Birds of the Water Wood & Waste
The Pukeko's nesting season, like that of the Weka, extends over many months, from August to March, at least—and probably longer, for the cock birds may be seen sometimes in mid-April treading the hens. I have got eggs in August, and eggs this year were found on March 14th, while a newly-built nest was obtained in mid-June.
It is easily found, for after a few days' incubation of the eggs, the adjacent vegetation is trampled into runs, especially if several birds share a nest. After incubation is over, and while the young are still returning nightly to the nest, it is impossible for the most unobservant to pass the spot. The tussocks are flattened down for yards around, empty pipi shells are strewed about, and often there is a large heap of droppings where the birds have been in the habit of doing sentinel duty.
Sometimes a new nest, or rather platform, on a flattened niggerhead summit, is specially built for the nestlings, though this may, and probably does, only happen in a partnership nest, when, as the eggs hatch, each hen takes away her share of the chicks.
Possibly these are from her own eggs, for the first lot laid would be first hatched out, and the earliest layer of the two or three hens would be least inclined to continue sitting. She would, therefore, by a sort of automatic process secure her own proper brood, unless, indeed, the hens were laying simultaneously, which, however, does not seem to usually happen from the time elapsing between the chipping of the early and late eggs.page break page break page break
Where there are many eggs in a nest they can be readily sorted into two or three sets, each type, no doubt, marking the different hen.
Days elapse before all the eggs are gone, and not infrequently a bird will wait patiently on an addled egg, and I have sometimes wondered, in a case of this sort, if the older hens had palmed off this last remaining egg on their guileless mate, a young bird may be, sitting for the first time, encouraging her to stick to it for a bit longer, while they divided her share of the chicks.
I have known a Pukeko return to her rain-sodden nest and cold eggs after thirty-six hours' desertion. She had forsaken because of a screen put up too close, but after its removal had returned and again taken to the nest.
Contrary to what might have been expected, a big proportion of birds choosing the quite open type of nest, that built on the summits of niggerheads, bring out their eggs. Most of these nests, no doubt, are partnership businesses, and one, at least, if not more, of the firm, are constantly prowling round, flicking their tails and uttering warnings to all whom it may concern. The more page 88 a Pukeko, especially a male, is agitated, the more violent the tail action becomes, and, as the excitement subsides, so does the signalling cease. The height of these nests, too, is some protection against marauders like rats or Wekas, and the prowling Harrier Hawks are repulsed and baffled.*
On one occasion I had been watching a cock Pukeko keeping watch and ward, as males do, and, through my glasses, trying to discover the whereabouts of his sitting mate. Just then a Harrier, flying low to the ground, dropped, or rather tumbled, so sudden was his action, on to the hen.
* Note.—Weasels are very rare on Tutira, and this immunity may be accounted for by the very heavy storms that from time to time sweep the northern part of Hawke's Bay. Many of the aliens cannot stand these long-continued torrents, and during storms such as that of March-April (1910) when a total of 16.83 inches fell in three sequent days, Snarrows, Minahs, Quail and Hares are killed wholesale.
Reverting, however, to the different types of nesting site, the second, built on or near the ground, and to some extent sheltered by greenery, is the most common on Tutira.
Quite a small minority of the birds patronise the dense raupo fringing the lake.
The most interesting details of Pukeko family life are, of course, gathered from nests under observation for photography, and during the past two seasons I have had up many permanent screens for this purpose.
One nest watched last year was built in one of the wettest parts of a wet swamp, just where several springs oozed forth, and where, even in the height of summer, no horse or cattle beast could venture. Indeed, the surface would hardly bear a man, and to prevent their subsidence the camera legs had to be placed on boards.page 90
This particular nest for photographic purposes was really in too secluded a place, and the birds, though quite broken to the actual erection in front of their eggs, were timid of mankind.
Nests should be, if possible, selected where the roar of traffic — or perhaps not quite that on Tutira!—has accustomed the bird to the ways of man, his ridings, his driven mobs of sheep and cattle, his barking dogs and himself perambulating this earth on his own two legs. This nest had been visited at intervals, my intention being to obtain the photos a few days before the eggs chipped and when the birds would be sitting hardest.
The date of hatching, however, I had miscalculated by ever so little, for upon reaching the nest there were two tiny living chicks among the eggs, only an hour or so hatched out.
