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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Spiloglaux Novæ Zealandiæ — (New-Zealand Owl, Or Morepork.)

Spiloglaux Novæ Zealandiæ
(New-Zealand Owl, Or Morepork.)

  • New-Zealand Owl, Lath. Gen. Syn. i. p. 149 (1781).

  • Strix novœ seelandiœ, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 296 (1788, ex Lath.).

  • Strix fulva, Lath. Ind. Orn. i. p. 65 (1790).

  • Noctua zelandica, Quoy & Gaim. Voy. de l’Astrol. Zool. i. p. 168, t. 2. fig. 1 (1830).

  • Athene novœ seelandiœ, Gray, Voy. Ereb. & Terror, p. 2 (1844).

  • Athene novœce zealandiœ, Gray, Cat. Brit. Mus. Accipitr. p. 52 (1844).

  • Noctua venatica, Peale, U. S. Expl. Exp. p. 75 (1848).

  • Spiloglaux novœ seelandiœ, Kaup, Isis, 1848, p. 768.

  • Ieraglaux novæ zealandiæ, Kaup, Tr. Zool. Soc. iv. p. 218 (1852).

Native names.

Ruru, Koukou, and Peho; “Morepork” of the colonists.

Ad. suprà chocolatinus, scapularibus maculis fulvis plus minusve celatis notatis: loris, genis anticis et supercilio distincto fulvescentibus: regione auriculari chocolatinâ: tectricibus alarum medianis et majoribus extùs fulvo vel albo maculatis: remigibus brunneis, extùs albo maculatis, et saturaté brunneo transfasciatis: caudâ suprà brunneâ, subtùs pallidiore, fasciis distinctis saturatè brunneis transnotatâ: collo laterali et corpore subtùs toto Iætè fulvis, medialiter latè brunneo striatis: abdomine imo, hypochondrüs et subcaudalibus pulchrè albo marmoratis: cruribus et tarsorum plumis Iætè ferrugineis: rostro nigro, culmine albicante: pedibus flavis, digitis setis nigricantibus indutis: iride aureo-flavâ.

Adult male. Crown of the head and all the upper parts dark umber-brown, obscurely spotted on the scapulars and wing-coverts with fulvous white; lores and region of the bill white, with black produced filaments; forehead, fore neck, and upper part of the breast light fulvous, mixed with brown; underparts generally fulvous, with triangular spots of dark brown disposed in rows and blending; under tail-coverts fulvous barred with white; quills and tail-feathers dark brown obscurely banded, the former touched on the outer webs with fulvous white; feathers covering the tarsi fulvous. Irides golden yellow; toes yellow, with dark hairs; bill black, white on the ridge. Length 12·5 inches; extent of wings 25; wing, from flexure, 8; tail 5·75; bill, along the ridge l, along the edge of lower mandible ·75; tarsus 1·5; middle toe and claw 1·25.

Female. The female is slightly smaller, and the markings of the plumage are less distinct than in the male.

Nestling. A nestling obtained at Westland (and apparently a fortnight old) is covered with thick, fluffy down, of a sooty-brown colour, with loose white filaments; inclined to tawny on the underparts, and whiter on the sides of the head and neck; bill dark brown, with a whitish ridge; legs and feet yellow. They assume the full plumage before quitting the nest.

Fledgling. In my collection there are two specimens of different ages:–

No. 1 has the forehead, chin, and sides of the face destitute of feathers; the crown of the head and all the upper surface sooty brown, or almost black, without any light markings; the plumage extremely soft and fluffy, with the downy white filaments still adhering to it, and more abundantly on the head, neck, and rump; underparts sooty brown, mixed with fulvous; on the thighs thick fluffy plumage of a dull tawny page break


page break page 193 colour; the tarsi thickly covered to the toes with white down, having the appearance of stockings; quills and their coverts just developing, the rounded white spots on the latter being very conspicuous; bill greenish black; toes yellow; claws dark brown.

