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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Platycercus Novæ Zealandiæ — (Red-Fronted Parrakeet.)

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Platycercus Novæ Zealandiæ
(Red-Fronted Parrakeet.)

  • Pacific Parrot, Lath. Gen. Syn. i. p. 252 (1781).

  • Psittacus novœ zeelandiœ, Sparrm. Mus. Carls. pl. 28 (1787).

  • Psittacus pacificus, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 329 (1788).

  • Platycercus pacificus, Vigors, Zool. Journ. i. p. 526 (1825).

  • Pezoporus novœ zeelandiœ, Voigt, ed. Cuv. Thierreich, p. 750 (1831).

  • Lathamus sparmanii, Less. Traité d’Orn. i. p. 206 (1831).

  • Platycercus erythrotis, Wagl. Monogr. Psitt. p. 526 (1835).

  • Cyanoramphus erythrotis, Bonap. Rev. et Mag. de Zool. vi. p. 153 (1854).

  • Cyanoramphus novœ zelandiœ, Bonap. Rev. et Mag. de Zool. vi. p. 153 (1854).

  • Cyanoramphus auckandicus, Bonap. Naumannia, 1856, Suppl. p. 352.

  • Cyanoramphus novœ guineœ, Bonap. Naum. 1856, Suppl. p. 352.

  • Platycercus aucklandicus, Gray, Cat. Brit. Mus. Psitt. p. 13 (1859).

  • Platycercus cookii, Gray, Cat. Brit. Mus. Psitt. p. 13 (1859).

  • Platycercus novœ guineœ, Gray, Cat. Brit. Mus. Psitt. p. 13 (1859).

  • Cyanorhamphus saisseti, Verr. et Des Murs, Rev. et Mag. de Zool. xii. p. 387 (1860).

  • Platycercus rayneri, Gray, Ibis, 1862, p. 228.

  • Coriphilus novœ zeelandice, Schlegel, Dierent. p. 77 (1864).

  • Euphema novœ zeelandiœ, Schl. Mus. Pays-Bas, Psittaci, p. 105 (1864).

  • Platycercus forsteri, Finsch, Papag. ii. p. 287 (1868).

Native names.

Kakariki, Kakawariki, Powhaitere, Porere, and Torete.

prasinus, uropygio paullò Iætiore: genis et corpore subtùs flavicanti-viridibus: pileo antico, maculâ anteoculari, alterâ, supraauriculari et plumis paucis ad latera uropygii positis puniceis: occipite ad basin plumarum celatè citrino: tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus: remigibus brunneis, alâ spuriâ lætissimè ultramarinâ: primariis extùs ad basin ultramarino, versus apicem angustè flavido marginatis: caudâ suprà lætè prasinâ, subtùs magis flavicante: subalaribus cyanescenti-viridibus: maxillâ cyanescenti-albâ, versus apicem nigricante, mandibulâ omninò nigricante: pedibus pallidè brunneis: iride rubrâ.

Adult male. General plumage bright grass-green, lighter, or rather yellowish-green, on the underparts. Forehead, crown, and streak across the eye terminating on the ear-coverts deep crimson, with a spot of the same, more or less distinct, on each side of the rump; on the nape a broad basal mark of yellowish white, observable only when the plumage is disturbed or raised. The wing-feathers are dusky black, lighter on the under surface, and crossed by an obscure yellowish band; the outer primaries and their coverts, as well as the bastard quills, bright blue on their outer webs. Irides cherry-red; upper mandible bluish white, with a black tip; lower mandible bluish black; feet pale brown. Extreme length 12 inches; wing, from flexure, 5·5; tail 6; culmen ·8; tarsus ·8; longer fore toe and claw 1·15; longer hind toe and claw 1.

Adult female. Of similar plumage to the male, although the frontal crimson cap is not so conspicuous. It is, however, somewhat smaller. Extreme length 10·25 inches; extent of wings 14; wing, from flexure, 5; tail 5; tarsus ·75; longer fore toe and claw 1.

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Young. The plumage of the young bird does not differ appreciably from that of the adult.

Varieties. Like many other members of the large natural family to which it belongs, this species exhibits a strong tendency to variability of colour; and the slight differences which some of the ornithologists of Europe have recognized as sufficient specific characters are clearly of no value whatever. A specimen brought to me by a native, in the Kaipara district, many years ago, had the whole of the plumage of a brilliant scarlet-red. Another, obtained in the woods in the neighbourhood of Wellington, had the green plumage thickly studded all over with spots of red; this handsome bird was caged, and at the first moult the whole of the spots disappeared. An example of this species in the British Museum has the abdomen and under tail-coverts bright yellow mixed with green; the thigh-spots very large and bright; the rump stained, and the tail obscurely banded on the upper surface, with dull yellow.

