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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Anthornis Melanura. — (Bell-Bird.)

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Anthornis Melanura.

  • Mocking-Creeper, Lath. Gen. Syn. ii. p. 735 (1782).

  • Certhia melanura, Sparrm. Mus. Carls. pl. v. (1786).

  • Certhia sannio, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 471 (1788).

  • Philedon dumerilii, Less. Voy. Coq. Zool. i. p. 644, t. 21. fig. 2 (1826).

  • Anthomiza cœruleocephala, Swains. Classif. of B. ii. p. 327 (1837).

  • Philedon sannio, Less. Compl. Buff. xi. p. 165 (1838).

  • Anthornis melanura, Gray, List of Gen. of B. p. 15 (1840).

  • Certhia olivacea, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 79 (1844).

  • Anthornis ruficeps, Von Pelz. Verh. zool.-bot. Gesellsch. Wien, 1867, p. 316.

Native names.

Mako, Makomako, Komako, Kokomako, Korimako, Kohimako, Kokorimako, Kohorimako, Titimako, and Kopara. Of the above names, Korimako is most generally used by the northern and Makomako by the southern tribes. The Ngatiawa call this bird Rearea; and the natives of the Bay of Plenty distinguish the male and female as Kokorohimako and Titapu.

♂ suprà flavicanti-olivaceus, uropygio vix lætiore: pileo undique metallicè violaceo nitente: loris et mento ipso nigricantibus: tectricibus alarum nigricantibus dorsi colore lavatis: remigibus nigricantibus vix sub certâ luce indigotico nitentibus, extùs angustè olivaceo limbatis, scapis suprà nigricantibus, subtùs brunnescentibus: caudâ nigrâ, subtùs pallidiore, rectricibus extùs sordidè indigotico lavatis: subtùs flavicanti-olivaceus, hypochondriis imis paullò lætioribus: crisso et subcaudalibus flavicanti-albis, olivaceo-brunneo variis: subalaribus cinerascentibus, olivaceo lavatis: fasciis axillaribus flavidis: rostro nigro: pedibus plumbeis, unguibus brunneis: iride rubrâ.

♀ mari similis, sed magis olivaceo-brunnescens, et ubique sordidior: pileo dorso concolore, metallicè viridi obscurè nitente: alis et caudâ brunnescentibus, secundariis fulvo terminatis et rectricibus olivaceo-viridi limbatis: fasciâ mystacali parvâ: albidâ: subtùs brunnescens, pectore pallidè ferrugineo lavato, abdomine magis olivascente: subalaribus et fasciis axillaribus sordidè flavidis.

juv. similis mari adulto, sed pallidior: fasciâ mystacali indistinctâ.

Adult male. The whole of the plumage olive-green, changing to yellowish-olive on the sides of the body and abdomen; beneath plumbeous; forehead, crown, and sides of the head glossed with deep purple; primary quills and tail-feathers dusky black, darker and having a steel gloss on the outer webs; the secondary quills narrowly margined outwardly with olive-green, which colour spreads on the inner ones till it nearly covers the entire web; inner lining of wings, as well as the soft ventral feathers and under tail-coverts, pale fulvous yellow. Irides cherry-red; bill black; tarsi and toes dark leaden grey; the claws brown. Total length 7·75 inches; wing, from flexure, 3·4; tail, to the extremity of lateral feathers, 3·6; bill, along the ridge ·6, along the edge of lower mandible ·75; tarsus 1; middle toe and claw ·6; hind toe and claw ·75.

Adult female. Smaller than the male, with little or no purple gloss on the head, and readily distinguished by a page 86 narrow streak of white, which extends downwards from the angles of the mouth, fading off in a line with the ear-coverts. Upper parts dull olivaceous; throat, breast, and underparts generally yellowish brown, strongly tinged with olive; quills and tail-feathers dusky black, margined on their outer webs with olivaceous; linings of wings, vent, and under tail-coverts fulvous white, washed with yellow.

Young male. Plumage lighter than in the adult bird, with a narrow indistinct line of yellowish white from the angles of the mouth.

Nestling. Plumage fluffy and colours dull. The membrane at the corners of the mouth strongly developed and of a bright yellow colour.

