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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Prosthemadera Novæ Zealandiæ. — (Tui or Parson Bird.)

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Prosthemadera Novæ Zealandiæ.
(Tui or Parson Bird.)

  • New-Zealand Creeper, Brown, Illustr. Zool. pl. ix. (1776).

  • Poë Bee-eater, Lath. Gen. Syn. ii. p. 682 (1782).

  • Merops novoe seelandioe, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 464 (1788, ex Lath.).

  • Merops cincinnatus, Lath. Ind. Orn. i. p. 275 (1790).

  • La Cravate Frisée, Levaill. Ois. d’Afr. ii. pl. 92 (1800).

  • Sturnus crispicollis, Daud. Traité d’Orn. ii. p. 314 (1800, ex Levaill.).

  • Philemon cincinnatus, Bonn, et Vieill. Enc. Méth. p. 613 (1823).

  • Prosthemadera concinnata, Gray, List Gen. of B. 1840, p. 3.

  • Certhia cincinnata, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 78 (1844).

  • Prosthemadera circinata, Reich. Handb. Merop. p. 127, t. ccccxcii. fig. 3466 (1852).

  • Meliphaga novoe zealandioe, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7466.

Native names.

Tui and Koko; the young bird distinguished as Pi-tui or Pikari.

♂ pileo toto metallicè viridi, collo postico, uropygio et supracaudalibus purpurascentibus: collo undique filamentis albis ornato: dorso reliquo et scapularibus cuprescenti-brunneis: alâ supernè metallicè viridi, tectricibus alarum paullò purpurascentibus, medianis albo terminatis, fasciam alarem distinctam formantibus: remigibus nigris, extùs viridi metallico lavatis, secundariis latiùs: caudâ nigrâ, suprâ purpurascenti-viridi nitente: subtùs metallicè viridis, versus pectus imum purpurascens: abdomine toto cuprescenti-brunneo: hypochondriis elongatis laetè brunneis: gutture imo fasciculis duobus albis globosis ornato: subalaribus nigris: subcaudalibus metallicè viridibus: rostro et pedibus nigricanti-brunneis: iride saturatè brunneâ.

♀ mari similis, sed paullò minor: coloribus sordidioribus: hypochondriis fulvescentioribus.

Juv. schistaceo-niger: tectricibus alarum medianis ut in adultis albis: collo plus minusve albicante: rictu flavo: iride nigrâ.

Male. General plumage shining metallic green, with bluish-purple reflections on the shoulders, rump, and upper tail-coverts; the hind neck ornamented with a collar of soft filamentous plumes, curving outwards and with a white line down the centre; the middle of the back and the scapulars bronzy brown, the latter with blue reflections; the greater wing-coverts are metallic green, those near the arm of the wing shining blackish purple, and the intermediate ones white in their apical portion, forming a conspicuous alar bar; the remiges are black, the primaries having an outer margin of metallic green in their basal portion, this colour spreading on the secondaries till it covers the whole of the web; tail-feathers metallic green on their upper surface, with purplish reflections; lower part of breast metallic green changing into purplish blue; sides and abdomen blackish brown, the long flank-feathers shading into pale brown; under surface of wings and tail black; the under tail-coverts metallic green. The throat is ornamented with two tufts of white filamentous feathers, which curl in upon each other in a globose form. Irides dark brown; bill and feet blackish brown. Total length 12·75 inches; extent of wings 18·5; wing from flexure 6; tail 5; culmen 1; tarsus 1·35; middle toe and claw 1·55; hind toe and claw 1·25.

Female. The female is somewhat smaller than the male; but the plumage differs in no essential respect. The page break


page breakpage 95 metallic tints are not so bright, and there is more brown in the plumage of the underparts. The throat is adorned with white tufts as in the other sex, but they are usually smaller.

Young. Uniform slaty black, with a broad undefined patch or circlet of greyish white on the throat, varying in extent, more conspicuous in the female, and sometimes spreading all round the neck; median wing-coverts white, as in the adult; irides black; rictal membrane yellow.