These two were so very lately hatched that the parental alarm notes failed to convey a meaning. In haste, therefore, I removed the false camera and replaced it with the genuine article, for I knew at any moment the chicks' developing senses might wake them to danger, and that then the youngsters would instantly tumble out of the nest.
The old birds, far too little acquainted with mankind, were very suspicious, and circumperambulated my conning tower until I felt that at any moment it might collapse like the walls of Jericho.
The male at times would execute a war dance in front of the camera, hopping up from the ground, suddenly flapping or clapping his wings together and screaming. The birds had detected either the small differences between the false and real lens, or else heard me, though I hardly dared breathe, much less move. A bad screen is bad econony in the long run, for good page 92 work cannot be done in very great discomfort, and I was penned in a two by three bamboo screen like Cardinal Balue in the torture cage of his own invention, unable to lie down, sit, or stand.
I have committed crimes in my life, I know. Who hasn't? But I believe expiation may have been accomplished during those hours of anguish, kneeling on a waterproof and slowly sinking into the ooze. Perhaps in the last great drafting, when St. Peter races off the just—whom I take to be those who protect their native birds—I may be there hoping to get on some improved kinematograph, films of the Notornis, Colenso's Coot and the mysterious Megapode of the Kermadec Islands, all yet surviving in the Elysian fields.
However, to return to our subject.
After a little the male became somewhat bolder, and, though evidently still uneasy, began to slowly approach the nest. Every moment I expected to see him settle down, when, to my disgust, the nestlings were, one by one, ravished from my sight, and I could only observe the male at intervals appearing and reappearing behind the nest, which was now used against me as a shelter page 93 and shield. Finding the repeated signals disregarded, he had probably taken them down in his beak or claw, or, of course it is also possible that even while I waited the instincts of the chicks had developed to the point of interpretation of the parental calls.
There is little doubt, anyway, that the old birds must on occasion pick up the young, either in beak or claw, for the platforms built for chicks seceding from the original nest, and already mentioned, are often too steep for the little creatures to crawl up. I have, moreover, seen an old bird supporting in his claw a chick when feeding it in a precarious position. After the sudden disappearance of the two young ones I could see the parent birds moving about the vicinity of the nest and hear them rustling softly in the raupo, their high querulous notes running through the whole gamut of interrogation.
There were other calls, too, one a low croon, another the gentle call to feed—“Te-he-he-he,” “te-he-he-he,”—and a third remarkable noise rather than call, at its height like grinding, and which I took to be the bird milling food for the young, and at page 94 its lowest just the snore a retriever makes when fetching a hurt hare after a long chase and breathing entirely through his nostrils. I was confirmed in my theory of the milling or grinding of food, for a few hours later, on handling the chicks, their droppings seemed to be composed of the tender blanched blades of young raupo in a highly desiccated state.
Twice leaving my screen on this unfortunate day I put back the chicks, and twice again were they removed, and, although in the end, photographs were obtained, they were of no account. The fact is that one should never expect to get results from a first sitting. There are a score of details you cannot know. Often a Pukeko, for instance, will enter its nest almost flat on its belly, crawling in, and with half a dozen raupo blades borne along on its back. Then, almost at once, often, the bird may start to re-weave a bower above its eggs, pulling and tugging while on the nest at the adjacent blades and stems.
After that we ventured to cut away a certain amount of the superfluous greenery shutting out the nest from the camera. All work of this sort, it need scarcely be said, should be done gradually, especially under conditions where human traffic is conspicuous, as, for instance, in a swamp, where it is impossible to work without treading surrounding vegetation into pulp.
This nest, also, was in a quagmire, where we always sat in gum boots, and to prevent the camera legs from sinking, they had to be supported on broad boards.
The nest was a partnership affair, though we saw little of the hens, who were giddy young things, and left the cock to do all the heavy work. “You do de haulin', Brer Fox, and I'll do de gruntin',” seems to be quite the hen Pukeko's idea of a fair division of labour.
As the camera and tent crept up nearer and nearer, it was he who brought them up again and again, and attempted to induce them to sit, and when they would not, it was he, himself, who sat and panted in the page 96 sun, who braved the lens' awful eye, and who re-wove from raupo and grasses a shelter for the nest.