Obs. The bird described by Herr von Pelzeln (l. c.) under the name of Anthornis ruficeps was, what I had always contended for*, nothing but a flower-stained example of the present species. In acknowledgment of this I have received the following note from my friend Dr. Finsch, of Bremen:—“You are quite right in respect to A. ruficeps. The red colour on the face is caused by external influences; for my friend Von Pelzeln has washed the type in the Vienna Museum, and the red tinge has partially disappeared.” But, even as far back as 1782, Latham mentions (l. c.) the existence of a red stain in some specimens, and ascribes it to the true cause, adding “this in time rubs off, and the colour of the head appears the same as the rest of the plumage.”

Varieties. On the 10th October, 1874, a partial albino was brought to the Canterbury Museum, and I had an opportunity of examining it in the flesh. Although I had seen probably some thousands of this species, this was the first instance I could remember of any departure from the normal colour, unless it were an occasional very slight tendency to melanism. This specimen, which is still in the collection, is a fine male bird, with the body-plumage as in ordinary specimens, but having the whole of the quills and tail-feathers ashy white, the edges of the outer webs slightly tinged with yellow. The shafts of the quills are dark brown, those of the tail-feathers white in their greater portion, becoming brown towards the base; the bastard-quills and tertiary coverts are ashy white; the large secondary coverts dark grey tipped with whitish and margined with dull olive; the axillary tufts, lower part of abdomen, flanks, and under tail-coverts pale lemon-yellow. Irides, bill, and feet as in ordinary examples.

Much more recently, however (in April 1885), a more perfect albino was brought to the Museum from Akaroa. The whole plumage is white, washed with pale yellow on the back, upper surface of wings, rump, and underparts, the basal portion of each feather being pale plumbeous; under surface of wings and tail-feathers pale slaty grey; bill and feet as in the normal condition.

The praises of the Bell-bird were sung, a hundred years ago, by the illustrious navigator Cook, whose ‘Voyages’ contain the following record:—“The ship lay at the distance of somewhat less than a quarter of a mile from the shore; and in the morning we were awakened by the singing of the birds: the number was incredible, and they seemed to strain their throats in emulation of each other. This wild melody was infinitely superior to any that we had ever heard of the same kind; it seemed to be like small bells most exquisitely tuned, and perhaps the distance and the water between might be no small advantage to the sound.” One has but to read this early tribute to realize how great a loss we have suffered from the almost total disappearance of this bird from the North Island. Even when writing its biography for my former edition, I had to make the following discouraging statement:—

This species, formerly very plentiful in every part of the country, appears to be rapidly dying out. From some districts, where a few years ago it was the commonest bird, it has now entirely vanished. In the Waikato it is comparatively scarce, on the East Coast it is only rarely met with,

* Trans. New-Zealand Inst. 1868, vol. i. p. 108.

Queen Charlotte’s Sound.

page 87 and from the woods north of Auckland it has disappeared altogether. In my journeys through the Kaipara district, eighteen years ago, I found this bird excessively abundant everywhere; and on the banks of the Wairoa the bush fairly swarmed with them. Dr. Hector, who passed over the same ground in 1866, assures me that he scarcely ever met with it; and a valued correspondent, writing from Whangarei (about 80 miles north of Auckland), says:—“In 1859 this bird was very abundant here, in 1860 it was less numerous, in 1862 it was extremely rare, and from 1863 to 1866 I never saw but one individual. It now seems to be entirely extinct in this district.”

The above remarks were intended to refer principally to the North Island; but even in the South, as I have elsewhere pointed out*, it is far less plentiful than it formerly was. Doubtless it is only a question of a few years, and the sweet notes of this native songster will cease to be heard in the grove; and naturalists, when compelled to admit the fact, will be left to speculate and argue as to the causes of its extinction.

My observations as to the extreme rarity of this species in the North Island, where in former years it was the commonest of the perchers, are confirmed by Captain G. Mair, who informs me that during the last ten years he has never met with it at all, except on the Island of Mokoia (a place of some historic interest in the Rotorua Lake, about 600 acres in extent), in a tract of manuka bush covering about a thousand acres of land at the foot of Mount Edgecumbe, and in the high scrub at Waitahanui about ten miles from Taupo. In the first named of these localities it is still very plentiful.