Obs. In the young bird the plumage is soft and fluffy, and entirely wants the metallic lustre. In the adult state examples vary in the brilliancy of their tints, and some have a bright coppery bronze on their upper parts.

Progress towards maturity. About the first week of November I obtained from the nest a fledgling, in which the membrane at the angles of the mouth was very conspicuous and the plumage partly undeveloped; by the second week in December it had assumed the full juvenile dress, with a faint greyish collar, the rictal membrane had disappeared, and the throat-tufts had commenced to sprout; at the end of another month the lappets had formed but were very small; two weeks later, the new metallic plumage had begun to supplant the adolescent growth, appearing at first in tracts, or irregular strips, on the breast and sides of the body, and then spreading outwards; and by the end of February the bird had acquired the full adult livery, although the tints of the plumage were not so brilliant as in the more matured condition.

Varieties. Uniform brown-coloured varieties have been occasionally met with; and it is not an unusual thing to find specimens with a single white quill or tail-feather, or marked about the throat and face with scattered white feathers. In the Christchurch Acclimatization Gardens I observed a caged one with a broad patch of white covering the outer webs of the secondaries on both wings. A beautiful albino was obtained some years ago in the Wanganui district, and now forms part of my collection in the Colonial Museum: the general plumage is pure white; a shining black band fills the lores, crosses the forehead, and spreads down each side of the neck in an irregular patch of sooty black; lower part of back, rump, and thighs sooty black, with white feathers interspersed; wings pure white, excepting the outer secondaries and the long primary coverts, which are glossy black; bill white; tarsi and toes yellowish white.

There is another abnormally coloured bird in the Colonial Museum: head, neck all round, breast, and fore part of abdomen smoky brown; the rest of the plumage pale creamy brown, darker on the quills and tail-feathers. The throat-tufts are as in ordinary examples, and there is a broad bar of white across the smaller wing-coverts; the frilled collar is rather inconspicuous, although the central line of white is present, and there is a narrow streak of the same from the angles of the mouth; the feathers of the breast have likewise fine white shaft-lines; bill and feet white horn-colour.

Sir William Fox informs me that at Porirua Harbour (near Wellington) he once observed a bird of this species with the entire plumage of a delicate fawn-colour.

THis bird is one of our most common species, and on that account generally receives less attention in its own country than its singular beauty merits. It was described and figured, as early as the year 1776, in Brown’s Illustrations of Zoology,’ and has since been mentioned by nearly every writer on general ornithology. In 1840 Mr. G. R. Gray made it the type of a new genus, in which, up to the present time, it stands quite alone.

The early colonists named it the “Parson bird,” in allusion to the peculiar tufts of white feathers that adorn its throat, and their fancied resemblance to the clerical bands. To those who are familiar with the bird in its native woods, this name is certainly appropriate; for when indulging in its strain of wild notes it displays these “bands,” and gesticulates in a manner forcibly suggestive of the declamatory style of preaching, or, as Dr. Thompson graphically expresses it, “sitting on the branch of a tree, as a pro tempore pulpit, he shakes his head, bending to one side and then to another, as if he remarked to this one and to that one; and once and again, with pent-up vehemence, contracting his muscles and drawing himself together, his voice waxes loud, in a manner to waken sleepers to their senses!”

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Owing to its excellent powers of mimicry, and the facility of rearing it in confinement, it is a favourite cage-bird, both with the natives and the colonists. Although of very delicate constitution, it has been known to live in confinement for upwards of ten years. More frequently, however, it becomes subject, after the first year, to convulsive fits, under which it ultimately succumbs. Cleanliness, a well-regulated diet, and protection from extremes of temperature are the proper safeguards. I had as many as ten of them caged at one time; but they died off one by one, and invariably in the manner indicated. Naturally of a sprightly disposition, it is cheerful and playful in captivity, incessantly flitting about in its cage and mimicking every sound within hearing. It will learn to articulate sentences of several words with clearness, to crow like a cock, and to imitate the barking of a dog to perfection. One, which I had kept caged in the same room with a Parrakeet (Platycercus auriceps), acquired the rapid chattering note of that species; and another, in the possession of a friend, could whistle several bars of a familiar tune in excellent time. Another, which I kept for two years, although a female bird, proved to be a good mimic. I first taught it to imitate the soft whistling note of the Huia, in repetition. When perfect in that, I gave it lessons in the long plaintive whistling-cry of the Shining Cuckoo, thrice repeated; and, strange to say, after the bird had acquired that, and was accustomed to practise it a hundred times over during the day, I taught it to add, or interject, the sharp four-times-repeated note which precedes the final strain. The bird learnt all this to perfection, and never mixed the parts, exhibiting in this respect a remarkable exercise of memory*.

