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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Harpa Ferox. — (Bush-Hawk.)

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Harpa Ferox.

  • Falco brunneus*, Gould, P. Z. S. 1837, p. 139.

  • Falco ferox, Peale, U. S. Expl. Exp. p. 67 (1848).

  • Hieracidea brunnea, Gray, Ibis, 1862, p. 215.

  • Harpe brunneus, Gray, Hand-1. of B. i. p. 22 (1869).

  • Hieravidea brunnea, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 6 (1873).

  • Harpa australis, Sharpe, Cat. Birds Brit. Mus. vol. i. p. 373 (1874).

Native names.

The same as those applied to the preceding species; but sometimes distinguished as Karewa rewa-tara. “Sparrow-Hawk” of the colonists.

♂ similis H. novæ zealandiæ, sed valdè minor: suprà magis cinereus: caudæ fasciis angustioribus et obscurioribus: subtùs pallidior, distinctiùs striatus et maculatus.

♂ maris staturam conspicuè superans.

Juv. a specie præcedente haud distinguendus, sed subtùs obscurior.

Adult male. Upper parts generally greyish black, darkest on the head and nape; shoulders, scapulars, and small wing-coverts narrowly barred with greyish white, the back and upper tail-coverts with small crescentic bands of rufous; throat yellowish white; ciliary bristles, ear-coverts, and the facial streak black; a line over each eye, and the sides of the neck, reddish brown, varied with fulvous and black; breast and sides fulvous, varied with reddish brown, and largely marked with black. On the breast each feather has a central dash of black; and on the sides these markings assume a triangular form, giving a spotted character to the surface of the plumage. The wing-feathers are marked, on their outer web, by narrow transverse bands of greyish white; and the tail-feathers, which are black with a purplish reflection, have a series of seven narrow white bars disunited at the shaft, and are tipped with rufous brown; axillars dark rufous brown, with a series of round white spots on each web; abdomen and vent pale fulvous; tibial plumes rufous, with black shaft-lines. Bill black, white at the base of lower mandible; irides very dark brown; cere, lores, and eyelids bright lemon-yellow, slightly tinged on the cere with green; legs and feet paler yellow and more tinged with green; claws black. Extreme length 16 inches; extent of wings 26·5; wing, from flexure, 9; tail 6·5; tarsus 2·25; middle toe and claw 2·3; hind toe and claw 1·3; bill, along the ridge ·85, along the edge of lower mandible 1.

Adult female. Differs from the male in its somewhat larger size and in the darker and richer colouring of its plumage; but in other respects the sexes are alike. Extreme length 16·75 inches; wing, from flexure, 10; tail 7·7; tarsus 2·4.

Young. The young of this species bears a general resemblance in its plumage to that of the preceding bird; but on a close comparison it will be observed that the brown of the underparts is darker, while the spotted markings on the sides are rather more conspicuous. The tibials, moreover, are of a brighter rufous, and are crossed with numerous arrow-shaped marks of brown.

Nestling. Covered with bluish-grey down; bill black; tarsi and toes leaden grey.

* Preoccupied by Bechstein, as mentioned on page 215.

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Var. Individuals exhibit the usual variation in the details of their markings. A young example from the Bay of Islands, which I had the opportunity of examining, was peculiar in being largely marked with pale fawncolour on the throat, breast, and abdomen, the lower part of the body being entirely of that colour.

A beautiful adult male specimen, from the Seventy-mile Bush, which came into my possession alive, differed slightly in its dimensions from that described above. Total length 15·5 inches; extent of wings 27·26; wing, from flexure, 9·5; tail 6·5. Another, from Wainuiomata, measured 16 inches in length; 28·5 in extent; tail 7.

Obs. This species closely resembles Harpa novæ zealandiæ, but is decidedly smaller, and has more slender legs and claws; otherwise it would perhaps be impossible to distinguish the two birds.

Although not so common as it formerly was, the Bush-Hawk is more frequently met with than its congener. The high wooded lands of the interior appear to constitute its favourite haunts; and on the southern mountain-ranges of the North Island, as well as in the subalpine woods of the Canterbury provincial district, I have found it comparatively abundant. The skin of a Hawk from Macquarie Island, sent to me by Mr. Bourne of the Otago Museum, proved on examination to be identical with this species.

