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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Graucalus Melanops. — (Australian Shrike.)

Graucalus Melanops.
(Australian Shrike.)

  • Black-faced Crow, Lath. Gen. Syn. Suppl. ii. p. 116 (1801).

  • Corvus melanops, Lath. Suppl. Ind. Orn. p. xxiv (1801).

  • Rollier à masque noir, Levaill. Ois. de Paradis, pl. 30 (1806).

  • Ceblepyris melanops, Temm. Man. d’Orn. i. pl. lxii. (1820).

  • Graucalus melanops, Vig. & Horsf. Tr. Linn. Soc. xv. p. 216 (1826).

  • Graucalus melanotis, Gould, P. Z. S. 1837, p. 143.

  • Campephaga melanops, Gray, Cat. B. N. Guin. p. 32 (1859).

  • Colluricincla concinna, Hutton, Cat. B. New Zealand, p. 15 (1871).

  • Graucalus concinnus, Hutton, Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. v. p. 225 (1872).

  • Graucalus melanops, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 148 (1873).

Descr. exempl. ex N.Z. Suprà cinereus: tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus: remigibus nigricanti-brunneis, primariis angustè, secundariis latiùs albido marginatis: rectricibus nigricanti-brunncis, parte basali cinereâ, pennis externis ad apicem albis, duabus exterioribus graduatim obliquè albis, rectrice extimâ etiam albo marginatâ: facie laterali totâ nigrâ: gutture et pectore superiore cinereis dorso concoloribus: corpore reliquo subtùs albo: rostro nigro versùs basin mandibulæ brunnescente: pedibus saturatè brunneis.

New-Zealand example (young). General plumage light cinereous or ashy grey; a patch of black fills the lores, crosses the eyes, and covers the cheeks and ear-coverts; on the upper part of the breast the grey fades into white, with a purplish tinge; lower part of breast, lining of wings, flanks, abdomen, and under tail-coverts pure white; wing-feathers dark brown, the primaries narrowly and the secondaries broadly margined with greyish white; tail-feathers dark brown, the two middle ones tinged with ashy grey, especially in their basal portion; the lateral ones tipped progressively outwards with white, the outermost one on each side having an inch at the extremity and a narrow line along the apical portion of its outer web pure white. Bill black, changing to brown at the base of the lower mandible; legs blackish brown. Total length 13 inches; wing, from flexure, 8; tail 5·5; bill, along the ridge ·9, along the edge of lower mandible 1·25; tarsus 1·12; middle toe and claw 1·2; hind toe and claw 1.

Adult male (from Australia). General colour above light French grey, the wing-coverts like the back, with edgings of still lighter grey; primary-coverts and primaries black, externally edged with grey, inclining to white towards the tips of the quills; secondaries black, the outer aspect of the feathers light grey on the innermost, with the outer web grey and the inner one black; two centre tail-feathers ashy grey, blacker towards the tip, which is white, all the other feathers black, washed with grey towards the base and tipped with white, which increases in extent towards the outermost feather, which is also edged with white along the outer web; entire forehead, feathers above the eye, ear-coverts, sides of face, sides of neck, entire throat, and fore neck black, with a greenish gloss, fading off paler towards the chest, which is iron-grey, becoming gradually lighter and more delicate grey on the sides of the body, so as to leave only the lower abdomen and under tail-coverts pure white; thighs grey; under wing-coverts and axillaries pure white, as also the inner lining of the quills, which are otherwise ashy grey below; bill black; feet dull ashy; iris black. Total length 12·5 inches, culmen 1·05, wing 7·65, tail 5·75, tarsus 1·05. (Cat. Birds Brit. Mus. vol. iv. p. 31.)

