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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Eudynamis Taitensis. — (Long-Tailed Cuckoo.)

Eudynamis Taitensis.
(Long-Tailed Cuckoo.)

  • Le Coucou brun varié de noir, Montb. Ois. vi. p. 376 (1779).

  • Society Cuckoo, Lath. Gen. Syn. ii. p. 514 (1782).

  • Cuculus taitensis, Sparrm. Mus. Carls, t. 32 (1787).

  • Cuculus taitius, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 412 (1788).

  • Eudynamys taitensis, Gray, Dieff. Trav. ii., App. p. 193 (1843).

  • Cuculus fasciatus, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 160 (1844).

  • Eudynamys cuneicauda, Peale, U. S. Expl. Exp. p. 139, pl. 38. f. 2 (1848).

  • Eudynamys tahitius, Gray, B. Tr. Isl. Pacif. Ocean, p. 35 (1859).

  • Eudynamis taitiensis, Cab. & Heine, Mus. Hein. Th. iv. p. 56 (1862).

  • Eudynamis tahitiensis, Potts, Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. iii. p. 90 (1870).

Native names.

Koekoea, Kawekawea, Koheperoa, and Kohaperoa.

ad. brunneus, pileo longitudinaliter fulvo striato: corpore reliquo superiore brunneo et pallidè ferrugineo conspicuè at irregulariter transfasciato: tectricibus alarum fulvo maculatis: caudâ brunneo et ferrugineo transfasciatâ alboque terminatâ: remigibus brunneis, ferrugineo maculatis, fascias irregulares formantibus: supercilio angusto fulvo: regione auriculari brunneâ angustissimè fulvo lineatâ: genis et collo laterali albis ferrugineo lavatis et brunneo longitudinaliter striatis: subtùs albicans, plumis medialiter brunneo striatis et ferrugineo tinctis: hypochondriis brunneo transfasciatis: subalaribus fulvescenti-albis, angustè brunneo striatis: rostro pallidè brunneo, ad basin saturatiore, mandibulâ flavicante: pedibus viridi-flavis, unguibus brunneis: iride rubescente, interdum flavicante: regione ophthalmicâ nudâ sordidè viridi.

♀ vix a mari distinguenda: paullò minor: coloribus sordidioribus.

Juv. pallidior, suprà ubique albido maculatus, nec fasciatus: caudâ pallidè fulvo transfasciatâ: subtùs ochraceus, pectore abdomineque maculis elongatis triquetris notatis: rostro flavicanti-brunneo: pedibus viridi-flavis.

Adult male. Upper surface dark brown, with a purplish gloss, longitudinally streaked on the head and neck, barred and spotted on the wings and back with rufous; wing-coverts tipped with fulvous white; quills dark brown, banded with pale rufous; tail-feathers marked in their whole extent with narrow alternate bars of dark brown and rufous, tipped with white and finely glossed with purple; a broad line of yellowish white passing from the nostrils over the eyes, and another extending downwards from the angles of the mouth; lores and chin white, with numerous black hair-like filaments; sides of the neck dark brown mixed with rufous; throat, fore part of neck, breast, and sides of the body pure white, with numerous longitudinal streaks of brown, each feather having a broad mark down the centre; lining of wings fulvous white or pale fawn-colour; femoral plumes and under tail-coverts crossed with broad arrow-head marks of brown. Bill pale brown, darker at the base, and yellowish on the lower mandible; irides reddish brown, inclining in some to yellow; bare skin surrounding the eyes dull green; tarsi and toes greenish yellow; claws dark brown. Total length 16·5 inches; extent of wings 21; wing, from flexure, 7·5; tail 9·75; bill along the ridge I, along the edge of lower mandible 1·4; tarsus 1·5; longer fore toe and claw 1·4; longer hind toe and claw 1·25.

page 128

Adult female. Slightly smaller than the male, and with the tints of the plumage duller, the purple gloss on the upper parts being scarcely perceptible.

