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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Myiomoira Toitoi. — (North-Island Tomtit.)

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Myiomoira Toitoi.
(North-Island Tomtit.)

  • Muscicapa toitoi, Garnot, Voy. Coq. i. p. 590, t. xv. fig. 3 (1826).

  • Miro toitoi, Gray, in Dieff. Trav. ii., App. p. 191 (1843).

  • Petroica toitoi, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terror, Birds, p. 6 (1844).

  • Myiomoira toitoi, Reich. Syst. Av. Taf. lxvii. (1850).

  • Muscicapa albopectus, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7465.

Native names.

Miromiro, Komiromiro, Pimiromiro, Ngirungiru, Pingirungiru, and Pipitori.

♂ suprà sericeo-niger: maculâ frontali conspicuâ albâ: tectricibus alarum plerumque nigris, medianis brunnescentibus: remigibus brunneis, primariis interioribus ad basin albo maculatis, secundariis magis conspicuè notatis, plagam albam exhibentibus: caudâ nigrâ, rectricibus tribus exterioribus ferè omninò albis, basi pogonii interni et apice pogonii externi exceptis nigris: facie laterali, gutture toto et pectore superiore nigris, gulâ, vix brunnescente: corpore reliquo subtùs albo, basi plumarum nigricante: rostro et pedibus nigricantibrunneis: plantis pedum flavicantibus: iride nigrâ.

♀ mari dissimilis: brunnea, subtùs albida, hypochondriis brunnescente lavatis: loris et facie laterali brunneis, fulvescente variis.

Adult male. Head, neck all round, and all the upper parts black; frontal spot, at the base of the upper mandible, white; breast and underparts pure white, the black of the fore neck having a sharply defined lower edge; wing-feathers crossed near their base by an angular patch of white, which is narrow and interrupted on the primaries, broad and continuous on the secondaries, the black shafts, however, forming fine intersecting lines; tail black, the three outer feathers on each side crossed obliquely upwards by a broad bar of white, which covers more than a third of their surface. Irides and rictal bristles black; bill and tarsi blackish brown; toes paler, yellow on their inner surface. Total length 5 inches; wing, from flexure, 3; tail 2·25; bill, along the ridge ·4, along the edge of the lower mandible ·5; tarsus ·75; middle toe and claw ·8; hind toe and claw ·65.

Adult female. Upper surface smoky brown, with a minute frontal spot of white; throat, fore neck, and all the underparts greyish white, more or less clouded with dull smoky brown; wing-feathers blackish brown, a bar across the base of the secondaries and some indistinct marks on the webs of the outer primaries fulvous white; tail black, the three outer feathers on each side barred obliquely with white, as in the male.

Young. In the young male the colours are much duller and browner, and the sharply defined pectoral line is wanting; but the plumage is sufficiently different from that of the female to distinguish the sexes.

Obs. The sexes do not present any perceptible difference in size. Individuals, however, vary perceptibly. The measurements of an ordinary bird are given above; but a smaller example of the adult male which I shot in the Forty-Mile Bush gave the following results:—Length 4·75 inches; extent of wings 8; wing, from flexure, 2·75; tail 2; bill, along the ridge ·25, along the edge of lower mandible ·5; tarsus ·75; middle toe and claw ·75.

In both sexes the tongue, palate, and interior of the mouth, as well as the angle, are orange-yellow; differing in this respect from Clitonyx, in which the male bird has a black mouth and the female a flesh-coloured one.

page 40

This elegant little bird belongs to the North Island, where it has a pretty general distribution, being met with in all localities suited to its habits*. It is a familiar species, seeking the habitations of man, and taking up its abode in his gardens and orchards. It is always to be seen in the clearings and cultivated grounds near the bush, moving about in a peculiar fitful manner, and in the early morn may be heard uttering a prolonged trilling note, very sweet and plaintive. Its usual attitude is with the wings slightly lowered and the tail perfectly erect, almost at a right angle with the body. It has a sparkling black eye, and all its actions are lively and sprightly. The strongly contrasted plumage of the male bird renders it a conspicuous object; but the female, owing to her sombre colours and less obtrusive habits, is rarely seen. Its note in the early morning is like the Maori syllables ngi-i-ru, ngiru-ngiru, from which it derives its native name, the first syllable being somewhat prolonged. Throughout the day, and often till late in the evening, it utters, at frequent intervals, a soft note like the words “Willoughby-willoughby,” repeated several times. This is often heard in association with the musical trill of Gerygone, the two birds warbling, as it were responsively, from the same bush.

It is very tenacious of life, and I have found it difficult to kill, even with dust-shot, the bird often flying some distance after being mortally wounded. On examining it after death, one is struck with the disproportionately large size of the head, which is kept drawn in upon the body during life, as shown in the figure. The plumage, which is peculiarly soft and yielding, is distributed in well-defined tracts or areas, as in all other Carinate birds; but the intervening spaces are unusually wide, being perfectly smooth and bare, and the skin on the hind neck rises in a peculiar, naked fold, with a narrow line of feathers on the top like a mane.