Obs. “♂, Louisiade Islands specimen, wing 8·1 inches; ♀ N.W. Australia, wing 7·1 inches. These two seem to be the extremes, and every intermediate link between them can be found.” (Id. l. c.)

page 67

The example from which the above description is taken was shot by Mr. Giblin at Motueka, in the Provincial district of Nelson, and now forms part of the public collection in the Nelson Museum. Mr. Huddleston informs me that he saw the bird in the flesh, and knows the precise locality in which it was shot. There can be no doubt, therefore, as to the authenticity of the specimen as a New-Zealand bird; but as it appears to be quite unknown to the natives of the country, it may, I think, be safely assumed that this was an accidental visitant from Australia, where the species is very plentiful. Another example was shot at Invercargill in April 1870, and forwarded to the Colonial Museum. Of this Professor Hutton writes (l. c.):—“Like the bird shot in Nelson province, this one also has the general plumage of the young of G. melanops; but the feathers of the chin and forehead are similar to those on the throat and top of the head, and not lighter as in G. melanops; there is also no indication of any black feathers coming on the chin or upper part of the head. It differs from the Australian bird in having a more slender bill, a rather longer tail, the feathers of which are acutely pointed at the tip instead of being rounded, and in having much more white on the wings. These differences are, I think, quite sufficient to warrant its being kept as a distinct species”*. He adds:—“Mr. Mantell has informed me that he saw this bird many years ago at Port Chalmers in Otago; Mr. W. Travers says that he has seen it at Nelson, and Captain Fraser says that he saw it near Hawea Lake in Otago.”

This species is liable to so much variation, both in plumage and size, that I am unable at present to consider the form which has thus occurred at such rare intervals in New Zealand as distinct from the Australian one. Of the latter Mr. Gould says that the “infinite changes of plumage which these birds undergo from youth to maturity render their investigation very perplexing.”

Dr. Finsch expresses his belief that the bird which has occurred in New Zealand is G. parvirostris, Gould; but Mr. Sharpe, in his account of G. melanops (Cat. of Birds Brit. Mus. iv. p. 31) says:—“This species varies much in size, but it is impossible to believe in the existence of more than one species; and G. parvirostris is little more than a race of the present bird.”

I have gone carefully over the whole series of skins in the British Museum, and am confirmed in my original conclusion that our bird is the young or immature state of G. melanops. I attach no value to the two characters on which Professor Hutton appears mainly to rely, namely, the white margins to the greater wing-coverts and the more acutely pointed tail-feathers. In a large series, of all ages, I find the extent of white on the wings very variable, and in the younger birds the tail-feathers are undoubtedly narrower at the points than in fully adult specimens. In the Nelson bird, of which a full description is given above, it will be seen that the former of Professor Hutton’s distinguishing characters is absent. I should be inclined to give more weight to the colour of the primaries, as described by him, because in every specimen of G. melanops examined by me the first five primaries are uniform brownish black, or with only a very narrow greyish-white margin on the outer web, there being no sign of any white tips. This difference, however, appears to me too trivial to separate the species, the more so as it is wanting in the Nelson example. The “white circular page 68 bands” afford to my mind further evidence of immaturity. If, however, it were the young of G. parvirostris (as suggested by Dr. Finsch), it ought to present other markings, for the young of this form exhibits numerous arrow-heads of brownish black on its chin and throat.

Assuming, therefore, the species to be the same, this bird is very common in New South Wales, especially in the summer months, frequenting “plains thinly covered with large trees,” rather than the thick brushes. It is said to be also abundantly dispersed over the plains of the interior, such as the Liverpool, and those which stretch away to the northward and eastward of New South Wales.

“It breeds in October and the three following months. The nest is often of a triangular form, in consequence of its being made to fit the angle of the fork of the horizontal branch in which it is placed; it is entirely composed of small dead twigs, firmly matted together with a very fine, white, downy substance like cobwebs and a species of lichen, giving the nest the same appearance as the branch upon which it is placed, and rendering it most difficult of detection. The ground-colour of the eggs, which are usually two in number, varies from wood-brown to asparagus-green, the blotches and spots, which are very generally dispersed over their surface, varying from dull chestnut-brown to light yellowish brown; in some instances they are also sparingly dotted with deep umber-brown; their medium length is thirteen lines, and breadth ten lines. Its note, which is seldom uttered, is a peculiar single purring or jarring sound, repeated several times in succession.” (Gould, Handb. Birds Austr. i. pp. 193, 194.)