In 1868, Professor Hutton found the Korimako abundant on Great Barrier Island, although even then scarce on the mainland; and in 1871 Major Mair met with it on the Rurima Rocks and on Whale Island, in the Bay of Plenty, places about five miles apart. He records the delight with which he again listened to its sweet note, and adds, “the Maoris think there is only one, that it is the sole survivor of the race, and that it flies backwards and forwards between these islands.”

Although I travelled a good deal through the forests of the interior during the ten years after my return from Europe in 1874, on one occasion only did I ever meet with this species on the mainland, and then only with a solitary bird; but during a storm-bound visit to the island of Kapiti (Cook’s Strait) in April 1877, I was charmed immediately on landing to hear the musical notes of the Bell-bird again, and to meet with it in every direction among the stunted karaka groves that clothe the western slopes of that island. In the course of an afternoon I saw a score or more of them within a very limited area, and on a second and more extended visit on the following day I found them equally numerous. I met with another bird also, which has likewise become well-nigh extinct on the mainland (Miro australis), although not in such numbers as the former.

Several years later I met with the Korimako again, in sufficient abundance, on a wooded islet called Motu-taiko in the very centre of the Taupo Lake, having put in there for shelter.

The facts I have mentioned are interesting, as furnishing another illustration of the observed natural law, that expiring races of animals and plants linger longest and find their last refuge on seagirt islands of limited extent.

* Trans. New-Zealand Instit. vol. ix. p. 330.

Captain Mair informs me also that on the small island of Motiti, in the Bay of Plenty, the Bell-bird is very numerous, although it is never seen or heard on the mainland opposite. He adds:—“On Whale Island also, although there are no Tuis, Korimakos are very plentiful. It was really delightful to see and hear them again. They abound in numbers in the shrubbery, and hearing them sing at daylight carried me back in spirit to my boyhood, at the North, thirty years ago!” My son having gone to this island, to indulge in deep-sea fishing, had to camp there for the night. He and his party found shelter in a little rocky cavern, and being the last day of the old year, the new year’s morn was ushered in by a delightful chorus from the Bell-birds in the pohutukawa trees above them.

Ten years later, Reischek could not find one on the Great Barrier, although the bird was still to be heard and seen on the Little Barrier.

page 88

The cause of the rapid disappearance in New Zealand of some species of birds, and absolute extinction of others, is a very interesting question, and I have already called attention to it in various published papers. In a newly colonized country, where the old fauna and flora are being invaded by a host of foreign immigrants, various natural agencies are brought into play to check the progress of the indigenous species, and to supplant them by new and more enduring forms, more especially in the case of insular areas of comparatively small extent. These agencies are often too subtle in their operation to arrest the notice of the ordinary observer; and it is only the ultimate results that command his attention and wonder. But in New Zealand some special cause, apart from this general law, must be assigned for the alarmingly rapid decrease of many of the indigenous birds: in the course of a very few years, species formerly common in every grove have become so scarce throughout the country as to threaten to become extinct at no very distant date.

Various reasons have been suggested to account for this. The natives believe that the imported bee, which has become naturalized in the woods, is displacing the Korimako, Tui, and other honey-eating birds. One of the oldest settlers in the Hokianga district (the late Judge Maning), speaking to me on this subject, said:—“I remember the time, not very long ago, when the Maori lads would come out of the woods with hundreds of Korimakos hung around them in strings; now one scarcely ever hears the bird: formerly they swarmed in the northern woods by thousands; now they are well nigh extinct.” On asking him his opinion as to the cause of this, he told me that he agreed with the Maoris, that the bee, having taken possession of the woods, had driven the honey-eating birds away from the flowers, and practically starved them out; and he referred to the scarcity of the Tui, another honey-eater, in support of this view*. But it must be remembered that both of these species subsist largely on berries and insects, and that the comparative failure of their honey-food, even if granted, will not of itself account for the rapid decrease of these birds; while, on the other hand, the Totoara (Miro australis) and other species which do not sip flowers are becoming equally scarce. It appears to me that the honey-bee theory is quite insufficient to meet the case, and that we must look further for the real cause. As the result of long observation, I have come to the conclusion that, apart from the effects produced by a gradual change in the physical conditions of the country, the chief agent in this rapid destruction of certain species of native birds is the introduced rat. This cosmopolitan pest swarms through every part of the country, and nothing escapes its voracity. It is very abundant in all our woods, and the wonder rather is that any of our insessorial birds are able to rear their broods in safety. Species that nest in hollow trees, or in other situations accessible to the ravages of this little thief, are found to be decreasing, while other species whose nests are, as a rule, more favourably placed, continue to exist in undiminished numbers. As examples of this latter class, I may instance the Kingfisher, which usually scoops out a hole for