The third nest under the camera was found on January 22nd. Placed in a willow and a couple of feet above the lake, the intercrossing of several boughs served for a base, the outer layers of the nest were composed of half - dry willow weepers, broken into short lengths, while inside it was lined with raupo blades. By chance I had come across it whilst searching late on a gloomy afternoon for Brown Ducks. Willow growths almost completely hid the sitting bird, the dark water admirably matching his deep blue plumage, and it was his red head that first attracted close attention. This danger the old bird must have been fully aware of, for as I leant over the deep water, peering into the greenery from my position on a broken limb, he, too, drooped his head lower and lower towards the water, and away from me, until he sat at an extraordinary angle in the nest. From subsequent observations I became convinced that this conduct was not the result of chance, but that the bird page 98 appreciated the danger of his coloured head.
Twice that evening, and afterwards, I had the pleasure of witnessing a repetition of the original performance, the bird again drooping his head into shelter and shuffling himself back in the nest, till it seemed likely that he would slide completely off it. Never before had I known an instance of quite the same kind, so that this cock Pukeko's comprehension of the danger lurking in his crown seemed most interesting.*
* Note.—During September, 1910, whilst one afternoon riding along the edge of the lake I noticed, as did also my companion, a Pukeko again perform this action. We were upon him almost before he knew of us, and not choosing to fly, he crouched down, and although his head, of course, was lower than his back, he took the further precaution of submerging his bill, thus blending himself more completely into the water background. From the angle at which his head was held—not stretched out, but rather dug down into the water—I again cannot but think that the bird was fully conscious of his danger signal of red.
Pukekos are often rather clumsy in leaving their nests. McLean one day noticed an egg knocked out of the nest, and on a second occasion I heard one fall with a plop into the water. Whatever the male and the other female felt in this latter case, the guilty hen herself treated it with the utmost sang froid. She let it go, like Bailey Junior, the crockery at Todgers, with perfect good breeding, and never added to the painful emotions of the company by exhibiting the least regret.
No doubt both these eggs were upset by the startled and more timid hens, for in this case, too, the cock was left to take the risks. Neither sex, however, can be said to sit close, the birds usually preferring to glide off while the intruder is still at a distance. Last year, certainly, I caught a bird fairly asleep on its nest, but such cases are very rare.
When on one occasion at work on this willow tree nest, and about to slip into page 100 the blind, there were a pair of new hatched chicks among the eggs. They were old enough, however, for prompt obedience, and at a call from one of the old birds, instantly tumbled out of the nest into the water below and swam off.
As the chicks hatched, they left the nest, and I have taken photos of the cock still sitting, while in each side of me was a hen wandering about the shore with one or more cheepers. When once the cock was “set” in his nest, and if he saw nothing, no noise, no shouting, sibilation or hand clapping would scare him off. To get him to move it was necessary to appear over the top of the blind like a jack-in-the-box.
Young Pukekos are extremely hardy little creatures, and this year, intending to rear them as pets, I took five from a nest from which they had spilt themselves as I rode by. They were, I daresay, some twenty to forty hours old. As I then believed that a hen would not feed them, for the little creatures are accustomed to be nourished directly from the mother's bill, they were kept warm in flannels, and porridge and milk ladled out to them from the blunt end of a nib.page 101
Even then, at that age, and under these adverse conditions, they survived, until one day their bowl was upset and all but three escaped out of an open door, never to be seen again. The survivors were given then to a hen, and when she clucked and broke up food, it sometimes happened that the stuff would stick to her bill, and thus gradually was a connection established between her call and a supply of food.
The Pukeko chicks were put under her late in the evening, and, I am told, her expression of startled astonishment when they began to pipe and cheep was very ludicrous. Of the three surviving the accident to the bowl, a pair thrived and seemed to be in a fair way of growing up, until the smaller suddenly dropped dead one day in the garden. I believe the poor bird must have swallowed a pin or tack or something of that kind, for they would both experiment on all manner of strange foods.
Three more chicks were brought in at a later date by one of the station children. They were at once given to a hen, and have thrived splendidly. “Budget,” the survivor of the first brood is perfectly tame, and ever since his arrival has been page 102 a joy and amusement to the whole household. A baby Pukeko is, indeed, the oddest little creature, grovelling on his belly when approached, shivering his pinky half-bald head from side to side, his strange nude winglets outspread and backwatering, his eyes turned upwards like a Saint in a picture, and his great red lined mouth open like a fern owl's. His is the abject submission offered by heathen votaries to a remorseless god.*
When rather older, and in the act of taking food eagerly from the hand, his head is zigzagged from side to side, like a snake about to strike. At length a dart is made and the morsel snatched and eagerly devoured.