It has several times been brought alive to this country; and there is now to be seen in the Zoological Society’s Gardens, at Regent’s Park, a very healthy one which I succeeded in bringing to England last year, and had the pleasure of presenting to the Society. It was one of three scarcely-fledged nestlings brought to me by a Maori shortly before I embarked on my trip home; and although all of them survived the sea-voyage, the others soon succumbed to the severity of the English climate.

The Maoris fully appreciate the mocking-powers of this bird, and often devote much time and patience to its instruction. There are some wonderful stories current among them of the proficiency it sometimes acquires; and I may mention an amusing incident that came under my own notice at Rangitikei some years ago. I had been addressing a large meeting of natives in the Whare-runanga, or Council-house, on a matter of considerable political importance, and had been urging my views with all the earnestness that the subject demanded: immediately on the conclusion of my speech, and before the old chief, to whom my arguments were chiefly addressed, had time to reply, a Tui, whose netted cage hung to a rafter overhead, responded, in a clear emphatic way, “Tito!” (false). The circumstance naturally caused much merriment among my audience, and quite upset the gravity of the venerable old chief Nepia Taratoa. “Friend,” said he, laughing, “your arguments are very good; but my mokai is a very wise bird, and he is not yet convinced!”

In a state of nature the Tui is even more lively and active than in captivity. It is incessantly on the move, pausing only to utter its joyous notes. The early morning is the period devoted to melody, and the Tuis then perform in concert, gladdening the woods with their wild ecstacy. Besides their chime of five notes (always preceded by a key-note of preparation), they indulge in a peculiar outburst which has been facetiously described as “a cough, a laugh, and a sneeze,” and a variety of other notes, fully entitling it to be ranked as a songster.

* The Tui, as a caged bird, is apt to become excessively fat, through overfeeding and the want of proper muscular exercise; and this may account for its tendency to fits. The intelligent bird mentioned above, without any apparent cause, began to mope and refused its food. After a day or two it became subject to epileptic fits, falling suddenly from its perch, screaming in its convulsions, and then lying perfectly inert for several minutes. These fits continued to increase in frequency and severity, till finally it succumbed to one of them, and died in my hand. On dissecting it, I found the cavity of the stomach choked up with an accumulation of yellow fat, and the vital organs completely enveloped in fat. This excessive fatness had no doubt interfered with the performance of life’s regular functions and had caused the fits, which in the end proved fatal.

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When engaged in song, the Tui puffs out the feathers of his body, distends his throat, opens wide his beak, with the tongue raised and slightly protruded, and gesticulates with his head, as he pours forth the wild harmony of his soul. A pair may often be observed, scarcely a foot apart, on the same branch, performing in concert, for (as with the Korimako also) both sexes sing. The notes are rich and varied—now resembling the striking together of hollow metallic rods, then a long-drawn sigh, a warble, and a sob, followed by a note of great sweetness, like a touch on the high key of an organ. The last time I listened to the wild music of this bird, in all its depth and richness, was from the pew of a little country chapel, where a Maori deacon of the Church of England was delivering a sensible discourse and drawing his illustrations from surrounding objects. The chapel was overshadowed by tall Eucalyptus trees, amongst the flowers of which the Tuis were regaling themselves on their viscid nectar, and stopping at intervals to pour forth their full volume of song, thus giving emphasis to the preacher’s appeal to nature.