* In this connection it is worth mentioning that on the Great Barrier and Island of Kawau, from both of which the Korimako has now disappeared, bees are plentiful; whereas on the Little Barrier and the Chickens, where the bird still lingers, there are no bees.

In a letter which I had the pleasure of receiving from the Rev. T. Chapman, of Rotorua, some years ago, that gentleman states:—“Wild Ducks were particularly numerous in this district on my arrival here: you saw them by dozens; you hardly see them now by twos. I have no doubt we owe this to the Norway rat. There is a place on the Waikato river, some twenty miles below Taupo, where the chiefs occasionally assembled to act out two important matters,—to discuss politics and eat kouras (crayfish). A few years after the Norway rat fully appeared, the kouras were no longer plentiful; and as the New Testament made Maori politics rather unnecessary, the usage of meeting no longer exists. The natives assured me that the Norway rat caught the crayfish by diving. Rowing up the rivers you see little deposits of shells; upon inquiry I found they were the selections of the Norway rats, who, by diving for these freshwater pipis, provide a kinaki (relish) for their vegetable suppers.”

Herr F. von Fischer (Zool. Gart. 1872, p. 125) calculates that a single pair of these rats might have, after ten years, a progeny of 48, 319, 698, 843, 030, 344, 720 individuals.

page 89 its nest in the upright bole of a dead tree, quite beyond the reach of rats, and appears to be more abundant now than ever; also the Rhipidura, Zosterops, Gerygone, and other small birds, whose delicate nests are secured to slender twigs or suspended among vines and creepers. And the Ground-Lark, again, which nests in open grass or fern land, where the Harrier keeps the rat well under control, has of late years sensibly increased, being now very common. As a matter of fact, I have known a case in which half a dozen nests of the Tui, within a radius of a hundred yards, were robbed by rats of both eggs and young*.

But to resume our history of the “Bell-bird”—so-called from the fanciful resemblance of one of its notes to the distant tolling of a bell. Its ordinary song is not unlike that of the Tui or Parson-bird, but is more mellifluous. Its notes though simple are varied and sweetly chimed; and as the bird is of social habits, the morning anthem, in which scores of these sylvan choristers perform together, is a concert of eccentric parts, producing a wild but pleasing melody. When singing it arches its back and puffs out the feathers of the body. I have occasionally heard a solitary Bell-bird pouring forth its liquid notes after the darkness of advancing night had silenced all the other denizens of the grove. It ought to be mentioned, moreover, that both sexes sing. When alarmed or excited they utter a strain of notes which I can only compare to the sound produced by a policeman’s rattle quickly revolved. This cry, or the bird-catcher’s imitation of it, never fails to attract to the spot all the Bell-birds within hearing. The Maoris are accustomed to snare them by means of a tuke baited with the crimson flowers of the climbing Metrosideros. The same device is adopted for catching the Tui.

