the neck, and left hanging until the body fell off the head, at which time it was ready to be cleaned and cooked for the table—either by bow and arrow, or by hawking, or with flintlock guns. It was not until the 1850s that breech-loading guns were seen on the sporting field.
Breech-loading guns, being easily and quickly loaded, were efficient weapons for dispatching large numbers of birds in a very short time. This changed the whole nature of the sport. Previously gentlemen had strolled through the woods and shot at the occasional bird they put up; now the birds were driven by beaters towards the gentlemen, who, flanked by loaders and ammunition boys, not to mention the odd gamekeeper or two, vied with each other to see how many birds they could bring down in the course of the drive. As a pastime it gained immediate popularity because the Prince of Wales fancied it. The Prince's mother, Queen Victoria, while refusing to hand over the reins of the monarchy to her son, was rarely seen in London society; she preferred to spend her time cooped up on the Isle of Wight, mourning her husband in decent fashion. The smarter of her subjects had to look elsewhere for an example of taste and fashion to emulate. They found their leader of society in the person of Edward, Prince of Wales. A crack shot and a devoted sportsman, Edward was built in a rotund fashion and was known to his familiars as 'Tum-tum'. Organised shoots, ideal for him, were adopted as an ideal by the smarter set.
No expense was spared in the organisation of large-scale shoots and the house parties that went with them. The sport even caused some bankruptcies, Lord Walsingham and the Maharajah Duleep Singh among them, but in an age when income tax was five pence in the pound, the resources of the very wealthy could withstand some amazing demands. Armies of gamekeepers and estate workers were employed so that the quantities of birds reared reached enormous numbers. By 1900 Sandringham alone was rearing 12 000 birds a year.
When the Prince bought Sandringham he spent £300 000 changing the estate into a world-famous shooting property, even introducing Virginia quail in an attempt to add variety to the sport. His house parties followed a well-planned regimen—early breakfast (the clocks ran half an hour fast, in his own version of daylight-saving time), then shooting, then a lunch in the field, then more shooting, then tea, then cards, and then a formal dinner. At other houses—not the Prince's—the guests often got up to further sporting activities after dark—one lady used to signal to her fancy of the moment that the coast was clear by leaving a plate of sandwiches outside her door. The house parties were huge, because of the retinue of gamekeepers and servants that each guest brought; many of the grand houses had to be enlarged at that time.
The bags were equally huge. The Duke of Portland wrote later, 'When I look back at the game book, I am quite ashamed of the enormous number of pheasants we sometimes killed. This is a form of shooting which I have no desire to repeat.' At page 120 Sandringham, in one day—the 4th November, 1896—3 114 pheasants were killed. Lord Ripon once killed 28 pheasants in a minute, and at another time he shot so accurately that he had seven dead birds in the air all at once.
'On the moors', a fashion plate taken from the pages of a women's magazine of the 1890s. The great shooting parties of the time demanded much attention to dress—it was customary to have on outfit for the early breakfast, another to wear when taking the lunches out to the gentlemen on the moors, another for tea, and a fourth outfit for dinner.
The craze for shoots spread to central Europe, where partridges and pheasants were found in great numbers. On Baron Hirsch's estate in Hungary 17 048 partridges were killed in one year—1892—with 2 870 birds being the bag for the best day. The birds were produced by a programme of wholesale breeding; one wonders where the dead birds went. At the formal dinners game formed the meat course, but even the vast number of guests could not have eaten that quantity of birds. A saying at the time, 'Up gets a guinea, bang goes a penny-half-penny, and down comes half-a-crown,' suggests that two shillings and sixpence was the going rate at the meat market for surplus birds.
The colonists in New Zealand were remote from all this activity, but that they were nevertheless aware of it is shown in the letters that the Deans brothers received from their family back in Scotland. 'I intend to go through to Auchenflower for a day or two next month to shoot woodcock, etc... We had several days very good shooting at page 121 Auchenflower, Garphar, Laggan and Auchairne ... I had a letter from Mr Mcllraith lately asking me to go through to shoot partridges . . .'
Understandably, therefore, the list of attempted introductions of game birds is impressive. It includes muscovy duck, Pochard duck, canvasback duck, pintail duck, teal widgeon, mallard, American ducks, Cape goose, Canadian goose, white swan, various turkeys, all the popular pheasants, quail species (the settlers having wiped out the native quail), partridges and grouse. Of these, the only immigrants that have become truly acclimatised are the mallard, Canadian goose, common pheasant, Chinese pheasant, Australian swamp quail and the Californian quail.