A Southland paper thus describes a specimen which was shot in the Seaward Bush :—“One of the most beautifully plumaged native birds we have ever seen was shown us yesterday by Mr. James Morton, a taxidermist, to whom it had been handed to be stuffed. It is a variety of Platycercus novæ zealandiæ, and proved to be a male. Instead of the usual green hue, the feathers of the one in question are tipped and edged with green on a beautiful lemon-yellow ground—the small feathers of the wing showing a steel-blue tint at the edges, or mixed bronze and yellow. The large pinion-feathers are yellow and green, merging into bronze at the tips—the tail-feathers being similarly coloured. The beak is surmounted by a crescentshaped patch of blood-red, and there are two others on the back.”

I have in my possession a feather of rich uniform yellow with a white shaft, from the tail of a tame bird of this species, formerly in the possession of the Wellington Working Men’s Club, in which all the rest of the plumage was of the normal colour. I am indebted to Mr. W. W. Smith, of Oamaru, for a curious specimen (♀) in which the back, rump, upper surface of wings, and nearly the whole of the abdomen are marked with irregular patches of pale lemon-yellow.

There are three very beautiful varieties in the Otago Museum :—

No. 1 has the entire plumage of a uniform vivid canary-yellow, except that the vertex, ear-coverts, and uropygial spots are crimson as in the ordinary bird; there are a few dashes of ultramarine blue on the tertials and some “invisible green” markings on the quills and tail-feathers, the shafts of which are white, as though the normal colours had here endeavoured to assert themselves; the bill, feet, and claws are white. The crimson markings, especially on the sides of the uropygium, are bright and conspicuous, and the bird altogether is as lovely an object as the most ardent ornithologist could desire as the type of a new species; but, alas, it is nothing but a “freak of nature” whose exact counterpart may never occur again. This specimen was obtained at Seaward Bush in October 1874, and was presented to the Museum by Mr. J. M. Broderick.

No. 2 is a beautiful instance of cyanism. The entire plumage of the cheeks, throat, and underparts is a delicate marine-blue, or isabelline, the feathers on the lower parts and sides of the body narrowly edged with dusky; supplying the place of crimson on the vertex and ear-coverts is a pale yellowish or greyish brown; the rest of the upper surface is a deeper isabelline, varied with a still darker shade of blue, and with the feathers more distinctly margined with dusky; there are no uropygial spots; the quills are marked with ultramarine as in ordinary specimens; the tail-feathers have greenish reflections, with a wash of blue down the outer vane of the lateral ones, the under surface of wings and tail being dusky brown. Bill and feet of the normal colours. This is the Parrakeet mentioned by Prof. Hutton as the “blue variety from Southland.”

No. 3 is a very different looking bird, from Invercargill. The entire plumage is dirty yellow, with a varying wash of green, which is deepest on the underparts and least apparent on the quills and tail-feathers; the vertex and ear-coverts are crimson, the former having a flush of canary-yellow along its posterior edge; the shafts of the quills and tail-feathers are white, and on the primarics and tertials there is just the faintest indication of the normal colour in a delicate shade of greenish blue; the upper wing-coverts are washed on their edges with green; the crimson uropygial spots are present, and the bill and feet are the same as in ordinary specimens.

Note. The synonymy of the genus Platycercus, as may be seen above, has been involved in much confusion. We are indebted to Dr. Otto Finsch, of Bremen, for a complete elucidation of the subject, in his able Monograph of the Psittacidæ (Die Papageien, ii. p. 275, 1868). Examples of P. novæ zealandiæ vary page 139 much in size and in the depth of their colouring. The shade of the prevailing green, the brilliancy of the crimson vertex, and the extent of red colouring on the ear-coverts and of blue on the wings are alike variable.

Dr. Finsch is of opinion that P. (Cyanorhamphus) saisetti (Verr.) is inseparable from this species. On comparing a specimen sent by Mr. Edgar Layard from New Caledonia to the Otago Museum, I find that this bird differs from P. novæ zealandiæ only in having the sides of the face, throat, breast, and underparts generally greenish yellow, deepening into grass-green on the sides of the body and on the flanks. If, however, this is a constant character I accept it as specific. There is a wash of blue on the outer vanes of the tail-feathers, but this may be an accidental peculiarity. The crimson of the vertex likewise has a wash of yellow in it, to which the same remark will apply, for I have met with New-Zealand examples tinged in the same manner. The crimson uropygial spots in Layard’s specimen have an admixture of yellow; and the bill is blue and black, without any of the whiteness characteristic of our bird.