This snare, of which a figure is here given, is formed of a carefully selected piece of kareao vine, having the necessary curve upwards. The lower part of this is fastened to the thick end of a bush-rod, eight or ten feet in length, through a small hole in which a looped flax line is passed, a crook, to serve as a support, being placed on the opposite side. At the upper extremity of the artificial perch thus produced a circular flower-holder, made of split vine, is fixed, and a string connects it with the stem of the tuke, whilst the attachment of the lower end to the support is concealed by a covering of soft moss, carefully tied round with a strip of green flax, every precaution being taken to give it a natural appearance. Having baited and set his snare, the bird-catcher hitches it by the crook to a branch in some favourable position and prepares for action. Concealing himself in a shelter of fronds, torn from a tree-fern and hastily stuck into the ground with the tops overlapping, he imitates the alarmcry of the bird by means of a nikau leaf placed between his lips. The call is soon responded to, and birds from far and near hurry to the tatal spot. The artful Maori then stops calling, and the birds, as soon as their excitement has subsided, begin to look about them and are attracted by the flowers. The instant one touches the treacherous perch, a pull on the string, bringing the loop home, secures it firmly by the leg. The tuke is then gently unhitched and lowered from the branch, cleared of its victim, and quickly reset.

* Mr. W. T. L. Travers, in an interesting article on the subject, says:—“The rat and the bee may each have played a part in bringing about its disappearance from the North Island, as both of these swarm all through the forest there, whilst in the South Island the rat has been nearly extirpated from the great Fagus forests by the Woodhen (Ocydromus), and the bee is limited in its range to the cultivated districts. But the cause of the disappearance of this bird is mere matter of speculation, and I have only cited the case in order to show how little we really know of the circumstances which may govern or limit the distribution of any particular species.” (Trans. N.-Z. Inst. 1882, vol. xv. p. 182.)

page 90

In former times, when this species was abundant throughout the whole country, certain forestranges were famed as Korimako preserves, and were highly prized on that account by the natives owning them. At the present day, in the investigation of native titles to land, the “snaring of Korimakos” by their ancestors is an act of ownership frequently pleaded in support of the tribal claim.

The flight of this bird is undulating, but very rapid, the wings and tail being alternately opened to their full extent and sharply closed. It sometimes mounts to a considerable height in the air, and I have occasionally observed large parties of them indulging in a playful flight far above the tree-tops.

Its food consists of minute flies and insects, as well as small berries, such as those of the karamu (Coprosma lucida) and other shrubs, and the honey of various kinds of bush-flowers. When feeding on the latter, it may be seen hanging by the feet in all positions from the slight flower-bearing twigs, while the slender bill, with the pencilled tongue protruded, is thrust into the corolla of each flower in quick succession.

In the gardens of the South Island it is still daily to be seen, moving actively about and collecting honey from various flowers. It is specially fond of the common black wattle; and it is a pretty sight to watch the bird clinging to the flower-stems in the manner described and assuming every variety of attitude as it sips the nectar from the golden tassels that cover the tree in such thick profusion*. It also attacks the full-blown flower of the common foxglove, which now grows wild in some parts of the country, piercing or tearing open the corolla with its bill in order to get at the honeyed juice.

When the korari (Phormium tenax) is in full bloom, the horn-shaped flowers are filled with delicious nectar, which the natives are accustomed to collect in calabashes, to be used as a drinkingbeverage for visitors. The Bell-bird, too, loves to regale itself on this saccharine production; and while the season lasts its forehead is often stained red from the colouring-matter that adheres to the feathers. When the bird, with the change of season again, is feasting itself from the smaller cups of the pretty native fuchsia (F. excorticata), the stain on the forehead changes to a very bright purple or blue.

Its ordinary chime consists of the following four notes (as set by Dr. Shortland):—

No one who has not actually listened to the melody can form any idea of the effect produced by these high notes coming from a hundred throats independently, and blending together in the richest harmony of song.

The Bell-bird commences breeding towards the end of September or early in October, and sometimes even as late as November and December. I have met with a brood of fully-fledged young birds as early as October 28; while, on the other hand, Mr. Potts informs me that he has observed it building its nest at the end of January or beginning of February. It seems probable, therefore, that this species rears two broods in the year. Its nest may be looked for in deep wooded gullies and in the low brushwood along the outskirts of the forest. It is usually placed in the fork of a low branch, and the bird in selecting a site seems generally to prefer those bushes over which the native bramble (Rubus australis) has thrown a protecting mantle. It is a common thing to find four or five old nests of former years in the immediate vicinity of the occupied one, as if the birds formed an attachment for a locality once chosen as a breeding-place. The nest is a rather loose structure, composed externally of small dry twigs, sometimes interlaced with the wiry stems of the bush convolvulus, over