No. 2, which is apparently ten days or perhaps a fortnight older, is in a condition to leave the nest: plumage as in the adult, but duller, and mixed with dark-coloured down on the breast; head well-feathered, but with less white about the chin and facial disk; feathers very fluffy and with downy filaments still adhering on some parts of the body; white spots on wings more regular than in the adult, forming two parallel diagonal series, following the order of the coverts; bill dark brown.

Varieties. Examples from different localities present slight but uniform differences of plumage. Specimens from the Nelson district are, on comparison with those from the north side of Cook’s Strait, invariably found to be more largely marked with white around the eyes and on the feathers surrounding the bill. As we proceed further south the variation is still more apparent, the whole plumage partaking of a lighter character. There is also considerable variation in size; and a specimen received by me from Mr. W. T. L. Travers is not only unusually small in all its proportions, but has the whole of the plumage deeply stained with ferruginous. A beautiful albino was shot at Te Whauwhau (Whangarei) in the winter of 1871.

In Mr. J. C. Firth’s fine collection of New-Zealand birds, at Mount Eden, Auckland, there is a beautiful specimen (obtained at Coromandel) in partial albino plumage. The whole of the body is marked with white, presenting a mottled appearance, and particularly so on the underparts, where the white is softly blended with the normal tawny colour, producing a very pretty effect; each wing has two white primaries, but the tail-feathers are as in ordinary examples.

Every New-Zealand colonist is familiar with this little Owl, under the name of “Morepork”*. It is strictly a nocturnal species, retiring by day to the dark recesses of the forest, or hiding in the crevices of the rocks, and coming abroad soon after dusk to hunt for rats, mice, and the various kinds of moths and beetles that fly at night. It is common in all parts of the country, although not so numerous now as it formerly was; and the familiar cry from which it derives its popular name may often be heard in the more retired parts of our principal towns, as well as in the farmer’s country home or in the rustic Maori “kainga”: I have even known several instances of its voluntarily taking up its abode in a settler’s house or, more frequently, in the barn, and remaining there a considerable time.

When discovered in its hiding-place during the day, it is found sitting upright, with the head drawn in, the eyes half closed, and the feathers of the body raised, making the bird appear much larger than it really is. It will then allow a person to approach within a few yards of it, and, if disturbed, will fly off noiselessly for a short distance and attempt to secrete itself. It will often

* “This bird gave rise to rather an amusing incident in the Hutt Valley during the time of the fighting with Mamaku and Rangihaeata, and when, in anticipation of a morning attack, a strong piquet was turned out regularly about an hour before daylight. On one occasion the men had been standing silently under arms for some time, and shivering in the cold morning air, when they were startled by a solemn request for ‘more pork.’ The officer in command of the piquet, who had only very recently arrived in the country, ordered no talking in the ranks, which was immediately replied to by another demand, distinctly enunciated, for ‘more pork.’ So malapropos a remark produced a titter along the ranks, which roused the irate officer to the necessity of having his commands obeyed, and he accordingly threatened to put the next person under arrest who dared make any allusion to the unclean beast. As if in defiance of the threat, and in contempt of the constituted authorities, ‘more pork’ was distinctly demanded in two places at once, and was succeeded by an irresistible giggle from one end of the line to the other. There was no putting up with such a breach of discipline as this, and the officer, in a fury of indignation, went along the line in search of the mutinous offender, when suddenly a small chorus of ‘more pork’ was heard on all sides, and it was explained who the real culprits were.

“At the attack in the Bay of Islands by Heke and Kawiti, the native parties, in moving to their positions about the blockhouses and town before daybreak, commnnicated their whereabouts to one another by imitating the cry of this bird, which the sentries had been so accustomed to hear of a morning that it did not attract their notice.” (Captain Power’s ‘Sketches in New Zealand,’ 1849.)

page 194

remain many days, or even weeks, in the same piece of bush. In the volcanic hills or extinct craters that surround the city of Auckland there are numerous small caves, formed by large cracks or fissures in the ancient lava-streams, the entrance to them being generally indicated by a clump of stunted trees growing up among loose blocks of scoria. These gloomy recesses are a favourite resort of the Morepork in the daytime.