I am of opinion that P. forsteri, admitted with some hesitation by Dr. Finsch, and founded on a single example in the British Museum, is nothing but P. novæ zealandiæ, with the red uropygial spots accidentally absent; and I have accordingly included it in the synoptical history of this species as given above.

There is an example in the Otago Museum with an abnormally developed bill, as shown in the accompanying woodcut. It likewise has a wash of yellow on the secondary quills.

The Red-fronted Parrakeet is very generally dispersed over the whole country, but is more plentiful in the southern portion of the North Island than in the far north, where the yellow-fronted species predominates. It frequents every part of the bush, but appears to prefer the outskirts, where the vegetation is low and shrubby, as also the wooded margins of creeks and rivers. It is often met with amongst the dense koromiko (Veronica) which covers the low river-flats, or among the bushes of Leptospermum and other scrub. It seldom ventures beyond the shelter of the woods, unless it be to visit the farmer’s fields for its tithe of grain, or to reach some distant feeding-place, when it rises rather high in the air and flies rapidly, but in a somewhat zigzag course. When on the wing it utters a hurried chattering note; and when alarmed, or calling to its fellows, it emits a cry resembling the words “twenty-eight,” with a slight emphasis on the last syllable. It often resorts to the tops of the highest trees, but may always be enticed downwards by imitating this note. It is gregarious, forming parties of from three to twelve or more in number, except in the breeding-season, when it is generally met with in pairs*.

Its food consists chiefly of berries and seeds; but I suspect that it also devours small insects and their larvæ; for I have observed flocks of a dozen or more on the ground, engaged apparently in a search of that kind, and it is a well-established fact that several of the Australian members of this group subsist partly on insect food. When the corn-fields are ready for the harvest, flocks of this gaily-coloured Parrakeet resort to them to feed on the ripe grain; and it is very pretty to see them, on any alarm being given, rise in the air together and settle on a fence, or on the limb of a dead tree, to wait till the danger has passed, keeping up all the time a low, pleasant chatter.

Sir William Fox, after his return from a trip through the Canterbury district in 1871, informed

* “At nesting-time the old birds often indulge in a low murmuring note to each other.” (Journ. of Science, ii. p. 480.)

page 140 me that the farmers had suffered a visitation, tens of thousands of these birds having descended on their ripening crops of corn and proved almost as destructive as an army of locusts. It is difficult to account for these occasional irruptions in such numbers, in the case of a bird not otherwise plentiful. The sudden failure, or scarcity, of the ordinary food-supply in certain wooded districts is the most rational way of accounting for such unexpected visitations; but, apart from this cause, there are doubtless others directing and regulating the migratory impulse, although at present we are unable to define them. The same sort of thing is occurring, more or less, in every part of the world and in every department of the animal kingdom. Beyond laying down general principles, it is impossible to explain some of the phenomena. For example, who has been able to account satisfactorily for the sudden irruption of Pallas’s Sand-Grouse (Syrrhaptes paradoxus) into Europe in 1863? These birds, which had scarcely ever been heard of before, came from beyond the Caspian Sea, traversing some 4000 geographical miles, spreading themselves over Europe in countless flocks like a Tartar invasion, without any apparent cause, and disappeared again just as suddenly and unaccountably as they had come. The same question may be asked of the remarkable influx of the Waxwing into England in the winter of 1849–50, an event quite unparallelled in the ornithological history of the country. To come nearer home, what naturalist was able to account, more than theoretically, for the plague of caterpillars which (up to the time of the introduction of the muchabused House-Sparrow) periodically, but at long intervals, visited our country districts, coming in countless millions, sweeping all before them, and utterly wrecking the hopes of the farmers?

This species bears confinement remarkably well, and is very docile and familiar even when taken as an adult bird. It is also very intelligent, and possesses the faculty of mimicry in a high degree.

It is quite the cottagers’ friend in New Zealand. Riding or driving through the suburbs of the provincial towns—the Porirua and Karori districts for example, near Wellington—you will notice in many of the farmers’ houses and roadside cottages small wooden cages of primitive construction (often merely a candle-box or whisky-case, faced with wire netting or thin wooden bars) fixed up to the front of the building or under the simple verandah. On closer inspection each of these cages will be found to contain a tame Parrakeet—the pet of the rustic home and “Pretty Poll” of the family; and I have often been quite interested at finding how attached these simple people become to their little captive.

One of these birds has been in the possession of a lady at Christchurch (Canterbury) for more than eight years. Although full-grown when first caged, it has learnt to articulate several words with great clearness. It is very tame, and displays a considerable amount of intelligence—leaves its cage every day for exercise, and returns to it immediately on the appearance of a stranger. It knows its fair owner’s voice, will respond to her call, and will “shake hands” with each foot alternately in the most sedate manner. Another, in our own possession, survived confinement for more than eleven years, and appeared then in perfect health and strength, when it fell a victim to the household puss. This bird could articulate sentences of three or four words with great precision; and the loss of so intimate a family-friend was “sincerely lamented” by all our circle.