* Forty years ago literally thousands of these birds annually frequented the groves of wattle around the old mission-station at Tangiteroria (on the northern Wairoa). The wattles still are there, grown to the size of forest trees, with many generations of younger ones; but, alas! the “chime of silver bells” is no longer to be heard: the Korimakos have gone, and the groves are silent!

page 91 which there is a layer of fine grass disposed in a concave form, and then deeply lined with feathers. The eggs are usually three in number, but sometimes four, broadly elliptical or slightly ovoidoconical in shape, and measuring ·88 inch in length by ·65 in breadth. They are pure white, creamy, or pinkish white with a broad zone of reddish-brown spots towards the larger end, besides a few widely scattered dots of red over the general surface. In some specimens the ground-colour exhibits a delicate pinkish tinge, and the reddish markings are more numerous and distinct, often deepening to a dark chestnut-red. Among the examples in the Canterbury Museum, some are pinkish white, blotched at the larger end and densely freckled all over with pale reddish brown, whilst one of them presents delicate pencilled markings or veins towards the smaller end.

My son’s collection contains a beautiful series of thirteen, presenting a considerable amount of individual variation, not only in the surface tint, but in the extent and character of the markings. In some the reddish spots coalesce at the large end, forming a sort of cap, in others they present distinct blots and smudges; some have a polar zone of confluent freckles, while others are studded with roundish rust-spots; in some the markings are sharp and distinct, in others smeared or blurred; one is of a pinkish cream-colour, clouded over its major portion with reddish brown, and another is perfectly white, with a cluster of reddish dots on its larger pole and a few scattered specks below. In form, too, they vary from the perfect ovoid to the types mentioned above.

In the selection of feathers for the lining of its nest this bird shows an extraordinary love of decoration, the preference being given to those of striking colours. The scarlet feathers of the Kaka, the bright green of the Parrakeet, and the ultramarine of the Kingfisher are sometimes found intermixed; the shining breast-feathers of the Wood-Pigeon are invariably used; and in the vicinity of habitations (as a correspondent informs me) the nest is occasionally found supplied from a neighbouring poultry-yard, the spotted plumes of the Guinea-fowl being most conspicuous*.

A nest from the Little Barrier is composed entirely of small black twigs carefully worked together and deeply lined with dark Pigeon’s feathers, the cup being very wide, having a diameter at its rim of 3·25 inches. It was found at an elevation of thirty feet from the ground, under shelter of a clump of parasitic Astelia, and contained four young birds.

During the breeding-season the parent birds evince much tender solicitude for the safety of their offspring. On leaving the nest, the young have the rictal membrane (at the angles of the mouth) very large and of a bright yellow colour. The old birds hunt for them with untiring industry; and the young brood may be seen perched side by side on a branch patiently waiting for their food, and on the approach of their parents, quivering their wings with excitement, and eagerly gaping their throats, all of them together, to receive the coveted morsel.

I have made frequent attempts to rear the young, but have never succeeded. I have known instances of the adult birds being caged with success; but, like the Tui, they are liable to sudden convulsive fits, and seldom survive their confinement very long.

The Korimako from the south-west region appears to be a somewhat larger race. An egg of this bird taken at Preservation Inlet, in the month of January, is ovoido-conical, measuring ·9 of an inch in length by ·7 in breadth. It is of a delicate pinky white, with irregular stained markings of reddish brown, chiefly towards the larger end, and particularly on one side of the egg, without any appearance of a zone; the other end towards the pole being quite free from markings of any kind.

* This statement in my former edition having been questioned by Prof. Hutton (‘Ibis,’ 1874, p. 36), I may quote the following observations since recorded by Mr. Potts (‘Journal of Science,’ vol. ii. p. 278):—“Keeping several kinds of choice poultry not far from the bush afforded me special opportunities of observing this fact. I noticed nests lined with coloured feathers as follows: red from the Kakas, green from the Parrakeets, black from the Norfolk Turkeys, buff, from Cochin fowls, speckled from the Pintadocs, and white from the Geese. I have not seen a red- or green-lined nest for years, as the destruction of the woods about here (Ohinitahi) has made both Kakas and Parrakeets rare visitors.”