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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Rhipidura Flabellifera. — (Pied Fantail.)

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Rhipidura Flabellifera.
(Pied Fantail.)

  • Fan-tailed Flycatcher, Lath. Gen. Syn. ii. pt. 1, p. 340, pl. xlix. (1783).

  • Muscicapa flabellifera, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 943 (1788, ex Lath.).

  • Rhipidura flabellifera, Gray, in Dieff. Trav. ii., App. p. 190 (1843).

  • Muscicapa ventilabrum, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 86 (1844).

  • Rhipidura albiscapa, Cass. U. S. Expl. Exp. p. 150 (1858, nec Gould).

Native names,

Piwaiwaka, Tiwaiwaka, Piwakawaka, Tirairaka, Pirairaka, Tiwakawaka, and Pitakataka.

Ad. suprà olivascenti-brunneus, pileo nigricante: lineâ supraoculari albidâ: tectricibus alarum brunncis, olivaceo lavatis, albido terminatis: remigibus nigricanti-brunneis extùs dorsi colore lavatis: caudâ aordidè albâ, scapis purè albis, rectricibus duabus centralibus nigricantibus ad apicem albidis, reliquis extùs brunnescentinigris, pennâ extimâ omninò albidâ: facie laterali pileo concolore: gulâ albidâ: torque pectorali nigrâ: subtùs aurantiaco-fulvus, pectore superiore et subcaudalibus pallidioribus: cruribus nigricantibus: rostro nigro: pedibus brunnescenti-nigris: iride nigrâ.

Juv. similis adulto, sed suprà magis brunnescens: gutture grisescenti-albo: corpore reliquo subtùs sordidè fulvescentó: torque pectorali absente: tectricibus alarum fulvido apicatis, et secundariis extùs eodem colore marginatis.

Adult male. Crown, nape, and sides of the head sooty black; the whole of the back, rump, and upper surface of wings dark olive-brown; the small wing-coverts tipped with fulvous white; rictal bristles black; throat and mark over the eyes greyish white; across the fore neck and upper part of breast a broad band of sooty black; lower part of breast and all the under surface fulvous, tinged with cinnamon, the base of the feathers plumbeous; quills dark olive-brown, with paler shafts, the inner secondaries edged with fulvous white; the two middle tail-feathers brownish black, with pure white shafts, and tipped with greyish white; the lateral feathers greyish white and, with the exception of the outermost one on each side, margined on their outer webs with brownish black, all having pure white shafts. Irides and bill black; feet blackish brown; soles greyish. Total length 6·5 inches; extent of wings 8; wing, from flexure, 2·75; tail 4; bill, along the ridge ·3, along the edge of lower mandible ·4; tarsus ·7; middle toe and claw ·6; hind toe and claw ·5.

Female. Similar in plumage to the male, but slightly smaller.

Young. The young bird has the throat greyish white; the breast and all the under surface dark fulvous brown; the small wing-coverts are largely tipped and the secondaries narrowly edged with fulvous brown, and the plumage of the back is more or less tinged with the same colour.

Obs. I have observed birds in the young plumage as late as the middle of March; but the adult livery is certainly assumed at the first moult.

The Pied Fantail, ever flitting about with broadly expanded tail, and performing all manner of page 70 fantastic evolutions, in its diligent pursuit of gnats and flies, is one of the most pleasing and attractive objects in the New-Zealand forest.

It is very tame and familiar, allowing a person to approach within a few feet of it without evincing any alarm, sometimes, indeed, perching for an instant on his head or shoulders. It will often enter the settler’s house in the bush, and remain there for days together, clearing the window-panes of sand-flies, fluttering about the open rooms with an incessant lively twitter during the day, and roosting at night under the friendly roof*. It is found, generally in pairs, on the outskirts of the forest, in the open glades, and in all similar localities adapted to its habits of life. It loves to frequent the wooded banks of mountain-streams and rivulets, where it may be seen hovering over the surface of the water collecting gnats; and I have counted as many as ten of them at one time so engaged. It affects low shrubby bushes and the branches of fallen trees; but it may often be seen catering for its insect-food among the topmost branches of the high timber.

You may always make sure of finding it flitting noiselessly about the bushes at the edges of the little mountain-stream which

“Chatters over stony ways,
In little sharps and trebles,
And bubbles into eddying bays,
And babbles on the pebbles.”

These localities often swarm with minute diptera, on which the bird subsists. And I have seen five or six of them together displaying their fans, and hawking, as it were, for these invisible flies above the surface of the water.

In winter it generally frequents the darker parts of the forest, where insect-life is more abundant at that season; but it is nevertheless to be met with, wherever there is any bush, all the year round. It is a true Flycatcher, subsisting entirely by the chase: darting forth from its perch, it performs a number of aërial evolutions in pursuit of invisible flies-the snapping of its mandibles as it catches its prey being distinctly audible-and generally returns to the twig from which it started. It hops about along the dry branches of a prostrate tree, or upwards along the tangled vines of the kareao (Rhipogonum scandens), with its tail half expanded and its wings drooping, seizing a little victim at almost every turn, and all the while uttering a pleasant twitter. When hurt or alarmed it immediately closes its pretty fan, and silently flies off in a direct course, disappearing in the denser foliage.