It is a spirited little hunter, and subsists by the chase, its food consisting principally of mice and small birds. During the breeding-season it is more than usually bold and fearless, assailing with fury all intruders upon its nest or young. Some remarkable instances of its courage are mentioned by the late Sir J. von Haast in his interesting ‘Journal of Explorations in the Nelson Province’*.

“One day,” says this traveller, “walking along near the margin of the forest in Camp Valley, my hat was suddenly knocked off my head, and at the same time I heard a shrill cry. On looking up, I found it was one of these courageous little Sparrow-Hawks that had attacked me, and which, after sitting for a moment or two on a branch, again pounced on me; and, although I had a long compass-stick in my hand, with which I tried to knock it down, it repeated its attack several times…… We met with another instance of the courage of these birds in the Matakitaki Plains. A White Crane, of large size, standing in the water, was attacked by three of them at once; and they made frequent and well-concerted charges upon him from different quarters. It was admirable to behold the Kotuku (White Crane) with his head laid back, darting his pointed beak at his foes with the swiftness of an arrow, while they, with the utmost agility, avoided the spear of their strong adversary, whom at last they were fain to leave unmolested. Another day, in the same neighbourhood, a Cormorant (Graculus varius) passing near a tree on which two of these Sparrow-Hawks were sitting, was pounced upon by them and put to hasty flight with a shrill cry of terror, followed closely by his small but fierce foes; and all three were soon out of sight.”

The ordinary flight of this Hawk is direct and rapid; but it may sometimes be seen soaring high in the air, with the wings almost motionless and the tail spread into a broad fan. On the wing it often utters a prolonged petulant scream. Thia is the signal fora general outcry among the small birds within hearing; and the Tui and Korimako will often rise in large flights and follow him into the air. But the little Hawk, heeding not their menaces, pursues his course, and the excitement among the feathered fraternity gradually subsides till all is quiet again. The appearance of an Owl in the daytime produces a similar commotion among the small birds of the forest; and I have often been guided to the hiding-place of the unfortunate “Morepork” by the clamour of the persecuting mob.

Besides the prolonged shrill note which is generally uttered on the wing, this species has also a low peevish cry, exactly like the squealing of a young pig, which is peculiar, I believe, to the breeding-season.

* Report of a Topographical and Geological Exploration of the Western Districts of the Nelson Province, New Zealand, undertaken by the Provincial Government. Nelson: 1861.

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It is well known, as already stated, that birds are good natural barometers. The height to which they rise in the air renders them susceptible to the slightest change in the temperature of the atmosphere; and they are thus warned of approaching changes in the weather. Thus the continuous screaming of the Bush-Hawk is understood by the natives to be a sure indication of change; and they have a common saying “Ka tangi te Karearea &c.” (If the Karearea screams in fine weather, ‘twill soon rain; if in rainy weather,’ tis about to clear). Wilson, the American ornithologist, in treating of the Fish-Hawk (Pandion haliaëtus), states that when these birds are seen sailing high in air, with loud vociferations, “it is universally believed to prognosticate a change of weather, often a thunder-storm in a few hours.… On the faith of the certainty of these signs, the experienced coaster wisely prepares for the expected storm, and is rarely mistaken.” I have met with some remarkable instances of this unerring instinct in the species under consideration, and this, at times, when the glass gave no indication of a coming change.

The Bush-Hawk is generally met with on the outskirts of the woods or among the dead timber of native “wairengas,” these localities being favourable for mice, on which it largely subsists. I once observed a young male of this species playing in the air with mice, after the manner of a cat; and the sight was as pretty as it was novel. When I first observed the bird, he was perched on the naked limb of a tree, apparently engaged in examining his quarry. Then mounting in the air with a mouse in each of his talons, and expanding his wings and tail to their full extent, he dropped first one mouse and then the other, and instantly darted after them, catching them in his talons before they reached the ground, then mounting high in the air again to renew the feat. Ultimately losing one of the mice, he discontinued his play, and, returning to the tree, killed and devoured the remaining one.

Formerly this spirited little Hawk was very common in the Hutt Valley and in the wooded suburbs of Wellington; now it is rarely, if ever, seen there. The last instance I know of was in April 1883, when a Sparrow-Hawk, after sailing inquisitively over the city and hovering for a time above the Colonial Museum—uttering all the time its shrill cry, as if in defiance of taxidermists and naturalists in general—eventually settled in the blue-gums in my garden, where it remained for half an hour; and then, after another rapid survey of the town, disappeared over the hills in the direction of Makara. A few years more, and the clarion cry of this fierce little hunter will be a thing of the past! Its appearance on this occasion was quite unusual, for my gardener, who is an old Wellington settler, declared he had not seen or heard the bird for more than ten years before.