On the approach of night its whole nature is changed: the half-closed orbits open to their full extent, the pupils expand till the yellow irides are reduced to a narrow external margin, and the lustrous orbs glow with animation, while all the movements of the bird are full of life and activity. It then sallies forth from its hiding-place and explores in all localities, preferring, however, the outskirts of the forest, where nocturnal insects abound, and the bush-clearings in the neighbourhood of farms, or the ruins of Maori villages, these places being generally infested with rats and mice, on which it chiefly subsists. Like other birds of prey, it afterwards regurgitates the hair and other indigestible parts of these animals in hard pellets. That the Morepork also preys on small birds there can be no reasonable doubt, although it has been frequently called in question. Captain Mair has seen one, at sunset, seated on the branch of a tutu bush (Coriaria ruscifolia) with a live Korimako in its claws, and in the act of killing it; and a native once told me that he had seen one of these Owls killing and devouring a Parrakeet. Mr. Drew, of Wanganui, informs me that the stomach of one which he skinned contained the entire body of a House-Sparrow. Captain Robinson, of Manawatu, further attests the fact; for on one occasion, when walking in his garden after sunset, he saw a Morepork emerge from a blue-gum and spring upon a Kingfisher, firmly grappling it in its claws. The bird uttered a cry of pain or terror; and on my informant advancing towards the spot, the Owl released its victim and flew off, but immediately afterwards made a second attack, securing the Kingfisher firmly in its grasp, and only relaxing its hold at the moment of being seized.

Mr. J. T. Stewart informs me that, in his own garden at Foxton, he has witnessed two instances of the Owl attacking and vanquishing the Kingfisher, this happening on both occasions towards evening.

I have been informed by Sir George Grey that, of nearly a hundred Diamond-Sparrows which he liberated on the island of Kawau, very few survived the ravages of this little Owl, and that some other importations suffered in like manner. Sir Edward Stafford, who had for many years interested himself in the introduction and acclimatization of useful birds, has also given evidence against the Morepork on this charge; for he has assured me that on one occasion, having turned out a large number of insectivorous birds in his grounds at Wellington, an unusual number of Owls sought harbour there, and preyed on the little immigrants till scarcely a single one remained. For a considerable time, however, it was doubted whether the Morepork was destructive to acclimatized birds; and a lengthy controversy on the subject appeared in the Auckland newspapers. The careful observations of Mr. Brighton, the Curator of the local Acclimatization Society, at length placed the matter beyond all discussion. Frequently he had to forego his night’s rest in order to watch the aviaries, and during a period of only a few months he shot no less than fourteen of these birds. Some of these were surprised in the act of attacking the aviaries, and all of them in the immediate vicinity. He repeatedly found the dead and lacerated bodies of Sky-Larks and Chaffinches lying on the wooden ledge just inside the eave of the wire-roofing; and the abundance of Morepork-feathers found entangled in the netting afforded a clue to the perpetrator of these murderous attacks. From the appearance of the feathers, and the mutilated condition of the dead birds, it was evident that the Morepork had tried hard, but unsuccessfully, to pull them through the wire netting in the roof. The following account, by the Curator, renders this perfectly intelligible:—

“The aviary is constructed in the usual manner, on the model of a bird-cage, of wire netting over a wooden framework, with a sloping roof, also of wire netting. Attached to the framework

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comprising the wall-plates, on either side, there are wooden ledges, resembling shelves, on which the Larks rest at night, while the Chaffinches roost upon twigs planted within the aviary, and reaching within a few inches of the wire netting of which the roof is composed. During moonlight nights the Moreporks have been seen to fly upon the roof of the aviary, and after making, as it were, a reconnaissance of the defences, to pounce repeatedly against the wire, causing a loud vibration, and startling the feathered inmates. These, in their fright, fly towards the light, dashing themselves against the wire netting, until the Morepork, by hopping about on the roof, succeeds in fastening upon one of them, and, of course, making short work of him.”