Young. Upper surface blackish brown, marked on the crown with narrow streaks, on the hind neck with fusiform and on the back with rounded spots of fulvous yellow; quills and tail-feathers blackish brown, barred and tipped with fulvous brown. Under surface pale cinnamon-brown; on each side of the throat two longitudinal streaks, and on the breast and sides of the body broad shaft-lines of dusky black; under tail-coverts barred and tibial plumes crossed with marks of the same colour in the form of an inverted V. Bill yellowish brown; tarsi and toes greenish yellow.

Obs. In examples of the young birds much difference is observable both in the ground-tints and in the markings of the plumage. Some are much darker than others, and have the spots on the upper surface pale rufous instead of fulvous yellow; in others, again, they are yellowish white; some have the barred markings on the tail-feathers very obscure, while in others they are as distinct as in the adult, although not so regular in form.

Note.—There is a remarkable phenomenon in the animal world known to naturalists as “mimicry,” or the law of protective resemblance. It is developed chiefly among insects, and particularly among the Lepidoptera. Mr. Wallace describes, at page 205 of his enchanting book on the ‘Malay Archipelago,’ a butterfly which, when at rest, so closely resembles a dead leaf as almost to defy detection. The varied details of colouring combine to produce a disguise that so exactly represents a slightly curved or shrivelled leaf as to render the butterfly quite safe from the attacks of insectivorous birds, except when on the wing. The flight of the insect, on the other hand, is so vigorous and rapid that it is well able then to protect itself. Mr. Wallace adds that in many specimens there occur patches and spots, formed of small black dots, so closely resembling the way in which minute fungi grow on leaves that it is impossible not to believe that fungi have grown on the butterflies themselves! This protective imitation must obviously favour the species in the general struggle for existence, and may of itself be sufficient to save it from extinction. But there is another kind of “mimicry,” where one insect which would, on discovery, be eagerly devoured, assumes for similar protective purposes a close resemblance to some other insect notoriously distasteful to birds and reptiles, and often belonging to a totally different family or order. Numberless instances might be given in illustration of this singular fact, every department furnishing examples of adaptation more or less complete, and all being explainable on the principle of variation under natural selection or the “survival of the fittest.” Mr. Wallace, when exploring in the Moluccas, was the first to discover similar instances of mimicry among birds, although the law of protective colouring had long been known to exist in the case of birds’ eggs. He gives two very curious examples of external resemblance co-existing with very important structural differences, rendering it impossible to place the model and the copy near each other in any natural arrangement. In one of these a Honey-sucker has its colours mimicked by a species of Oriole, and the reason is thus stated:—“They must derive some advantage from the imitation, and as they are certainly weak birds, with small feet and claws, they may require it. Now, the Tropidorhynchi are very strong and active birds, having powerful grasping claws, and long, curved, sharp beaks. They assemble together in groups and small flocks, and they have a very loud, bawling note, which can be heard at a great distance, and serves to collect a number together in time of danger. They are very plentiful and very pugnacious, frequently driving away crows and even hawks, which perch on a tree where a few of them are assembled. It is very probable, therefore, that the smaller birds of prey have learnt to respect these birds, and leave them alone, and it may thus be a great advantage for the weaker and less courageous Mimetas to be mistaken for them. This being the case, the laws of Variation and Survival of the fittest will suffice to explain how the resemblance has been brought about, without supposing any voluntary action on the part of the birds themselves; and those who have read Mr. Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ will have no difficulty in comprehending the whole process.”

Among the many minor instances that have attracted notice, the English Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is supposed to derive protection from the resemblance of its markings to those of the Sparrow-Hawk (Accipiter nisus); but the resemblance is far more striking between our Long-tailed Cuckoo and a North-American species of Hawk (Accipiter cooperi). In fully adult specimens of the former it will be observed that the markings of the plumage are very pronounced, while the peculiar form of the bird itself distinguishes it very readily from all other New-Zealand species. Beyond the general grouping of the colours there is nothing to remind us of our own Bush-Hawk; and that there is no great protective resemblance is sufficiently manifest from the fact that our Cuckoo is persecuted on every possible occasion by the Tui, which is timorous enough in the presence of a Hawk. During a trip, however, on the Continent, in the autumn of 1871, I found in the Zoological Museum at Frankfort what appeared to be the accipitrine model, in a very striking likeness to our bird. Not only has our Cuckoo the general contour of Cooper’s Sparrow-Hawk, but the tear-shaped markings on the underparts and the arrow-head bars on the femoral plumes are exactly similar in both. The resemblance is carried still further in the beautifully banded tail and marginal wing-coverts, and likewise in the distribution of colours and markings on the sides of the neck. On turning to Mr. Sharpe’s description of the “young male” of this species in his Catalogue of the Accipitres in the British Museum (p. 137), it will be seen how many of the terms page 129 employed apply equally to our Eudynamis, even to the general words “deep brown above with a chocolate gloss, all the feathers of the upper surface broadly edged with rufous.”