The country already possessed fine game birds when the European settlers arrived: Crozet wrote about the 'wild duck, teal and blue fowl' in the marshes. Of these birds only the native quail became extinct, and this because of the fires which destroyed food and cover as well as roasting trapped birds; it was vulnerable because it lived in open grassland, its nest being only a depression in the ground lined with grass. Others, fortunately still in existence, are the grey duck, the brown duck and the Paradise duck. At-no stage did the societies make any attempt to conserve these birds in the last century, merely limiting their shooting to the same seasons as the introduced game birds provided sport.
Pheasants, on the other hand, were treated with reverent care. After all, they were the bird most favoured by His Highness the Prince of Wales. Lady Barker wrote from a station in Waimate, in May 1867, 'This is one of the very few stations where pheasants have been introduced, but then, every arrangement has been made for their comfort, and a beautiful house and yard built for their reception on a flat, just below the high terrace on which the house stands. More than a hundred young birds were turned out last spring, and there will probably be three times that number at the end of this year. We actually had pheasant twice at dinner; the first, and probably the last time we shall taste game in New Zealand. There is a good deal of thick scrub in the clefts of the home-terrace, and this affords excellent shelter for the young. Their greatest enemies are the hawks, and every variety of trap and cunning device for the destruction of these latter are in use, but as yet without doing much execution among them, they are so wonderfully clever and discerning.'
In the South Island the Otago society obtained three Chinese pheasants from Auckland in 1864, and the Canterbury Society received three in 1867. By 1869 pheasants of both kinds were being found in their thousands on the plains. By 1871 pheasants were abundant throughout the country.
Then suddenly the numbers began to drop, dramatically. The consternation was general. The Otago Society said, in 1881, that pheasants were 'believed to have suffered greatly from hawks and poisoned grain.' In 1882 they added that they had 'become very scarce.' The Society thought poaching might have helped to reduce numbers. The Hawkes Bay Society believed hawks to be the culprits. In 1885 the Wellington Society reported that 'the number of these birds has greatly decreased of late years,' pointing out that in the Wairapara district they were nearly extinct. They thought there were two causes: 'the poisoned grain, and the introduction of stoats, weasels and ferrets.' In 1888 they were worrying about vermin, poaching, the wet weather during the nesting season, and rabbit poisoning. In Taranaki the Society could say in 1874 that the pheasants were 'plentiful in the Province.' In 1908 the Chairman reported that he did not think they had any pheasant left.
Many societies then began a renewed programme of importation and controlled breeding in pheasantries. The Southland Society even tried to stock Stewart Island with pheasants: 16 in 1895, 48 in 1901, 37 in 1902, 36 in 1904, 16 in 1906, 105 in 1909 and 47 in 1910. They thought that they might thrive where the rabbits had died out, where there was no poisoning, and where there were no ferrets, stoats or weasels. After 1910 they admitted defeat. Mr James Drummond wrote, in 1907, 'It seemed as if pheasants would in a few years spread throughout both Islands and become thoroughly naturalised. After this had gone on for some time the birds received a decided check. Their numbers neither increased or decreased. They then began to decrease rapidly, and apparently almost simultaneously in many districts. Their complete failure, taking the colony as a whole, is now beyond doubt. In Canterbury and other provinces where they were exceedingly plentiful they are never seen at all.'
Today the liberation of farm-reared pheasants is the major game-management activity of some New Zealand acclimatisation societies. Programmes of banding have been set up to find out what happens to the birds, as they still fail to increase significantly in numbers. Post-season liberations and pre-season liberations have been tried; both young birds and mature birds have been liberated. Despite all this the bird is still uncommon in the North Island and extremely rare in the South Island. Poisoned grain, ferrets, stoats, weasels, wild cats, hawks, wekas and poachers have all been blamed for this failure. It has also been noted that pheasants have the suicidal habit of scratching for their grit in the gravel of country roads; and they have page 124 a hoarse cry which attracts predators. However the most probable reason for their scarcity is simply that when small birds flourished, and were competing with pheasants for the same food sources, the pheasants couldn't cope. Against chattering hordes of starlings, blackbirds, thrushes and sparrows, the slow heavy pheasants could not maintain a niche in the environment.
Various quail species were also imported. The swamp quail failed to acclimatise, but the brown quail is now quite common, especially in the Auckland district in open scrub and grass country. The acclimatisation of the Californian quail has been most successful; it is now common in hilly regions where there is bracken for shelter, and in fern country. The peacocks and peahens brought to New Zealand by the Hon. Mr Petre have also flourished to a certain extent, with wild colonies being found in Hawkes Bay, Gisborne and Wanganui.
