The New Zealand Reader
A Chapter on the mammals of New Zealand might almost be written with the brevity of the learned Swede's celebrated chapter on the snakes of Iceland: "There are no snakes in Iceland." It is one of the most astonishing facts in nature that a country so eminently suited for the support of every description of animal life capable of existing within its wide range of temperature should have been page 27almost entirely void of indigenous land-mammals. The only land-mammals New Zealand is believed to have possessed before the arrival of Captain Cook in 1769 are the kiore, a small rat with round ears like a mouse, and two very small bats, which are only found in a few localities, and are by no means common there.
The country can indisputably claim the bats for its own, but there are some who think that the kiore is merely the descendant of rats brought in Cook's ships, and that it has somewhat changed its appearance from its change of circumstances. It is said to have been very common at the beginning of the European settlement; but it is now seldom seen, the Norway rat having altogether displaced it in the neighbourhood of man. The kiore does not infest houses, though it may sometimes enter them for food, but is a wild animal living in the bush and feeding on roots and berries.
There is an extraordinary and quite unexplained phenomenon connected with the kiore which is worth mentioning here, in the hope that some naturalist or other man of science reading this book may be able to throw some light on it. The kiore, as has been said, is now a rare animal, very shy, and probably nocturnal. But there are times when it makes its appearance in vast numbers, coming no one knows whence, and going no one knows whither, yet evidently governed by some irresistible law of nature. Three or four years ago such a visitation occurred on the West Coast of the Middle Island, a countless swarm of these little creatures travelling southward along the shore for a distance of more than 150 miles, all going one way, and all moving as fast as they could, as if impelled by an inexorable destiny, in spite of all sorts of obstacles. A large proportion of them died of hunger by the way, and the moving host were exposed throughout their journey to terrible inroads by the acclimatised brown rat, a much stronger and fiercer animal than the kiore; just as the revolted Tartars, in their famous flight across Asia in the last century, were pursued and assailed by Cossacks and other ferocious nomads the whole way from the confines of Russia to the territory of the Chinese Emperor.
After passing in procession along the shore for some months, the rats vanished as suddenly and mysteriously as they had appeared; and to this day no one has been able page 28to offer even a plausible theory regarding them. The interior of that part of the country where they appeared is very mountainous and secluded, only very scantily explored, in fact, and extremely sparsely inhabited; and it is quite possible that there may be great numbers of kiore in the remote forests or swamps, from which they were driven temporarily by some unknown cause. The most incredible fact connected with this strange migration remains to be stated. From many observations taken at various points in the line of march of this grand army, it was ascertained, apparently beyond dispute, that they consisted solely of males, not a single female being found among great numbers of live or dead ones that were examined. Should any reader of this book be able to explain this curious freak of nature, or know of any parallel case, any information he could afford would doubtless be received with thanks, and duly made public, by Sir James Hector, the learned manager of the New Zealand Institute, at Wellington.
* [Italian—"sweet inactivity."]
* [The tuatara can bite.]
† [The only New Zealand amphibian is a native frog found in the Coromandel Peninsula and the western and middle coasts of the Bay of Plenty.]
Coming now to birds, there is a very different story to tell. New Zealand was once the abode of the largest and most marvellous bird in the world, a bird which actually brings the fabled roc of Sinbad the Sailor within the region of prosaic possibility, and which throws the roc into insignificance as far as outlandishness is concerned. The roc was only a large eagle, large enough to fly away with a man lashed to one of its claws. But the great moa, the gigantic Dinornis of New Zealand, was a wingless bird, standing twelve feet high, stalking about on legs as long and as strong as a camel's, laying greenish-white eggs about a foot in length, and swallowing handfuls of pebbles to aid its digestion. This stupendous bird is believed to be wholly extinct; though there is no positive reason why it should not be found living in some of the hitherto unexplored and all but inaccessible solitudes on the south-west coast of the Middle Island. But its remains are found in immense quantities in both islands, showing that at one time it was exceedingly common. The museums in New Zealand contain a great many fine skeletons of the moa, as well as fragments of the eggs, bones of the chicks, feathers, and stones from the crop, found in the skeletons. There is no more puzzling problem, perhaps, than that of the moa. Judging from the recent appearance of the bones, feathers, and other relics, which are found either in caves or close to the surface of the ground, in all sorts of situations, it might be supposed to have only died out, like some other native birds, within the memory of man. Some old Maoris have been heard to declare that they hunted and ate the moa in their youth. Yet the fact that no allusion to the moa has ever been found in any Maori legend or genealogy, some of which go back nearly eight hundred years—whereas these page 31records abound in allusions to all other natural objects— seems to some authorities conclusive against the bird's existence in recent times. That the moa was at one time hunted and eaten in enormous numbers is proved beyond question by the evidence of cooked bones found among burnt stones in ancient ovens, with stone weapons or implements. But when that time was, or who the moahunters were, are matters beyond the ken of mortal man.
There are still in New Zealand in considerable numbers, however, other wingless birds, though on a comparatively diminutive scale. Their name is kiwi, and there are several species. The small kiwi is about a foot high, and about the same length. It has a round body covered with soft plumage, at first sight resembling brown or dark-grey fur; no tail, not a sign of wings, thick legs, and three finger-like toes, and a long, curved, slender bill—sensitive to the point —through which it sucks its food in swamps or shallows. There is a larger kiwi nearly three feet high.
* [Known also as the wood-hen.]
("New Zealand after Fifty Years").