The coincident existence of such a remarkable resemblance to a New-World form cannot of course be any protection to an inhabitant of New Zealand, and I do not pretend in this instance to apply the rule; but in the light of natural selection, to which at present no limit can be assigned, the fact itself is a suggestive one, and sufficiently striking to call for special mention.

The illustration which accompanies this article, although it may have the appearance of an exaggeration, is in reality a true picture of bird-life. The Long-tailed Cuckoo, which is a native of the warm islands of the South Pacific, visits our country in the summer and breeds with us; but the task of rearing its young (as many witnesses can testify) is entrusted to the Grey Warbler (Gerygone flaviventris), figured in our Plate—a species that performs the same friendly office for the Shining Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx lucidus), another summer visitant.

Drs. Finsch and Hartlaub, in their valuable work on the Birds of Central Polynesia, record the occurrence of this species in Samoa, as well as in the Friendly*, the Society, the Marquesas, and the Fiji groups of islands; but although it migrates to New Zealand, there is no mention of its occurrence in any part of Australia or Tasmania.

In the still summer’s evening when the landscape is wrapped in the gloom of faded twilight—when no sound meets the ear but the low musical song of the pihareinga cricket and the occasional hum of a Prionoplus on the wing—there comes from the thicket a long-drawn cry, shrill and clear; then a pause of five minutes or more, followed by another cry; and so on at intervals till long after the pihareingas have ceased to chirp and the nocturnal beetles have folded their wings in sluggish repose. This is the first intimation we get that the Long-tailed Cuckoo has come amongst us.

It begins to arrive about the second week in October, but is not numerous till the following month, when the pairing commences. It is, however, somewhat irregularly dispersed over the country; for in the far north it is at all times a very rare bird. In the southern portion of the North Island, and throughout the wooded parts of the South Island, it is comparatively common. It appears to be most plentiful in November and December, becoming scarcer in January and disappearing altogether by the end of February. I have a note, however, of its occurrence at Otaki (in the North Island) as late as the first week in April.

Young birds are not unfrequently met with in the month of March or even later; but it seems probable that these are only solitary individuals hatched too late to permit of their joining in the return migration, and accordingly left to perish as the cold season advances; and this is likewise the case with our Shining Cuckoo. As an illustration of this, I may mention that a young bird of this latter species, which had been picked up dead in a garden, was brought to me at the end of February (long after the old birds had quitted the country), and that I found it excessively fat, and the stomach crammed with caterpillars—strong presumptive evidence that the bird had not suffered from the neglect of its foster-parents, but had succumbed to the exigencies of its late birth.

In the early dawn and during the cool hours of the morning, the Long-tailed Cuckoo resorts to the low underwood and brushes; but although its cry may be frequently heard, it is not easy to find the bird, inasmuch as the sound, though produced within a few yards of the listener, has the effect on the ear of one coming from a remote distance. This species, in fact, appears, like some others of the same family, to be endowed with a sort of natural ventriloquism, and its apparently far-off cry is often very deceptive.

While searching for his food the Koheperoa moves about with much activity; but as soon as the sun is up he betakes himself to the top branches of a kahikatea or other lofty tree, where he remains closely concealed till sunset. He continues to utter, at intervals of ten or fifteen minutes,

* Dr. Finsch has identified a young male in the spotted dress in a collection of birds from the island of Eua.

page 130 his prolonged shrill note (quite distinct from all other sounds of the forest, and very pleasant to hear) till about noon, when he remains perfectly silent for two hours or more. As soon, however, as the heat of the day is over, he resumes his cry, and shortly afterwards leaves his retreat to hunt for food again.