* [Or, say, the attitude of the sheepfarmer requesting a further loan from his Banker with fleece wool at 4d. in London, and fat stock a drug on the market.]
In a few days they were allowed full freedom—the hen still penned in her coop —and would then sometimes wander from her cover and follow Budget in a desultory sort of way. About the third day, to our amazement he began to feed them, and ever since has been a most devoted nurse. His is a real labour of love, for when called up and given a caterpillar or other dainty, he runs off at once and presents it to one of the chicks. Should it be too large, his bill is used for its crushing and maceration, or sometimes the morsel is held in his claw and torn up for the little ones. His lonely cry, too, page 104 ceased altogether, and was replaced by the gentle feeding note that calls up the cheepers. This latter cry, by the way, was not developed at once. At first Budget always carried food to the chicks, but later he expected them to come to him, though such is the dear fellow's love for his small charges that he can suffer no long delay, and should anything prevent their immediate appearance, will still carry to one of them, the blue hopper moth, the spindley daddy - long - legs, or the slimy, succulent caterpillar. Even when we know him to be hungry it is never himself who is first fed, and the distribution of the chopped meat Pukekos love is a quaint spectacle.
One of us presents it, bit by bit, to Budget, who duly passes it on to one or another of his little troop till they are gorged, standing round the dish replete, like sated cobras, and their small tummies tight as very drums.
“Budget!” “Budget!” will always fetch him running across the lawn with his funny rolling gait; an outstretched palm, he knows, means some dainty for his little ones, and we are careful never to deceive him.page 105
He enjoys his bath many times a day, wallowing and splashing in his milk dish, and always, after ablutions are over, leaving the water with a skip and series of short hops. After preening his feathers, should there be sun, he spreads his wings to the full, making them slope to the very ground from an angle above his back.
Should a cloud pass over the sky he folds his wings and proceeds with his perambulations in search of food. With the reappearance of the sun, and when again it shines forth, instantly he whips round and expands his wings to get the fullest heat. “When in doubt have a bath” is the family motto of the Pukeko tribe. It is Budget's balm of consolation, when he has been gently requested not to cuddle down on my best herbaceous clumps, solace when he has been badly startled by the stooping pigeons, the crowning mercy after a full meal; in fact, like tobacco, it is a lone Pukeko's companion, a bachelor Pukeko's friend, a hungry Pukeko's food, a sad Pukeko's cordial, a wakeful Pukeko's sleep, a chilly Pukeko's fire.
* Note.—One good turn deserves another and Budget at a later date returned to this particular friend a small turquoise brooch missed and given up for lost. The bird had no doubt picked it up, attracted by the colour of the stones, and was, when observed, standing near the fowlhouse gate with the brooch in its bill.
Surely, if country life can be so absorbing to those of us who love it, we can understand the passion for absolute freedom amongst the wild creatures who know the meaning of a thousand scents and sounds quite meaningless to us.
Sometimes during the day Budget can be seen in his favourite squatting attitude, nestling down in a thick border of white pinks or other cosy growth, the little ones mimicing his actions and lying alongside like tenders beside an ocean liner.
After witnessing in intimate detail the happiness and goodness—yes, goodness,— of some of these birds, their affection for one another and helpfulness, a milk of human kindness, overflowing in dear Budget's case, even to the stodgy old Buff Orpington hen, who warms his nestlings at night and is shamelessly deserted by them during the page 108 daytime. After, I say, witnessing the intimacies of their lives, shooting of these particular species is no longer conceivable. I find myself sympathising with the collies who must worry, but have still compunction towards the flocks they have so often worked and worried far afield and neighbour's sheep whom they do not know.
This is the particular instance to which I refer. One afternoon, at feeding time, Budget had, as usual, gorged his little ones; he was then presented, in the hope he would himself eat, with a good lump of bread. With it in his bill, he ran off, leaving his chicks, dipped it in his water pan—a very common custom among Pukekos—and carried it to the old hen. There, poking his head through the bars of the coop, the bread was offered with the ludricrous grovelling attitudes alluded to already. The imprisoned matron, though evidently from her stiff and stately gait regarding the offer as an unwarrantable liberty—they had, perhaps, never been properly introduced!—merely overlooked it as a lamentable want of society manners that only a Pukeko would be guilty of, and poor Budget's kind, emotional eagerness was completely disregarded!page break page break page 109
Every country place in New Zealand, where there are children, should rear a family of Pukeko. They are delightful pets, and pets, moreover, in absolute freedom, who will assert themselves and not be content to tamely starve like the wretched guinea pigs, canaries, and rabbits of our youth.