The ornithology of New Zealand has now been so thoroughly explored that we cannot hope to make any further additions to our list of species, except by recording accidental visitants like the above at long intervals of time—such birds, for example, as Acanthochœra carunculata and Eurystomus pacificus; or the occurrence of foreign Waders, such stragglers from the flock as may occasionally pass out of their course to New Zealand during their seasonal migration—as, for instance, Charadrius fulvus and Phalaropus ruficapillus; or of oceanic species whose home is on the rolling sea and whose habitual range, within uncertain degrees of latitude and longitude, is often extended almost indefinitely by the terrific and long-continued storms that sweep over the face of the great Pacific Ocean—such as the beautiful red-tailed Tropic-bird (Phaëton rubricauda), or that noble “Vulture of the sea,” Tachypetes aquila, and the rarer kinds of Petrel. The opportunities, however, of recording such occurrences are becoming every year more difficult for the practical ornithologist, owing to the number and variety of foreign birds that are being introduced into the country through the efforts of Acclimatization Societies and other local agencies. In the early days of the colony nothing that was new escaped the vigilant eye of the Maori, and the appearance of a strange bird, whether on the sea-shore, in the lagoons, or on the land, was immediately noticed, and the fact sooner or later reported to the colonists. But nowadays the country teems with imported birds of every kind —Thrushes and Blackbirds, Greenfinches and Linnets in the woods and shrubberies; Pheasants, Partridges, and Quail in the open, with Sky-Larks and Starlings on the meadows; Black Swan and Egyptian Geese on the lagoons, and the ubiquitous Sparrow in every street and hedgerow, besides numberless other introduced species of more or less importance. Consequently, when a Maori sees a bird hitherto unknown to him he puts it down in his mind as a “manu pakeha,” and pays no further heed to it.

The occurrence in New Zealand, from time to time, of Australian and Polynesian forms, without any suspicion of human intervention or of artificial assistance such as that afforded by ships’ rigging, is a matter of extreme interest to the philosophic naturalist, because these cases serve to illustrate the manner in which the avifauna of oceanic islands lying far apart from one another or from any continental area—as, for example, Norfolk Island and Lord Howe’s Island—may undergo, in process of time and by insensible degrees, important changes of feature through the accidental intrusion of foreign types. For this reason, I have been very careful to notice in the present work every instance of the kind that has come to my knowledge.

* Graucalus concinnus, Hutton (l. c.):—“The whole of the upper surface uniform pale grey, the feathers of the forehead with the shafts darker; feathers of the throat and breast pale grey, slightly tipped with white; those of the upper abdomen and thïghs pale grey, with white circular bands; lower abdomen, vent, and under tail-coverts pure white; a broad band of black passes from the nostrils and gape through and below the eye to the region of the ears; primaries brownish black, the first slightly tipped with white, the second, third, fourth, and fifth margined outwardly and slightly tipped with white, the remainder margined all round with a white band, which is broader on the tip and inner web; secondaries greyish black, with more or less grey on the outer webs near the base, and with a rather broad white margin on the outer web and tip; greater wing-coverts margined outwardly with white; tail-feathers acutely pointed at the tip, the two middle ones brownish grey, laterals brownish black tipped with white, the white decreasing inwards; shafts of the tail-feathers greyish black above and pure white below; bill (dry) brownish black, paler at the base; legs and feet (dry) black. Wing 8 inches; tail 7; tarsus 1·1; hind toe ·8; middle toe 1·1; bill, culmen, ·85, breadth at nostrils ·4, height at nostrils ·35.”