I may mention that this species, unlike the generality of Hawks (so far as I am aware), may be attracted by an imitation of its cry. Riding along alone one fine autumn evening through the country at the northern end of Lake Taupo, on my way to Ohinemutu, I saw what appeared to be a Bush-Hawk come out of the woods at some distance and descend into an old or deserted Maori garden. By way of experiment I imitated the clamorous cry of this bird when on the wing; and in a few minutes the Hawk (a fine young male) came sailing up to me and performed several circuits in the air immediately overhead, and then took up his station on the dry limb of a tree close by the road, where he remained till I was out of sight.

The natives state that this little Hawk usually builds its nest in a bunch of puwharawhara, often at a great elevation from the ground, forming it rudely of loose materials; that it lays generally two, but sometimes three eggs; and that the young birds remain on the tree for several days after quitting the nest. The puwharawhara (Astelia cunninghamii) is a parasitical plant, with short, thickly set flag-leaves, radiating upwards from a clump of roots by which it adheres firmly to the parent tree. These plants, which often attain a circumference of many feet, are very common on the forks and naked branches of aged or withered trees on the outskirts of the forest, a single tree sometimes supporting twenty or more of them. A better situation for a Hawk’s nest than the centre of one of these plants could hardly be selected, combining as it does the requisites of warmth, security, page 223 and shelter; and the Bush-Hawk seems to be instinctively aware of this. Some years ago I was informed that a pair of these birds had bred for several successive seasons in a nest placed as described, and situated in the high fork of a dead kahikatea tree near the Horowhenua Lake. Having waited for the breeding-season, I offered the natives a half-sovereign each for the eggs; but, although excellent climbers, they failed in all their attempts to reach the nest. They afterwards observed the Hawks carrying mice, lizards, and small birds to their young; and the latter, on quitting the nest, were shot and destroyed. When I last visited the spot the old kahikatea was still standing, and the bunch of withered Astelia, which had cradled several successive broods, was still clinging to the tree; but the persecuted Hawks had quitted their exposed eyrie for some more secure retreat.

In the summer, however, of 1867, during a visit to Taupo, I was fortunate enough to find the nest of this species. We had fixed our bivouac for the night on the banks of the Waitangi Creek, only a few miles from the base of the grand snow-capped Ruapehu. Our native companion soon detected the old Hawks carrying prey to their young, and on the following morning he discovered the nest*. It was situated on the ground, under cover of a block of trachyte, which cropped out of the side of the hill. There had been no attempt to form a proper nest; but the ground was covered with the feathers of birds (almost entirely those of the Ground-Lark) on which the young Hawks had been fed. The latter were three in number, of different sizes, the largest being apparently three weeks old, and the smallest scarcely a fortnight. They were extremely savage, striking vigorously with their sharp talons and uttering a peculiar scream. While we were engaged in securing them in a basket the old birds were flying to and fro, occasionally dashing up to within a few feet of us, and then off again at a sharp angle, alighting at intervals, for a few moments only, on the rugged points of rock above us, but never uttering a sound. They were in perfect plumage; and when they occasionally poised their bodies overhead, with outspread wings and tail, they presented a very beautiful appearance. During our journey of forty miles through the bush, the gun supplied the young Hawks with a sufficiency of food; but they were very voracious, two large Pigeons per diem being scarcely enough to appease their joint appetites. Fifty miles more by canoe, and about forty on horseback, brought the captives to their destination, when they were placed in a compartment of the aviary. They continued to be very vicious, punishing each other severely with their claws. The youngest one was an object of constant persecution, and ultimately succumbed to a broken back. A small tame Sea-Gull that had unwittingly wandered into the aviary, through an open doorway, was instantly pounced on, although the young Hawks, in their unfledged condition, could only move by hopping along the ground. In about three weeks these birds (which proved to be male and female) had fully assumed the dark plumage; and for about two months after they were very clamorous, especially during wet or gloomy weather. By degrees they became less noisy, till at length they were perfectly silent and moody, never uttering a sound for weeks together, with the exception of a peculiar squeal when they were fighting. A more quarrelsome couple never existed. The female, being the larger and stronger bird, generally came off best, leaving the male severely punished about the head. At the end of six months the climax was reached by her actually killing and devouring her mate. I found the aviary strewn with feathers, and the skeleton of the poor victim picked clean! The surviving bird underwent a partial moult in the month of September following, and the plumage began to assume a spotted character. The legs also became slightly tinged with yellow. By the beginning of March in the following year she had acquired the full adult plumage, except that the throat and spots on the sides were not so light as in more mature examples. The legs had changed to a pale greenish yellow, and the irides from lustrous black to a dark brown colour—the cere retaining its pale blue tint, but with indications of a change to yellow. After two months’ absence I