What a life was that of the rabbit of boyhood's days, embraced, forgotten, remembered with remorse, more cruel still, crammed with dank meadow grass, long, rank, poisonous, grown in deepest shade!
By mid-April Budget was a very handsome bird in her smooth blue plumage, yellowish-red legs and cherry-red frontal plate or beak. She—we believe her to be a lady—with her three companions—“Toddy,' “Jack,” and “Jill,”—all grew up to be fine specimens, and when the younger ones were able to fly, they were gradually weaned from their early quarters among the flower beds, and made to understand that the garden was tapu.
Pukekos are no respectors of shrubs and flowers, and trample the former with their great feet and tear up the latter with their powerful beaks, even seeming to have a page 110 special pleasure in experimenting on the rarer plants.
The birds soon took to their new quarters and learnt that where the hens could go they, too, were undisturbed.
The close proximity of the fowls was at first a great attraction, and it was amusing to watch the younger birds grovelling before some quite phlegmatic old hen or chased by a fowl indignant at the heathen adulation offered her. “Toddy,” “Jack” and “Jill” were often indeed hunted and pretty severely handled. Budget never got into any bad scrape, but with superior wisdom soon learnt to discriminate. The timid fowls she bullied; on one occasion an utterly cowed hen was rescued from beneath a pile of firewood, Budget standing sentinel over her and ready again to pull her feathers out on the first attempt at escape. Towards the bolder Orpingtons, and especially towards the roosters, her attitude was more respectful, and upon their approach she would retire to her coign of vantage, the honeysuckle hedge, along the top of which there is now a well-marked path. Not that numbers would always intimidate her; indeed, she would challenge the whole fowlyard, roosters page 111 included, when she was outside and they securely penned within their run, and would wage a war, at once safe in results and honourable to herself in numerical disproportion. It was curious to watch these engagements, the fowls partly curious, partly fascinated, and wholly indignant, crowding and jostling against one side of their wire netting run, and Budget on the other in all sorts of bellicose postures, and thus the tide of battle would surge up and down the fence for an hour at a time. Pukekos, when becoming angry, raise their wings and tail, and puff out the white undertail coverts, and the attitude of challenge is to stand as nearly as possible upside down, the tip of the beak lowered to the very ground, the tail pointing straight to the sky, and the feet swiftly marking time, like an angry woman's hands clenching and unclenching when prepared to tear out a rival's eyes.
We have noticed in Budget this attitude of defiance displayed also to ourselves. When sparring in play they will strike at each other's breasts with their outstretched feet, much in the same manner that cocks engage. We have had to be very strict about Budget's “followers,” and she is under no page 112 circumstances allowed to meet them on the lawn or garden.
“Toddy,” “Jack” and “Jill” have gone, and in a way their disappearance is a relief, for hosts of other Pukekos, their friends, were descending upon us, nearly forty coming down in a body one afternoon from the terrace lands above the house.
Budget still remains, retiring every evening to her roost in the raupo, and every morning returning to her friends, and home, and honeysuckle hedge.
Pukekos are very human pets, and do, I believe, really care for their friends, apart from material considerations. “Jill,” for instance, loved to be taken up and have her head and neck tickled, and would cuddle herself down in the keeping of her particular friend, tucking up her long legs, closing her immense feet and lying folded up like a pocket foot rule. They will come to call, and even if not hailed will follow their friends for notice and recognition, and no doubt all these birds would have been even tamer had it not been necessary to scare them from the house, the verandah and the garden.page break page break page 113
This long screed concerning the Pukeko may end with a few rough notes of his feathering. Budget, with the other four, was a day or two old when taken from the nest on January 10th; she was then like all youthful Pukekos, covered with silver-tipped blue down, thickest in certain tracts, especially round the head and down the spine. On February 21st incipient quills were first noticed, and the faintest shades of blue. During March she acquired the grey belly patch, her snowy undertail coverts showed, her tail feathers were two inches long, her frontal shield and legs were, however, still only tinged with red.