It is not unusual to hear a pair of these birds answering each other for hours together from the tops of neighbouring trees. Indeed, I have observed that it is habitually stationary, for it may often be heard uttering its long, plaintive scream for a whole day in the same tree, but always quite out of view. During the quiet nights of December its piercing cry may be heard at intervals till break of day, varied only in the earlier watches by the solemn hooting of the Morepork.

This species is more predatory in its habits than is usual with the members of this group. Lizards and large insects form its principal diet; but it also plunders the nests of other birds, devouring alike the eggs and young. From the stomach of one which I shot in December 1856, I took the body of a young bird (apparently a Piopio), partly fledged and only slightly mutilated, showing the enormous capacity of the Cuckoo’s throat. This interesting object, preserved in spirit, is now in the collection of the Colonial Museum at Wellington. The large nocturnal beetle (Prionoplus reticularis), the various species of Deinacridœ and Phasmidœ, the kekereru or fetid bug, the large bush Cicada, and different kinds of spiders and caterpillars, all contribute to the support of this bird; for I have found their remains in abundance in the stomachs of specimens I have dissected.

As already stated, it is accustomed to rob the nests of other birds; and whether from this or some other cause, it is an object of constant persecution to the Tui or Parson bird. The instant one of these birds shows itself, the Tui commences its pursuit, chasing it from tree to tree, and fairly driving it out of the woods. I have actually seen three or four of these persecutors at one time following the unfortunate Cuckoo, with loud cries of intimidation, and, finally, compelling it to take refuge in the long grass on the banks of a stream.

During its sojourn with us it is generally met with singly or in pairs, but Captain Mair gives the following interesting particulars of a summer flight:—“Passing down the Hurukareao river, in the Urewera country, during the intensely hot weather of February 1872, I was astonished at the number of Koheperoa that coursed about overhead. During the three days that we were making the passage, I saw some hundreds of them, swarming about in the air like large dragon-flies, as many as twenty or thirty of them being sometimes associated together. The loud clamour of their notes became at length quite oppressive. There was much dead timber on the banks of the river, and it appeared to me that the birds were feasting on the large brown cicada. This is the only occasion on which I have observed this bird consorting as it were in parties.”

Very little is at present known of the breeding-habits of this species. As I have mentioned above, it is parasitical; but to what extent is not yet fully determined. The theory put forward in my former edition was, that it performs itself the duty of incubation, and then abandons its young to the Grey Warbler, which instinctively accepts the charge and caters untiringly for its support. In the first place it is difficult to conceive how a bird of the size and form of the Long-tailed Cuckoo could deposit its eggs in the domed nest of the last-named species; and even supposing that it did, it would seem almost a physical impossibility for so small a creature to hatch it; and, again, even were this feasible, it is difficult to imagine how the frail tenement of a suspension nest could support the daily increasing weight of the young Cuckoo*. Over and above all this, there was the significant

* Mr. Justice Gillies thus describes a nest of the Grey Warbler which he found depending from a manuka bush close to the roadside, and about five feet from the ground, at the Bay of Islands (it was on the 7th October, and the nest contained four eggs):—“It is of the shape of a soda-water bottle, eight inches in length by about four in diameter at its widest part. The side aperture is fully one-third way down from the twig on which it hung, and measured one and a half inches across by about one inch perpendicular. The upper portion of the nest somewhat overhangs the aperture, forming a sort of hood. The nest is composed of twigs, grass, cow-hair, and greenish spider-nests, with a white coral-like moss scattered over the outside. The eggs are ten sixteenths of an inch in length by seven sixteenths of an inch greatest diameter, ovoid, of a faint pinkish colour, with small brown spots, more numerous at the larger end of the egg.” The learned author continues:—“How the Long-tailed Cuckoo (Eudynamis taitensis) can, as stated by Dr. Buller (‘Birds of New Zealand,’ p. 75), deposit its eggs in such a nest I can scarcely understand. On the 22nd instant (October) one of my children discovered, under a large Cupressus macrocarpa in my garden, a specimen of the Eudynamis taitensis, recently killed, apparently by a Hawk. It would have been impossible for the Eudynamis to have entered the opening in the nest of the Greygone.” (Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. vii. p. 524.)