At the Foxton railway-station there used to be (and may be still) a tame Parrakeet that had learnt to say “Be quick!” and was accustomed to repeat these words with energy and clear articulation as the passengers by train crowded round the ticket-window.

In certain particular woods where, for some unaccountable reason, all other birds are scarce, this Parrakeet may always be found. One such tract lies between Cambridge and Ohinemutu, where the coach-road passes through some twelve miles of the most picturesque bush imaginable. Destitute as it generally is of bird-life, the scenery is enchanting. At intervals of a few miles there are deep wooded gorges, the eye often resting on tree-tops some three hundred feet below the spectator. The bush itself page 141 is of the usual mixed kind, with every gradation of shade in green and brown; but the dominant feature, as almost everywhere else in New Zealand, is the beautiful tree-fern, which I think I have never seen in greater beauty or abundance. In some places you come upon whole groves of Cyathea smithii, with its grand expanse of graceful fronds, then groups of Dicksonia antarctica nestling among the denser vegetation on both sides of the road. And before the eye has had time to take in the full beauty of the scene, the aspect changes and straggling clumps of Cyathea cunninghamii present themselves to view, with their soft and feathery fronds, some exhibiting an open coronet of slender stalks and others with their crowns depressed; then, at a fresh turn in the road, far away in the depths of the gorge, and shaded by the overhanging foliage, may be seen superb umbrella-tops of mamaku (Cyathea medullaris), resting on giant stems often sixty or seventy feet in height. In the more open glades of the forest the stately Cyathea dealbata lifts its graceful head, those in exposed positions displaying the silvery white of their under surface with every breath of wind. On nearer inspection other forms may be distinguished, there being apparently no limit to their beauty and variety. Each fern is a study in itself, and the natural grouping is such as no landscape gardener with all his artificial skill could ever produce. Some have their stems encircled with vines, ferns, and creepers, from base to summit; others have their trunks hung thickly round with the withered fronds of a former growth. Some have slender, naked stems, while others have massive pyramidal trunks. Some stand out clearly and sharply defined against the darker background, while others are almost lost in the luxuriance of their epiphytic growth. I do not mention the ever-present ground-ferns, in their infinite variety, because no New-Zealand bush could well exist without them; but I ought to notice here the most beautiful object on the road. A little more than halfway through, from the Cambridge side, our coach stopped at a point near which the crape-fern, or “Prince of Wales’ feather,” is known to exist. We alighted and entered the forest. At a distance of only a chain from the highroad we came upon one of the loveliest sylvan sights I have ever witnessed. This was a dense bed of Todea superba growing close together, each plant with beautiful deep green, velvety fronds, arranged like the feathers on a shuttlecock, each with a spread of three feet or more, and covering altogether about an acre of ground. This luxuriant bed of an elsewhere rare fern, of the richest green and of crape-like texture, closely covering the ground and protected from the sun by a thick forest canopy, presented a picture of surpassing beauty never to be forgotten.

A hole in a decaying or dead tree affords this species a natural breeding-place, the eggs being laid on the pulverized rotten wood at the bottom; for, as a rule, there is no further attempt at forming a nest*. I ought to mention, however, that in the Canterbury Museum there is a loose nest, formed of moss, and lined with fern-hair and green Parrakeet feathers, which was taken from the hollow of a tree and is assigned (I believe correctly) to this species. The months of November and December constitute the breeding-season. The eggs vary in number from three to seven; and a native stated that he once found a nest containing as many as eleven; but five is the usual number. Captain Mair informs me that a pair of these birds bred in the hollow trunk of a hinau-tree for several successive years, although robbed of their young every season, and that he has frequently observed the cock bird feeding the hen, during incubation, by regurgitating berries from his crop.

Although exhibiting a preference for hollow trees, they sometimes nest in the holes or crevices of rocks. On the Upper Wanganui the natives pointed out to me a small round cavity in the perpendicular cliff forming the bank of the river, and assured me that this was the entrance to a small chamber where a pair of Parrakeets had reared their young in security for many years. The eggs are very broadly oval, measuring 1·05 by ·85 inch; they are pure white and are very finely granulate on the surface, sometimes with minute limy excrescences near the larger end.

* Prof. Scott states that during a visit to Campbell Island he found this species of Parrakeet there “in great numbers round the shore,” and that, in the absence of woods, it makes its nest under the grass-tussocks.