* Captain Mair, writing to me in February 1880, says:-“The Sparrow-Hawks still build at the cliff on the Waitangi Stream where we obtained our young birds in 1867.”

page 224 again saw the bird, and noticed that the lores were becoming tinged with yellow, while the colour of the legs had deepened. Unfortunately, at this stage she was found dead on the floor of the aviary; and on dissection I found in the cavity of the back an amazing number of parasitical worms, many of them measuring from six to eight inches in length. A wild specimen, which I afterwards examined, was similarly afflicted.

The result of my observations is, that the Bush-Hawk attains the mature livery during the second year, the plumage being liable to some slight variations as the bird gets older. The irides had undergone very little perceptible change at the time of the bird’s death, but the eyes were large and somewhat sparkling.

This bird, a stranger to liberty from the very nest, had become quite attached to its aviary. It never attempted to escape when the door was accidentally left open; and on one occasion when it did get out it remained perched on the dome of its house, and voluntarily re-entered it. It partook readily of all kinds of meat, cooked or raw, although preferring the latter. Beef, pork, or mutton were alike acceptable; but a preference was always shown for birds. On a live bird being offered to it, the Hawk would eye its quarry intently for a short time and then make a sudden swoop upon it, seizing with the talons of one or both feet, according to the size and strength of the object. It would then proceed cautiously to destroy life by crushing the head of its victim in its powerful beak, only relaxing its hold when life was quite extinct. While thus employed, its eyes were full of animation, and its whole body quivered with excitement.

A pair of these birds bred for two successive seasons on a rocky crag at Niho-o-te-kiore. They guarded their nest with great vigilance, fiercely attacking all intruders; and on both occasions brought up their brood in safety.

The description of the male is taken from a fine specimen shot in the Karori Hills, near Wellington, in 1859, and of which I sent, at the time, a descriptive notice to the Linnean Society. Its much smaller size led me to suppose that it was distinct from Harpa novce zealandice; and it was not then known that Mr. Gould’s H. brunnea was founded on an immature example. That such was really the case is sufficiently proved by the account given in the foregoing pages, and previously recorded in the Transactions of the New-Zealand Institute (1868, vol. i. p. 106).

The eggs resemble those of H. novce zealandice, but are somewhat smaller and lighter in colour. There are three examples in the Canterbury Museum, differing in the details of their colouring; but they may be defined as yellowish brown, stained and mottled with reddish brown, and having a rather soiled appearance. In one of them the blotched character is more apparent at the smaller end; in another it is equally dispersed, while in the third the dark brown markings present a smudgy character over the whole surface. They measure 1·9 inch in length by 1·45 in breadth.

In the same fine collection there is a beautiful specimen of the Bush-Hawk’s egg from the Chatham Islands. It is of a rich or warm reddish brown, freckled and slightly smudged with darker brown, presenting a close resemblance to the Merlin’s egg, broadly ovoido-conical in form, and measuring 1·95 inch by 1·5 inch There is another egg of the same species, from Paringa River (South Westland), differing very perceptibly in being of a dull cream-colour, freckled and stained all over with brown. It is of the same size as the Chatham-Islands specimen, but is slightly more oval in form.

A specimen brought by Mr. Reischek from Martin’s Bay, in the South Island, measures 1·8 inch in Iength by 1·5 in breadth, being of a regular ovoid form; the whole surface is pale reddish brown, blackish brown, and cream-colour mixed together in an irregular way, being decidedly darker at the larger end, and the light markings at the smaller end having the appearance of abrasions or scratches on the surface. The nest from which it was taken was placed in the leafy crown of a high forest tree.