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The New Zealand Reader

Animal Life

Animal Life.

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.

If we add to the two little bats and the kiore the several kinds of seals which frequent the southern shores of New Zealand at certain seasons, we have already exhausted the whole list of non-introduced land-mammals. There were absolutely no other beasts; while the reptiles are confined to the lizards, the beautiful but insignificant little creatures about as long as the finger, which are found everywhere near the sea-shore, and the weird tuatara, a dark-brown fringed lizard or iguana, from six to eighteen inches in length, which is only found on certain exposed and rocky islets on the coast of the North Island, and in Cook Strait. The tuatara is repulsively ugly, judged by any conventional ideas of beauty, but is perfectly harmless, and is probably very good to eat—for those who have a stomach for such uncanny fare. Its most remarkable characteristic is, however, its unequalled capacity of dolce far niente.* It is found in its natural habitat clinging motionless to its rock, perfectly regardless, apparently, either of the driving spray of the bitter southerly storm or of the blinding glare of the northern sun. In short, it has no feelings. It wants very little food or drink, and is quite content to be kept in a glass case for months or years, even

* [Italian—"sweet inactivity."]

page 29the want of air seeming to affect its sluggish vitality very slightly, if at all. It makes no noise, and moves so seldom or so slowly that many people have watched a number of tuatara in a case until they were tired, and then have gone away in the firm conviction that the creatures were stuffed. Yet, when they have come back next day, they have found their position altered, and, by keeping a steady gaze on them, have seen their golden eyes blinking or their leathery sides slightly palpitating, or a solemn head moving as slowly as the minute-hand of a clock. The Maoris have a superstitious horror of the tuatara, and will run away in abject fear if one is produced. Yet it is almost absolutely innocuous, having no weapon of offence or defence, and no energy to use either if it had it.*
Two mythical animals may here be briefly mentioned— these are the taniwha and the kaurehe. Both are aquatic or amphibious in their habits; the taniwha being apparently confined to the North Island, and the kaurehe to the Middle Island. The taniwha is a powerful and bloodthirsty monster, frequenting tapu or sacred pools or rivers, but sometimes met with in the sea, and devouring persons who profanely violate the sanctity of its haunts, or who have otherwise offended the gods. Some years ago, a Maori clergyman of the Church of England, on the East Coast, reported to the Government that a beautiful and beloved young woman, a member of his flock, had rashly gone to bathe in a tapu pool against his and her friends' entreaties; that she had been missing for some days; and that then her body had been found on a rock beside the pool, badly mangled by a taniwha. There is no English name for the taniwha; but it may safely be classed under the generic name of "bogey." The kaurehe has at least a possible existence. It is supposed to be a kind of large otter—as large as a calf, some say—but the evidences of it are far from satisfactory. Several credible observers have described the trail of some such animal on the mud, or smooth, sandy shore of lakes; and the late learned Cura-

* [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.]

page 30tor
of the Canterbury Museum, Sir Julius von Haast, recorded having heard the movement of some such animal by night when camped beside a lake in Nelson, and having been robbed of a bundle of fish. Shepherds and others in the alpine regions go so far as to declare that they have seen the kaurehe either lying on the shore of the lakes or swimming in the water; but none of their accounts will bear very close examination. The Maoris firmly believe in the kaurehe; but then the Maori mind is not too exacting in its estimate of the value of evidence.

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.

The weka* is a mere ordinary-looking fowl, of a richbrown colour, with red eyes, something like a hen-pheasant, with short wings and a very short tail; but its habits are most peculiar. Though it has wings, it never ffies. It is the most inquisitive creature living, and, but for the extraordinary quickness and cunning of its movements, would fall an easy prey to all sorts of enemies through that failing. It must always know what is going on, and will even enter boldly the tent of the encamped traveller, and steal his goods and chattels as he lies in his blanket. It is very common, when a coach stops to change horses at some roadside stable in the unpeopled wilds, to see three or four of these queer birds emerge from the surrounding herbage, and gravely and minutely investigate the proceedings, walking almost under the horses' heels, and surveying the passengers as if they were old friends, yet ready, at the first hostile sign, to make themselves scarce, as if by magic. Many a man's life has been saved in the bush, when starvation seemed inevitable, by a knowledge of the weka's insatiable thirst for knowledge. The plan is to tie a piece of rag or paper—the wing of a small bird best of all—to the end of a string or switch; then to tap with a regular cadence on a

* [Known also as the wood-hen.]

page 32log or tree or stone. Soon comes a weka, or two, or three, poking and gliding and popping about, evidently wondering where on earth the strange noise can proceed from. The hungry bushman remains concealed in the foliage, and goes on tapping until the weka is close to him. Then he swings the string or switch with the lure attached to it, slowly and regularly, at arm's length, holding a stout stick ready in the other hand. The weka cannot resist this. It comes boldly up, and, without giving a look or a thought to the man, stands up and pecks at the swinging object. The stick descends smartly, and knocks it down, dead or disabled; when, if the traveller is wise, he skins it immediately. The weka is excellent food, but so exceedingly oily as to be repulsive if not skinned at once after it is killed. The oil is a very efficacious salve for wounds or bruises, and is also used for dressing boots to make them watertight. It is said, however, that it soon destroys the leather if used often.

Edward Wakefield

("New Zealand after Fifty Years").