Each May over 40 000 New Zealanders purchase licences and go shooting game birds. However, in contrast to Edwardian times, the passion now is to sit in damp places and hunt waterfowl. In the past, when there was plenty of wetland, people weren't interested in waterfowl except as a change for dinner, but now that the wetlands are limited, shooting ducks, swans and geese has become an extremely popular sport.
Each May over 40 000 New Zealanders purchase licences for the privilege of sitting in damp places and shooting at waterfowl. In order to indulge this passion, they are also happy to spend large sums of money on equipment.
The mute swan from Europe and Asia—the bird that was the royal bird of the Thames River—was first liberated, two birds at a time, in Christchurch in 1866, in Auckland in 1867, and in Dunedin in 1868. It is found in large numbers as an ornamental bird in parks and domains, and in Canterbury, Otago, Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa it occurs in small flocks in the wild. It is absolutely protected and may not be shot at any time. In contrast the black swan, introduced here as a biological control for river weed, is now one of the most common of our wild waterfowl. It is classed as game and can be shot in season.
The Cape Barren goose is a primitive Australian goose. There are continuing efforts to acclimatise this bird and consequently it is protected. The Canada goose has been more successfully acclimatised since 1876, when the first three were landed in Wellington. It has become quite firmly established in Canterbury and Otago, although it has not adapted to North Island conditions. It can be shot in season in the South Island.
During Cook's second voyage to New Zealand he described a duck which he called a 'painted duck', saying in his Journal, 'We found here five different kinds of ducks, some of which I do not recollect to have anywhere seen before; the largest are as big as a Moscovy duck, with a very beautiful variegated plumage: on which account we called it the painted duck: both male and female have a large white spot on each wing: the head and neck of the latter is white, but all the other features, as well as those on the head and neck of the drake, are of a dark variegated colour.' This was the Paradise duck, a native that is still found in good numbers on the river meadows of mountin valleys. The acclimatisation societies took this duck to various areas of the North Island, so that the bird is now well established and can be shot in season.
The grey duck, another native, is our main sporting bird. It is very closely related to the mallard, which was first introduced in 1867, but is not so favoured for the table, as the mallard is a 'meatier' bird. The grey duck has adapted to the advent of the European most efficiently, merely shifting its habitat as the wetlands became more restricted. It is still the major bird in the bags of hunters on the west coasts of both islands and indeed anywhere that is damp and not closely settled by man. For a while there was some concern for the welfare of the grey duck because it was shot in such numbers; acclimatisation societies set up a programme of breeding grey ducks in game parks, a policy they still follow, so that it is still the most common duck in New Zealand.
While it is generally considered that the mallard duck is more adaptable than the grey, the opposite is probably true, as the grey ducks have so successfully adapted to vast changes in their habitat and are able to defend their wetlands from utilisation by the mallard. The mallard first arrived in 1867 when the Otago Acclimatisation Society imported a pair from Melbourne. They are still being imported, reared in game farms and liberated. In districts where they have become acclimatised they are very successful, being found in large numbers. The mallard quite frequently interbreeds with the grey, producing a vigorous hybrid.
It is interesting to consider the bird importations that failed. Some, like grouse, failed in every case to survive the journey. Others, like the partridge, compete unsuccessfully with other birds for food, or became food themselves for ferrets, stoats, weasels, rats and wekas. The nightingale and perhaps the linnet tried to migrate in their migratory season; it seems inevitable that they would have died somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. The English robin has a much more prosaic reason for failure. Richard Bills brought out the robin, on his own account, to sell to his customers. A canny businessman, he brought out only the red-breasted cock; who would pay good money for the drab little hen?
And so, for good and ill, birds of England, Scotland, Europe, Asia and the Americas arrived and made New Zealand their home. It must be remembered that New Zealand, as well as being the home of sportsmen, is an agricultural country with its economy firmly based on the produce of the land. Without these bird imports grains and grasses would succumb before an army of insect pests. Birds work more efficiently—and faster—than any amount of spraying and dusting. Sparrows in an orchard can cleanup most of the scale insects and aphids, earning the meal they take off some fruit or flowers. Magpies and mynahs will take grass grubs out of ploughed land, pecking in the furrows. Acclimatisation societies may have taken the brunt of the responsibility for the nuisance caused by small birds, and been laughed at for a preoccupation with acclimatising game birds, but they have conserved and protected our native waterfowl, and the small birds can certainly sing.