One of its finest notes is a clear, silvery toll, followed by a pause and then another toll, the performance lasting sometimes an hour or more. This is generally heard at the close of the day, or just before the bird betakes itself to its roost for the night. I have, however, on one or two occasions, heard the Tui’s sweet toll long after the shadow of darkness had settled down upon the forests and all other sounds were hushed.

At other times it may be heard uttering a sweet warbling note, followed by a sneeze, after that a pause, then a sharp cry of tu-whit, tu-whit, o-o-o, a pause again, and then its warbling note with variations, very soft and liquid, but ending abruptly in a sound like the breaking of a pane of glass. It has indeed such an endless variety of notes that it is impossible to convey in writing any adequate idea of its vocal powers*

Its flight is rapid, graceful, and slightly undulating, the rustling of the wings as they are alternately opened and closed being distinctly audible. Layard mentions (‘Ibis,’ 1863, p. 243) the peculiar habit which this bird has of mounting high in the air during fine weather, in parties of six or more, and performing wide aërial circles or indulging in a sportive flight, “turning, twisting, throwing somersaults, dropping from a height with expanded wings and tails, and performing other antics, till, as if guided by some preconcerted signal, they suddenly dive into the forest and are lost to view.” High in the air it may sometimes be seen closing its wings and supporting its body for a few moments by a rapid perpendicular movement of the expanded tail; and slowly descending in this

* The compass and variety of the Tui’s song may be judged by the following Maori paraphrase, as reduced to writing by Sir George Grey (‘Poetry of the New-Zealanders’):—

Ko tu koe.Ko wai wai.Ka timo te tai.
Ko rongo koe.Korero rero.Nga tai o te tu.
Ko te manuwhiri.Ka kore kore te toki.Ko waka rara na tauna.
Nau mai.Te whare pa tahi.Ma nga wai.
Moemoe hia mai te kuri.Te whare pa rua.E tai taua?
Haere mai te manuwhiri.Te ui te rangi ora.E tai, homai te wai.
No runga te manuwhiri.E roro ki waho.Ka hi te kai.
No raro te manuwhiri.Ko tu koe.Ka kawa te kai.
No to ti.Ko rongo koe.Ka whakarere te kai.
No to ta.Ko tenei te manuwhiri.E kai.
No waka i oio.Nau mai.Ari nui.
Tupu kere kere.Kaore te kai i te kainga.Ari roa.
Tupu a nanga.E ronga.Ari ma noa noa.
Ka hea e wa.E ronga.E titi rau ma hewa.
I ki e roro.E ronga maru awa.E to kai moana.
Ki tahi ka tu ke he.Ka ha te tai.E roro ki waho.

page 98 manner to a lower level, it speeds forwards with half-closed wings and tail, and then rises high in the air again by a rapid vibration of those members.

It is a pretty sight to watch a pair of them mount together in playful flight, high above the tree-tops; then, by a simultaneous movement, they descend in company and alight on the topmost twigs of some tall forest tree, where they puff out their plumage, giving a very exaggerated appearance to their bodies, and gesticulate as if in angry altercation with each other; and then, as if by mutual agreement, they rise together in the air, and disappear in opposite directions.

There is, I believe, a popular notion in the Colony that the plumage of the Tui is black, and even some old settlers, familiar enough with the bird, considered the plate in my first edition too highly coloured. But this is entirely a mistake, as may be easily proved by holding the bird against the light, at the angle of incidence. It will then be seen that the plumage presents beautiful steel-blue and purple colours, with high metallic reflections, particularly on the breast, wings, rump, and upper tail-coverts. On the shoulders and mantle, also, there are bronze reflections which no artist could ever do justice to. In the sunny glades of the forest the glancing of the light on its burnished plumage and the gleaming of its pure white epaulettes renders the Tui a very attractive object, as it glides rapidly from one tree to another, or darts into the sunshine to capture a vagrant butterfly.