It breeds twice in the season, producing four young ones at each sitting. It generally commences to build in September, and brings out its first brood about the last week in October. The second brood appears to leave the nest about the beginning of January.

The nest is a beautiful little structure, compact and symmetrical, A forked twig is the site usually selected; and the nest, instead of being placed within the fork for support, is built around it, the branchlets being thus made to serve the purpose of braces and stays to strengthen the work and to hold it together. It is therefore generally impossible to remove or detach the nest from the branch without tearing it to pieces. In form it is cup-shaped, the upper part towards the rim being closely interwoven and securely bound, while the base is left unfinished or loosely constructed. The materials composing the foundation are light fragments of decayed wood, coarse mosses, and the skeletons of dead leaves. The centre and upper portion of the nest consist principally of the tough and elastic seed-stems of various mosses finely interwoven. There is an exterior wall composed of

* Major Jackson told me a romantic story about this bird. A friend of his met with an accident and got his leg broken. He was carried into a little country house, and could not safely be moved for some time. During his detention he suffered very much from the heat and the swarms of small flies that inraded his improvised hospital. On one occasion, however, the window being open, a Fantail came in from the adjoining garden, took up its station on a peg in the wall, and soon cleared the room of flies, flitting airily about, and snapping its mandibles so long as a single fly remained. After this and as long as the invalid remained, the bird was a daily visitors, ministering in the manner described to the peace and comfort of the fly-pestered inmate.

page 71 cow-hair, the downy seed-vessels of plants, and other soft materials, and the whole is admirably bound together with fine spiders’ webs. The interior cavity, which is rather large in proportion to the nest, is closely lined with fibrous grasses, or bents, disposed in a circular form. I have examined numbers of nests, and I have observed that the materials employed vary slightly, according to the locality, specimens collected in the vicinity of farmhouses disclosing tufts of wool, fragments of cloth, remnants of cotton-thread, &c. among the building-materials; nevertheless, in every instance that has come under my notice, the use of spiders’ webs for binding the walls has been adhered to, thus manifesting a very decided instinct. The eggs are usually four in number, slightly ovoido-conical, and measuring ·7 of an inch in length by ·5 in breadth; they are white, with numerous purplish-brown freckles, denser and forming an obscure zone towards the larger end.

Mr. J. H. Gurney (‘Ibis,’ 1860, p. 212), in his account of the Red-throated Widow-bird (Vidua rubritorques, Swains.), says:—“These birds build amongst the grass in the open country. The nest is curiously built; they select a convenient tuft of grass, and interlace the blades as they stand, without breaking them off; so that the nest is green during the whole time of incubation, and is very beautiful when thus seen.” This brings to my recollection a very pretty nest of the Pied Fantail which I found in the Kaipara woods many years ago. It was smaller and more cup-shaped than the generality of these nests, and was composed chiefly of moss firmly bound together with spiders’ webs; but it was an “old nest,” and the winter rains had soaked it, causing the moss to vegetate afresh; and when it came into my hands it was covered on the outer surface with a luxuriant growth of stunted moss of the brightest green, and presented a very beautiful appearance.

To any one having any experience of bird-craft, it is very easy to discover the nest of this species. The movements of the old birds, properly interpreted, are a very sure index. As you approach the nest, the Fantails, which follow your steps with an incessant twitter, become ominously silent. If you fail immediately to discover the object of your search, and chance to wander away from it, the anxious little birds give vent to their joy by an exuberant strain of notes, which, as I have often thought, might be appropriately compared to the supposed merry laugh of one of Gulliver’s Liliputians*. On one occasion I succeeded in capturing the old bird on the nest, which was found to contain four unfledged young ones. I placed my captive in a cage, together with the nest and young: she refused food, and vented her rage by pecking her young ones to death. On the following morning I liberated the parent, regretting much that I had invaded her domestic happiness.

The multiplication of numbers by second broods, in the proportion of four to one, as already noticed, appears to me a wise provision of Nature to save the species from extinction. At the close of the breeding-season the Fantails, principally in the immature plumage, are excessively abundant; by the end of the year their numbers have been considerably thinned, owing to the joint ravages of the wild cat, the Bush-Hawk, and Morepork, to all of which this defenceless little creature falls an easy prey. The reproduction by each pair of eight young ones every season seems, therefore, almost necessary to preserve the very existence of this species in the balance of life.

Long may the Pied Fantail thrive and prosper, in the face of cats, owls, naturalists, and the whole race of depredators; for without it our woods would lack one of their prettiest attractions, and our fauna its gentlest representative!

* In one of the Maori legends we are told that the great ancestor Maui-Potaka, whose ordinary companions were a flock of Piwaiwaka, was betrayed by this “laugh” when eating up the body of Hinenuitepo and was forthwith killed. The myth relates how those little birds could contain themselves no longer, and when Hinenuitepo’s head and shoulders had disappeared down Maui-Potaka’s throat “they danced about and laughed,” a pretty allusion to the habits of the Fantail.