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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Miro Australis. — (North-Island Robin.)

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Miro Australis.
(North-Island Robin.)

  • Turdus australis, Sparrm. Mus. Carls. iii. pl. 69 (1788).

  • Muscicapa longipes, Garnot, Voy. Coq. i. p. 594, pl. xix. fig. 1 (1826).

  • Myiothera novœ-zealandiœ, Less. Man. d’Orn. i. p. 248 (1828).

  • Miro longipes, Less. Tr. d’Orn. p. 389 (1831).

  • Petroica australis, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terror, p. 7 (1844).

  • Myioscopus longipes, Reich. Syst. Av. Taf. lxvii. (1850).

  • Petroica longipes, Gray, Ibis, 1862, p. 223.

  • Miro longipes, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 119 (1873).

Native names.

Pitoitoi, Toutou, Toutouwai, and Totoara.

♂ saturatè cinereus, scapis plumarum albidis: maculâ, frontali albâ: tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus: remigibus brunneis, extùs cinereo lavatis: cauda nigricantc: facie laterali cinereâ, albido magis distinctè striolatâ: abdomine medio albicante: corporis lateribus cinereis: subcaudalibus albidis: cruribus cinereis albido terminatis: subalaribus pallidè cinereis: primariis intùs ad basin albidis: rostro nigricanti-brunneo, mandibulâ brunnescentiore: pedibus pallidè brunneis: iride nigrâ.

♀ pallidior: remigibus brunnescentibus: facie laterali cinerascente, albo striolatâ: pectore superiore pallidè cinerascente, plumis medialiter albido striatis: abdomine albido.

Adult male. Head, neck, and all the upper surface dark slaty grey, plumbeous beneath; the shafts of the feathers greyish white, forming rather conspicuous lines on the crown and nape; a frontal spot at the base of the upper mandible pure white; rictal bristles black; throat, fore neck, and sides of the body paler slaty grey; the lower part of the breast, the middle of the abdomen, the vent, and the under tail-coverts white, blending on the edges with the darker plumage of the surrounding parts; wing-feathers dull smoky brown, with lighter shafts; lining of wings and a broad oblique bar on the under surface of all the quills except the first three primaries pure white; tail-feathers dull smoky brown, the shafts light brown on their upper and white on their under aspect. Irides black; bill blackish brown; tarsi and toes pale yellowish brown; soles dull yellow. Total length 6 inches; extent of wings 9·25; wing, from flexure, 3·5; tail 2·65; bill, along the ridge ·6, along the edge of lower mandible ·8; tarsus 1·35; middle toe and claw ·95; hind toe and claw ·8.

Female. Slightly smaller than the male and with duller plumage; the upper parts tinged with smoky brown; the throat, fore neck, and sides of the body lighter, the centre of each feather inclining to greyish white.

Young. The young of both sexes resemble the female in the comparative brownness of the plumage of the upper parts; the rictal membrane is largely developed and of a rich orange-colour.

Obs. In this and the other closely allied species the feathers of the body have loose or disunited filamentous barbs, and are very soft in texture, especially on the upper parts.

Note. I entirely agree with Dr. Finsch that this form should be separated from Petrœca (erroneously called Petroica); but I am unable to follow him in adopting the genus Myioscopus of Reichenbach, the name of page 34 Miro proposed by Lesson having a prior claim in regard to date. The long legs, shorter wings, and stouter bill distinguish this genus from Petrœca and bring it nearer to Erythacus.

This species is confined to the North Island, where, till within the last ten years, it was very common in all the wooded parts of the country; but it is represented in the South Island by a closely allied and still common species, the Miro albifrons. There is a specimen of the North-Island Robin in the Auckland Museum said to have been obtained at Nelson; but I have never found this bird south of Cook’s Strait, and vice versâ as regards the South-Island Robin. The two species may therefore be regarded as true representatives of each other in the North and South Islands respectively.

Generally speaking, in New Zealand it is only on the outskirts of the woods that we meet with insessorial birds in any number. As we penetrate into the heart of the forest, the birds become fewer, till at length they almost entirely disappear. But there is one species whose range seems to be quite without restraint: common enough in the open coppice, it is to be found also in the gloomiest and most secluded parts of the forest. This bird is the subject of our article—the Pitoitoi or Toutouwai* of the natives and the “Robin” of the colonists.

I have been assured by officers who accompanied the celebrated Taranaki Expedition under Major-General Sir Trevor Chute, in 1866, that during that long and irksome march the Robin was the only bird that gave any sign of life to those interminable and gloomy forests through which the army passed. The lively twitter and song of the smaller birds had ended with the first day’s march, the harsh cry of the Kaka (Nestor meridionalis), which had attended them far into the bush, had gradually ceased to be heard, and the Wood-Pigeon (Carpophaga novœ-zealandiœ), whose range extends to the summits of the low wooded ridges of the interior, was no longer to be met with. An oppressive silence reigned around them, broken only by the shrill chirp of the startled Robin as the advanced guard cut a path for the troops through the hitherto untrodden woods. Indeed the presence of this little bird was the only exception to the utter absence of animal life, and almost the only relief to the monotony of the march. Perched on a low branch, it might frequently be seen looking gravely down, as if in silent wonderment, on the weary ranks, as they toiled their way through this virgin forest in the very heart of the enemy’s country!