The food of the Tui consists of ripe berries of various kinds, flies and other insects, and the honey of certain wild flowers. To enable it to collect the latter, the tongue is furnished at its termination with a brush of extreme fineness—a characteristic common to all the true honey-eaters—the nectar ascending to the tubular portion of the tongue, apparently by capillary attraction*. When the functions of life are suspended or interfered with, this little brush protrudes from the bill. This occurs not only after death, but in the case of the sickly Tui; and the involuntary protrusion of the tongue may generally be accepted as a fatal symptom. It also feeds with avidity on the sugary bract-like spadices of the kiekie (Freycinetia banksii). In the months of October and November, when the kowhai (Sophora grandiflora), which grows so luxuriantly on the river-flats, has cast its leaves and is covered with a beautiful mantle of yellow flowers, its branches are alive with Tuis; and in December and January, when the Phormium tenax is in full bloom, they leave the forest and repair to the flax-fields to feast on the korari honey. At these times large numbers are caught in snares or speared by the natives, who thus supply themselves with a delicious article of food.

On these occasions the best-conditioned birds are preserved in their own fat, and potted in calabashes, “hua-hua koko” being esteemed a great delicacy. At the periodical festivals one or two of these pots, decorated with Pigeons’ feathers, are placed on top of the great pile of food which is presented to the visitors at these ceremonials. Calabashes of kaka, titi, and kereru are plentiful enough, but one of “tui” gives the finishing touch to the menu at a Maori feast of the kind I have indicated.

Among introduced trees, the Tui is particularly partial to the Australian blue-gum (Eucalyptus globosa) and the common black-wattle. When these trees are in full bloom, this bird holds high carnival among the flowers, making playful sallies into the air from time to time, and uttering its melifluous notes, as if in the highest ecstasy.

At certain seasons of the year, when its favourite berries have fully ripened, the Tui becomes

* Dr. Gadow, after describing fully the muscular apparatus in Prosthemadera, thus explains the suctorial process:—“The contraction of the mylo- and serpi-hyoid muscles presses the whole tongue and larynx upwards against the palatal roof of the mouth-cavity. The mouth is thus wholly filled up. Through the contraction of the genio-hyoid muscles the tongue will be protruded from the mouth. Now, if the serpi-hyoid muscles relax, and the tracheo-laryngeus and tracheo-hyoideus, on the other hand, by their contraction depress the larynx and at the same time depress the posterior part of the tongue, a vacuum will be produced between tongue and palate. This space, again, is in connexion with the tubes of the tongue, and therefore will be filled by the fluid into which the tips of these tubes may be inserted. In the birds in question the fluid is honey or nectar. Consequently sucking is accomplished automatically through the mere protrusion of the tongue.” (Proe. Z.S. 1883, pp. 68, 69.)

page 99 exceedingly fat—so much so as very much to embarrass the operations of the taxidermist, who finds it almost impossible to keep the feathers free from the oily matter that exudes under the operator’s knife. But I am unable to endorse the statement made by the reverend author of ‘New Zealand and its Inhabitants’ (probably on the authority of a native), that on these occasions the Tui relieves itself of its exuberant fat by pecking its breast!

The Tui is still very plentiful over both Islands. It has apparently been driven away from some districts where formerly it was abundant; but this is hardly to be wondered at when I state that (in spite of the wise protective legislation) I was assured by a dealer in Wellington that he had sent as many as five hundred skins to London for the ornamentation of ladies’ hats!

It is easily approached and shot; but I have often remarked its extreme tenacity of life, reminding one of Mr. Gosse’s charming account of Conurus flaviventer in his ‘Birds of Jamaica.’ Sometimes, when mortally wounded, the grasp of the feet by which the bird was clinging to the twigs or vines becomes convulsively tightened, and the falling body is seen suspended, head downward, for several minutes, the wings now and then giving an ineffectual flutter, till at last one foot relaxes its hold and then the other, and the quivering body falls heavily to the ground.

There can be little doubt that the Tui breeds twice in the year. I have found birds nesting as early as August, the young being abroad in October and November; and I have received from the Maoris nestlings, not more than ten days old, as late as May 12th, although young birds can always be obtained in March and April.