On referring to the page of my first edition as cited above, it will be seen that, so far from making the supposed statement, I then expressed, as I now repeat, a very decided opinion to the contrary.

page 131 fact that I had once shot an adult female in which the underparts were quite denuded of feathers, as if the bird had been long incubating. Strange as such an hypothesis may appear, we are not altogether without a parallel instance in bird-history; for in the case of the Chrysococcyx smaragdineus of Western Africa, it is alleged that this Cuckoo hatches its single egg and then, utterly unmindful of its parental obligations, casts the care of its offspring on a charitable public; and that almost every passing bird, attracted by the piping cry of the deserted bantling, drops a caterpillar or other sweet morsel into its imploring throat! My artist, Mr. Keulemans, assures me that he often witnessed this himself during his residence on Prince’s Island. As entirely opposed to this theory, however, there is one undoubted case of an egg of this Cuckoo being hatched out by a Wood-Robin (Miro albifrons) in whose nest it had been deposited. The young Cuckoo was removed by the finder and soon afterwards died*. The question arises, If it had been allowed to leave the nest, would the Robin have reared it, or would she have delegated this task to the Grey Warbler?

An egg forwarded to me some years ago by the Rev. R. Taylor, of Wanganui, as belonging to this species, is almost spherical in shape, with a slightly rough or granulate surface; it is of a pale buff or yellowish-brown colour, and measures 1·25 inch in length by 1·15 in breadth. A specimen in the Canterbury Museum, taken by Mr. Smith from a Warbler’s nest at Oamaru, in November 1885, corresponds exactly with mine (which is now in the Colonial Museum at Wellington) except that it is slightly narrower.

* Mr. W. W. Smith sends me the following particulars of this case:—

“Oct. 29th. Found Wood-Robin’s nest with two eggs. Oct. 31. Visited Robin’s nest; four eggs. Nov. 3. Agreeably surprised to find egg of Eudynamis taitensis placed among the rest; for this is the first time I have seen its egg in the nest of this species. It was almost round in shape, with a deeper shade of colour than the specimen in the Canterbury Museum. Nov. 7. Found Robin sitting, and did not disturb her. Nov. 10. Made bird fly off, in order to examine the eggs, which I found to be all right. She was very tame, and came close to my face whilst I was looking at the eggs. Nov. 15. Again found bird on the nest, and left her undisturbed. Nov. 24. Visited nest again, and found all the eggs hatched; young Cuckoo of enormous size compared to its mates; must have been hatched out later than the others, as one of the young Robins was dead. I took the former in my hand, and found it to be a very helpless creature, with the skin almost entirely naked and the eyes closed. Nov. 28. Found young Cuckoo thriving well, being kept constantly supplied with food by the Robin, whose own surviving offspring, three in number, appear likewise to be doing well. Dec. 2. Young Cuckoo growing rapidly. It will soon be too large for the nest, and already has to lie on the top of the young Robins. Dec. 6. Cuckoo still in nest, and now covered with thick blackish downy feathers. It seems very robust; and I observed it raise its body over the edge of the nest in order to void its excrement. Dec. 8. Young Cuckoo has grown so much that it quite fills the cavity of the nest. The young Robins appear instinctively to remain at the bottom for self-preservation; for if the Cuckoo could displace them, he could occupy the whole of the cavity of the nest. Dec. 9. Removed two of the young Robins, in order to make room for the increasing size of the Cuckoo. Dec. 10. Young Cuckoo and remaining Robin doing well, the latter being nearly ready to fly. Dec. 11. Placed the nest, with both occupants, inside a box with wire-netting in front—the mesh being large enough to admit the head of the parent—and left it there. Dec. 15. Found young birds quite active, having been fed by the old ones through the netting. Liberated the Robin and brought the Cuckoo home. It is now in fine plumage, spotted with white or greyish white on a brown ground. Dec. 17. Cuckoo doing well and eats freely. Moves about the box in a clumsy way, and utters a peevish chirp, usually after being fed. Legs well developed, but apparently weak; eyes very bright. Dec. 22. Young Cuckoo died last night, much to my regret, as I was anxious to make it live through the winter.”