It is interesting to watch this active little creature as it flits about the fences and fallen timber in the bush-clearings, where it is to be found at all hours of the day. It rests for a moment on its perch, flirting its wings and tail in a rapid manner, then darts to the ground to pick up a grub or earthworm, and, flying upwards again almost immediately, clings by its tiny feet to the upright bole of a tree or some other perpendicular surface, a peculiar attitude which it appears to delight in. Its food consists of small insects and their larvæ; and it proves itself useful by devouring a destructive little aphide which infests our fruit-trees. I have opened many and in every instance found its stomach full of minute insect remains, proving how serviceable it must be to the husbandman.

Like its allies, Erythacus for instance, this bird has a pugnacious spirit, and during the pairing-season the males meet and fight on the slightest provocation, whether real or imaginary.

I have noticed that it often manifests an attachment for a particular locality, resorting to the same perch day after day. The Maoris, too, have observed this; and at Otaki they passed their title to a plot of ground through the Native Land Court under the name of “Te-tau-a-te-Miromiro” (the perching-place of the Miromiro).

It is far less plentiful than it formerly was in our fields and gardens. There seems no reason to fear, however, that the species is dying out, for in the Fagus forests of the interior I have found it extremely plentiful. In the woods at the foot of Ruapehu and neighbouring high lands, where, save the occasional twitter of small birds in the branches, all is silent as the grave, this pretty little creature is always to be met with. It flits noiselessly from one tree to another, then descends to the ground, and in a few instants reappears on its perch, flirting its tail upwards, and emitting at intervals a soft call-note of peculiar sweetness. Destitute of animal life as these sub-alpine woods undoubtedly are, they are not without their attractions. Owing to their high elevation vapour-clouds are continually hanging over them, causing a perpetual moisture. In consequence of this the page 41 trees on their outer facies are more or less covered with kohukohu, a feathery fungus of a pale green colour, hanging like drapery from the branches, while their trunks and limbs are clad to their very tops with the richest profusion of lichens and mosses. No idea can be formed of the quasi-tropical richness of these woods in this respect by any one who has not actually visited them.

Its ally, Myiomoira macrocephala, in the South Island, has the same habit of frequenting high altitudes; for not only is this bird met with among the high tussock-grass on the plains, but likewise on the summits of the ranges, flitting about among the snow-grass and other stunted vegetation, at an elevation of 5000 feet or more, and subsisting on the small alpine lepidoptera and théir larvæ, or such diptera and other minute insects as inhabit these mountain heights.

Common as this species is, I have found it difficult to study its breeding-habits, and have never succeeded in finding more than one nest. I met with this in the Upper Hutt valley, in the neighbourhood of Wellington, as late as the 3rd of December. It was placed in the cavity of a tree a few feet from the ground, and contained four young birds apparently about a week old. The nest was composed entirely of dry moss, shallow in its construction, but with a neatly finished rim or outer edge. The parent birds manifested some solicitude for the safety of their offspring while I was handling them. After I had replaced the young birds and retired a few steps from the spot, the female squatted upon the nest, which was sufficiently near the entrance of the cavity to be distinctly visible; and on being disturbed she fluttered away with wings outstretched and quivering, as if unable to fly, and apparently to divert attention from the nest.

Mr. Weston Brown, a bird-collector at Wellington, showed me a pair of newly fledged young birds of this species which he had taken himself. He informed me that he had found them in a rudely constructed nest in the hollow of a whitewood tree, and about 9 inches from the entrance. There were only two young birds in the nest, and these were male and female. The plumage of the former was strongly suffused with brown; but the colours were sufficiently distinct to indicate the sex.

During the early part of the breeding-season the female is never visible, and I think it is probable that while engaged in the task of incubation she is attended and fed by the male, for I have seen the latter carrying food in his bill. As late as September 30, I have seen as many as ten males in an afternoon’s ramble, without catching a glimpse of the other sex. The young birds do not seem to pair till the second year; for in the breeding-season I have, on dissection, found well-plumaged birds with microscopic testes, whilst in others these organs were developed to the size of buck-shot, being conspicuously large for so small a creature.

There is every reason to believe that this species breeds twice in the season, because it is a common thing to find nests containing fresh eggs in October and again in December. The usual complement of eggs is four, but sometimes there are only three. Mr. Reischek told me that, on the Little Barrier, he came upon a nest, containing three eggs, which through some misadventure had got filled with rain-water. The birds seemed fully aware of the gravity of the situation, and were flitting around it in a very excited and distressed manner; but when he proceeded to take possession of both nest and eggs they sat perfectly quiet and did not utter a sound.

The nest is a compact round structure, with a thick foundation, and composed of dry moss, grass, and vegetable fibres, felted together; the cup, which is comparatively large, measuring 2·25 inches in diameter, is often lined with the inner bark of the ribbon-wood (Hoheria populnea), and the outer rim is well pressed together just as if bound by some invisible thread. The eggs are of large size in proportion to the bird, measuring ·85 inch in length by ·80 in breadth; they are in form broadly ovoido-conical and are creamy white, freckled all over with yellowish brown, the markings running together and forming a clouded zone near the larger end. Sometimes the zone is absent and the freckled appearance less pronounced. A specimen taken from a nest in the hole of a dry stump differs in being of a pale reddish tint, thickly speckled and freckled with light brown.

* Mr. Sharpe says (Cat. Birds Brit. Mus.) that M. toitoi is found in the Chatham Islands. But this is obviously a mistake, the only species at present known from these islands being M. dieffenbachii, which, as explained above, is identical with M. macrocephala of the South Island.