As the popular name implies, it is naturally a tame bird; and in little-frequented parts of the country it is so fearless and unsuspicious of man that it will approach to within a yard of the traveller, and sometimes will even perch on his head or shoulder. It is the favourite companion of the lonesome wood-cutter, enlivening him with its cheerful notes; and when, sitting on a log, he partakes of his humble meal, it hops about at his feet, like the traditional Robin, to pick up the crumbs.

Like its namesake in the old country, moreover, it is noisy, active, and cheerful. Its note is generally the first to herald the dawn, while it is the last to be hushed when the evening shades bring gloom into the forest. But there is this noticeable difference between the morning and the evening performance: the former consists of a scale of notes commencing very high and running down to a low key, uttered in quick succession, and with all the energy of a challenge to the rest of the feathered tribe; and I have sometimes heard a native, when listening to this strain, exclaim “Ka kanga te manu ra!” (How that bird swears!). The evening performance is merely a short chirping note, quickly repeated, and with a rather melancholy sound. Three or four of them will sometimes join in a chirping chorus, and continue it till the shades of advancing twilight have deepened into night.

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It lives almost entirely on small insects and the worms and grubs which are to be found among decaying leaves and other vegetable matter on the surface of the ground in every part of the woods. Its nature is pugnacious and, in the pairing-season, the male birds often engage in sharp encounters with each other.

It generally breeds in the months of October and November. It constructs a large and compact nest, composed externally of coarse moss firmly interwoven and thickly lined inside with the soft hair-like substance which covers the young stems of the tree-fern. It is usually built against the bole of a tree, at a moderate elevation from the ground, being often found attached to and supported by the wiry stems of the kiekie (Freycinetia banksii), a climbing parasitical plant which is everywhere abundant. I have found scores of the nests of this species, and almost invariably in the situation described. I found one, however, placed in the fork of a tree at some elevation, and another in the truncated stem of a tree-fern (Cyathea dealbata). The eggs are usually three in number, broadly ovoido-conical, and measuring ·95 of an inch in length by ·70 in breadth; they are of a creamy white colour, thickly freckled and speckled with purple and brown, these markings being denser at the thick end, where they form an indistinct purplish zone.

Should the nest happen to be molested after the young are hatched, the parent birds manifest the utmost solicitude, hopping about near the intruder with outspread and quivering wings, uttering a low piping note, and showing every symptom of real distress.

The last example of the nest I examined was obtained recently on the Little Barrier Island, where it was found supported against the bole of a tree about five feet from the ground. It is not so massive as many I have seen, and is composed chiefly (and probably for protective purposes) of the green moss which clings to the trunks of old trees, mixed with dry leaves and little twigs of wood; the cup, which is rather shallow, measures three and a half inches in diameter and is deeply lined with fern-hair and vegetable fibres. It was found about the middle of December, just after the young birds had quitted it.

But for the fact that much of the foregoing article applies equally to the South-Island species, it would have been almost necessary to expunge it from the present edition; for, alas! its subject, instead of being, as formerly, the commonest of our native birds, is now one of the rarest. It is still comparatively plentiful on the Island of Kapiti, and on some of the wooded islets in the Hauraki Gulf; but it is seldom met with on the mainland, and, in common with many other native forms, its doom is sealed.

Ornithologists everywhere must regret this, because the genus to which it belongs has no representative in any other part of the world; and those who are at all familiar with the bird itself will assuredly grieve over its threatened extirpation. Personally I regard this gentle Robin with a strong sentiment of affection. In the days of my boyhood it was one of the dominant species, and some of my earliest memories are associated with it. The first nest I ever found in my juvenile excursions through the bush near the parental home—the dear old Church Mission station of forty years ago—was naturally that of the Robin. It was the first bird of which I ever prepared a specimen; and having, while yet at school, conceived the idea of writing a history of our native birds, I well remember that the first species whose biography I essayed to sketch was this everyday companion of my holiday rambles. Its presence therefore never fails to awaken reminiscences of the past; but unfortunately ere long the bird itself will be but a memory of by-gone years. Either on account of its being an easy prey to wild cats and rats, or else in obedience to some inexplicable law of nature, the species is rapidly dying out; and it requires no prophetic vision to foresee its utter extinction within a very short period. Well may the Maori say, as he laments over the decadence of his own race—“Even as the Pitoitoi has vanished from the woods, so will the Maori pass away from the land and be forgotten!”

* There are some curious coincidences with Maori names, of which this is an instance. The Robin is called “Toutouwai” by the Ngapuhi tribe at the far north. The small European Owl, Athene noctua, has “Koukouwai” as its Greek name. Drop the final syllable, and we have the Maori name for the New-Zealand Owl, “Koukou.”