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Forest Lore of the Maori

The Blight-bird or Silvereye:

The Blight-bird or Silvereye:

The pihipihi or blight-bird (Zosterops caerulescens), also known as tauhou, kanohi-mowhiti, and about ten other names, is a new-comer in these isles, having arrived here, by air-express apparently, in or about 1856, hence its name of tauhou or 'stranger.' It quickly spread over both islands, and ere long, the Maori began to take notice of it, owing to its numbers, and the ease with which it could be taken.

Taylor told us in his Te Ika a Maui that the little blight-bird "... made its appearance in the north isle in the winter of 1856; a few years before it was seen in the Middle Island for the first time, and was previously observed in the Auckland Isles; this little stranger is supposed originally to have migrated from Tasmania or Australia, where it is found." In his little Maori and English Dictionary the same writer states that this bird was first seen about Auckland in 1865. T. H. Potts teils us that the blight-bird first appeared in the Malvern district in 1856.

The following remarks concerning the arrival of the blightbird were written many years ago by the late Mr. Joshua Rutland of Pelorus Sound, and preserved in manuscript form: "The blight bird made its appearance in the Waimea, near Nelson, in 1856 or '57. The birds came in flocks just as they now do. The boys of the district called them 'the new kind of bird,' and this they were termed until the name 'blight-bird' was given them. The blight bird was plentiful in the Pelorus when I came here in 1860. These birds must either have arrived in large numbers in various parts of the country about 1856, or a few may have landed at some uninhabited portion of the island prior to that date, and thence spread after increasing. By collecting the dates of their first observance in various parts of the Colony light might be thrown on the question of their arrival; I page 327can vouch for my dates. Mr. Guard of Picton after returning from England some years ago told me that during the passage between Auckland and 'Frisco blight birds came on board the steamer, there being no land nearer than 300 miles at the time."

Colenso stated that the blight-bird reached Hawkes Bay in 1861. In the Canterbury Times of 4 August, 1915, Mr. Purdie maintained that he saw two of these birds at Dunedin in 1853 or 1854. In vol. 3 of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute Mr. Buchanan declared that he saw the birds in Otago in 1851, and that another person had seen them at Milford sound in 1832, while a certain Maori stated that the birds had always been in Southland. All this seems incredible, when we know that the bird was not seen in the North Island, or in the Nelson district until the year 1856. Sir W. Buller at one time believed the bird to be indigenous (see above Transactions, vol, 3, p. 17).

The blight-bird is probably the only small species still taken in numbers, and this by means of the hauhau or striking method, sometimes termed pae from the perch on which the birds settle, and from which they are struck down by the fowler. The apparatus has already been described, the two vertical pou, stout rods, support a horizontal perch (rongohua or pae) lashed to them about 4¼ or 5ft. from the groundline. It is on this perch that the birds settle when attracted by call-lure or decoys. Below the perch, and parallel to it, is stretched and secured a cord or strip of flax leaf called the tau maimoa, to which are suspended living birds to serve as decoys.

The first act of the fowler when he has erected his pae pihipihi is to procure a few birds to serve as decoys, and so he enters his rude booth of branches or tree-fern fronds, or both, where he is at least partially concealed. He may fasten a few leaves, or a small leafy branchlet, to the horizontal cord or tau, and then tie a strip of flax to the cord; this strip he holds in one hand, and, by pulling it he causes the leaves to shake, which quivering movement helps to attract the birds. At the same time he makes a twittering sound with his lips, which probably have a leaf between them, and the two lures will assuredly attract any blight-birds in the vicinity. When the birds commence to hover round the pae the fowler has his striker rod in Position, held with one hand in a vertical position against one end of the perch. Occasionally he lightly tugs with his other hand the takiri or string tied to the tau maimoa so as to keep the leaf decoy shaking, and constantly is heard the peeping sound that first attracts the bird. When curiosity has brought a number of the birds around the pae, some will not fail to settle on the perch, and when a fair 'rod-ful' page 328has assembled thereon, then the hauhau, whiu, or ta, for the striker is known by all these names, is brought into play, and the birds are swept off the perch by the swift sweep of the striker along it, to fall, more or less injured to the ground. A few of those least injured are tied to the tau maimoa, suspended by their beaks from the cord by means of a narrow strand of fibrous leaf thrust through their beaks. So suspended they flutter in their endeavours to escape, and so lure others of their kin to destruction; when they become so exhausted that they become motionless, a tug on the takiri starts them fluttering again. In order to avoid the possibility of striking the suspended decoys with the striking rod I have seen fowlers lash short lengths of wood in a horizontal position to the pou or uprights, and then secure the tau maimoa to them, thus removing the decoy birds from the line of action. One sometimes sees six or eight of these little birds struck down with one sweep of the rod, but I never saw the 'dozens' secured by one sweep, as reported by an enthusiast.

I have seen these birds taken in great numbers at Ruatahuna, many thousands of them killed, plucked, cooked whole without cleaning, and preserved in fat—in kerosene tins. They are eaten whole, bones and all, and the plucking is never cleanly done.

The tihe or stitch-bird, the saddle-back, bell-bird, crow, tomtit and whitehead were all taken by means of the above-described method in former times, but they are not seen at the pae pihipihi of to-day; they have gone in search of the vanished moa and kakoke, and their place is occupied by the alien tauhou.

A flock of about thirty blight-birds used to frequent my bush camp every winter. They constantly hovered about during the cold weather, enjoying food provided for them, particularly a mixture of water and brown sugar, of which they sipped from one to one and a half pints a day. Also they were almost continually bathing during the cold weather in vessels of water set out for them, even during a bitter southerly. During the summer they were seen occasionally among the trees but did not come for food or sweetened water, nor did they bathe much. The bird-baths and sweetened water were much favoured during the coldest weather.