In addition to the above evidence, sufficient of itself before any common jury to convict the culprit, I may mention that on one occasion in Christchurch I saw a Morepork, towards the cool of the evening, enter the verandah of the house in which I was staying and boldly attack a Canary whose cage was suspended there, vainly endeavouring to clutch it as it fluttered against the wires. I heard of another instance in which the depredator actually succeeded in tearing off a limb of the occupant in its efforts to pull it through the bars.

There has, in consequence, been a crusade against the Morepork in many parts of the country. But whether this wholesale destruction of an indigenous species, on account of these predatory habits, is wise, or even prudent, may be seriously questioned. The Morepork, as we have already shown, not only preys on rats and mice, but is also a good insectivorous bird, with a voracious appetite. Its habit of feeding largely on the nocturnal lepidoptera is of itself an inestimable benefit to the agriculturist, as it tends to check the spread of the caterpillar, whose ravages are becoming more severely felt every year. It is a dangerous thing to disturb the balance of nature by violent means; and, in a new country especially, we must be careful that in removing one evil we are not opening the door to an immeasurable greater one. For my own part, I consider the killing of a single Owl a positive injury to the farming industries of the country, and scarcely compensated for by the introduction of a score of soft-billed insectivores in its place.

I have sometimes found this species, at night, among the rocks along the sea-margin, from which it may be inferred that crabs and other small crustacea contribute to its support. In the stomachs of some I have found remains of the large wood-beetle (Prionoplus reticularis); and those of others I have found crammed with moths of all sizes, or with nocturnal coleoptera. I examined some castings of the Morepork in the Canterbury Museum. They are hard pellets, of an oval form, and of the size of a Sparrow’s egg, composed chiefly of the hard elytra and heads of various coleopterous insects, among which I noticed particularly the shining covering of the mata (Feronia antarctica), a handsome ground-beetle which is found on the Canterbury plains, but does not occur in the North Island.

I have noticed that individual birds are very local in their disposition, often fixing on a particular roost or hiding-place by day, to which they will regularly resort for weeks or perhaps months together, the ground immediately below the perch becoming at length quite foul with their accumulated droppings.

Judge Munro informs me that some years ago on opening a bird of this species he found in its stomach a specimen of the weta-punga, or tree-cricket (Deinacrida heteracantha), with a body as large as a magnum-bonum plum; and the stomach of another which I obtained in the Rimutaka Ranges, in the month of March, was filled with broken remains of the small weta (D. thoracica).

The flight of the bird is light, rapid, and so noiseless that, I verily believe, it could surprise and capture a mouse at the very entrance to its burrow. On examining the feathers of the wing, it will be found that they are furnished with a soft or downy margin, and are specially adapted for this manner of flight. From an examination of the orifice of the ear we are led to infer that the power of hearing in this Owl is very acute. It is therefore the more surprising that, on two occasions after dark, I have succeeded in seizing this species with the hand, when perched on the eaves of a verandah, page 196 over which its tail projected. It is comparatively easy to capture it on the wing by a dexterous use of a strong insect-net. When caught, it manifests its anger by a repeated clicking of the mandibles, while it dexterously uses its beak and talons in its appeals for liberation. The ordinary call of this Owl at night consists of two notes uttered with vigour, and having a fanciful resemblance to the words “more pork,” from which it derives its popular name. These notes are repeated at regular intervals of from eight to ten seconds, as I have ascertained by timing the performance with my watch. Sometimes the bird breaks off at the end of half an hour, probably to go in quest of food; at other times he keeps up this hooting for a couple of hours or more continuously, especially on clear nights. Besides this cry it has a peculiar call of ke-e-e-o ke-e-e-o, repeated several times; and when disturbed or excited a scream, which is not unlike the alarm-cry of the Australian Rosehill. Parrakeet (Platycercs eximius), but louder and more shrill. At dusk also, before leaving its retreat, it utters a low croaking note, quickly repeated, which is responded to by the other Owls within hearing. This note resembles the syllables kou-kou, uttered from the chest; and among the northern tribes the bird is usually called by a name resembling that cry. It is, however, more generally known as the “Ruru,” and in some districts as the “Peho”*.