Under the head of “progress towards maturity,” I have described (at page 95), from personal observation, the successive development of plumage in a young bird, taken from the nest in November, and presenting an adult appearance at the end of February. As late as the 23rd October, I saw a young bird at Atiamuri, on the Waikato river, in which this change had scarcely been completed, much of the body-plumage being adolescent, with only vestiges of the frill and lappets. This fact tends strongly to support the view of there being two broods in the year.

The nest of this species is usually placed in the fork of a bushy shrub, only a few feet from the ground; but I have also found it at a considerable elevation, hidden among the leafy top of a forest tree. It is a rather large structure, composed chiefly of sprays or dry twigs, intermixed with coarse green moss, the cavity being lined with fibrous grasses, very carefully bent and adjusted. Sometimes the interior is composed of the black hair-like substance from the young shoots of the tree-fern, the cavity being sparingly lined with dry bents. One which I examined at Rangitikei was composed almost entirely of dry Leptospermum twigs, with a little green moss intermixed, the ends of the twigs projecting more or less, so that the exterior of the nest measured nearly 12 inches across; the twigs were largest at the foundation and got smaller upwards; the cavity was large, but somewhat shallow or saucer-shaped, and the interior thickly lined with brown fern-hair, with a few long grass-leaves carefully interlaced; thus giving the nest a neatly finished appearance.

The eggs are generally three or four in number and present some variety both in form and colour. There are some good examples in the Nelson Museum: the eggs (numbering three) in one of the nests are of a pyriform character, being blunt and rounded at the large end and tapering upwards to a point, measuring 1·3 inch in length by ·75 in their widest part; they are white, with a faint rosy blush, stained and mottled at the larger end and lightly freckled or dusted all over with pale reddish brown. Those contained in another nest (also numbering three) are ovoido-conical, measuring 1·05 in length by ·75; these are of a delicate rosy tint, obscurely freckled, darker and more or less speckled with brown at the large end. A third nest contains two almost pure white eggs, intermediate in form between those described above, stained and freckled, at the larger end only, with brick-red. There is likewise an interesting series of these eggs in the Canterbury Museum, varying in character from the true ovato-pyriform to a fusiform outline, something like a skittle-head. page 100 The former measure 1·5 inch in length by ·9 in breadth, and are of a pinky-white colour, freckled and spotted at the larger end with reddish brown, and with marbled markings of the same colour at the smaller end: the other extreme form measures 1·7 in length by ·8 in its widest part, and the whole surface is white with scattered specks of rust-red at the large end, each surrounded by a light stain or halo, as if the colour had run; there are also two or three of these specks with the same stained circumference in the anterior or produced portion of the egg. Sir James Hector informs me that Tui’s eggs in his possession vary from a decidedly elliptical shape to a narrow oval, and that both forms are “spotted with round dabs of red.” One of my specimens from the South Island is ovoido-elliptical or slightly pyriform, measuring 1·25 inch in length by ·10 in breadth, and is creamy white, much smeared and blotted with pale lake-red towards the smaller end.

The newly-hatched Tui is almost entirely bare, there being mere indications of linear tracts on the upper surface, with light woolly filaments adhering. The feathers, however, soon begin to appear, and the growth of the nestling is rapid; but the gradation in size of the three or four occupants of the same nest is very noticeable. Till about three weeks old, they have a very feeble cheep; but it is curious to see them, in their eagerness to be fed, stretch up their bodies and necks, four inches or more above the nest, with widely-gaping mouths bordered with a membrane of vivid yellow. As their development proceeds, their cry strengthens; and when they are fully fledged it becomes an almost incessant plaintive note, which changes to an impatient scream on the approach of the parent bird with food, all the nestlings craning their necks together for the first attention. After it quits the nest, and before it has attempted any song, it acquires the peculiar alarm-cry, ke-e-e-e, so familiar to the ear.

Head and nech of the Tui, showing arrangement of feathers.

Head and nech of the Tui, showing arrangement of feathers.