At night two rival males may be heard answering each other from neighbouring woods, or, as Longfellow expresses it,

“Talking in their native language,
Talking, scolding at each other.”

Although habitually nocturnal I have occasionally seen it abroad in the daytime, but only during very dull weather. On the occasion of my last visit to Auckland, about 5 o’clock one afternoon, I observed a Morepork, in broad daylight, sail across the public highway, in the very midst of the busy traffic, and take refuge in some trees in the old College grounds, in a spot where (although it no longer forms part of the school enclosure) thirty years before I had played cricket and football with the friends of my youth. A few evenings later I heard another screaming among the chimneytops in Shortland Crescent, in the very heart of the city—facts showing conclusively, I think, that this species has not been much affected by the spread of civilization in its native country.

Although naturally very fierce, I have known at least one instance of its becoming quite tame in confinement and taking food from the hand of its keeper.

It nidificates, as a rule, in hollow trees; but in the Mackenzie country, where there is little or no timber, nests have been found under the shelter of loose boulders. The young leave the nest about the beginning of January, and may be heard during every night of that month uttering a peculiar, sibilant, snoring sound, sometimes sufficiently sharp to resemble the stridulous song of the native cricket. But the breeding is occasionally delayed to a much later period of the year; for I have heard young Owls in the woods at Palmerston North on the 6th March, and on one occasion, at the North Shore (Auckland), I both heard and saw a young bird so late as the 11th of April. On the other hand, there are sometimes very early broods; for the downy nestling, of which a figure is given on the opposite page (and which is now in my collection), was taken from the cavity of a tree near Dunedin in the month of November.

Mr. J. D. Enys writes to me that he met with a nest of the Morepork at the Ohunga river, containing three eggs; and I have a similar report from Mr. W. Fraser, who found a nest in a hollow puriri (Vitex litoralis), containing three young birds. The Owls continued to breed there for three successive seasons. Captain Mair found a nest of this species in the hollow of a dry hinau tree

* According to Maori legend, this bird was one of the first winged inhabitants of New Zealand:—“He kopara te manu nana i noho tuatahi te puhi o te rakau; he ruru to te po; no muri nga manu nunui i noho ai ki te motu, te kaka me te kereru, me nga manu katoa.”

page 197 (Elæocarpus dentata), containing two very young birds, which were “covered with soft white down, plumbeous beneath.” In a clump of wood on the banks of the Wairoa river I found a nest, also containing two fully fledged young ones. I sent my native lad, Hemi Tapapa, up the tree to capture them; and while he was so engaged the parent birds came forth from their hiding-place, and darted at his face with a low growling note, making him yell with fear*. The Maoris share in the almost universal feeling of superstition regarding the Owl. Hemi’s conscience was troubled; and as the shades of night were closing in upon us with the call of “more pork !” in every direction, he handed me the captives and hurried away from the scene of his exploit, evidently sharing, in some degree, the horrors of that luckless wight, immortalized by Mr. Stevenson in his ‘Birds of Norfolk,’ who, having killed the church Owl as it flitted past him, ran shrieking home and confessed his awful crime—“I’ve been and shot a Cherubim !”

There are two eggs of this species in my son’s collection. One of these is almost spherical, the other is slightly ovoid, measuring 1·5 inch in length by 1·2 in breadth; they are perfectly white, with a very slight gloss on the surface.

Young of New-Zealand Owl.

Young of New-Zealand Owl.

* “Once the writer had an unusual adventure with one of these birds. It was early evening in the summer-time. The Owl was sitting on a gate. Anxious to watch and study its motions we sat down close by it; soon it left its perch, making a sudden swoop at the intruder. This manæuvre it continued to repeat time after time, most perseveringly, and with great gravity and deliberation. Only once was a blow felt; after each attack the bird resumed its perch on the gate. After a while the writer rose and walked up a dark ferny gully at some distance, when the Owl followed and again attacked him. This is the only instance we have met with in which this species has shown any symptoms of boldly resenting an intrusion on its privacy.” —Out in the Open.