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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Fam. HIRUNDINIDÆ — Petrochelidon Nigricans. — (Australian Tree-Swallow.)


Petrochelidon Nigricans.
(Australian Tree-Swallow.)

  • Hirundo nigricans, Vieill. N. Dict. d’Hist. Nat. xiv. p. 523 (1817).

  • Dun-rumped Swallow, Lath. Gen. Hist. of B. vii. p. 309 (1823).

  • Hirundo pyrrhonota, Vig. & Horsf. Trans. Linn. Soc. xv. p. 190 (1826).

  • Herse nigricans, Less. Compl. Buff. viii. p. 497 (1837).

  • Herse pyrrhonota, id. tom. cit. p. 497 (1837).

  • Cecropis nigricans, Boie, Isis, 1844, p. 175.

  • Collocalia arborea, Gould, B. of Austr. ii. pl. 14 (c. 1845).

  • Chelidon arborea, id. op. cit. i. Intr. p. xxix (1848).

  • Petrochelidon nigricans, Cab. Mus. Hein. i. p. 47 (1850).

  • Hylochelidon nigricans, Gould, Handb. B. of Austr. i. p. 111 (1865); Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 141 (1873).

Ad. suprà purpurascenti-niger: fronte conspicuâ ferrugineâ indistinctè nigro maculatâ: uropygio rufescenti-fulvo, scapis plumarum brunneo indicatis: supracaudalibus brunneis uropygii colore lavatis, scapis eodem modo indicatis: tectricibus alarum minimis dorso concoloribus, majoribus et remigibus brunneis, concoloribus: caudâ brunneâ, rectrice extimâ pogonio interno albo notatâ: remigum rectricumque scapis suprà brunneis, subtùs albidis: loris cum regione oculari et paroticâ nigricantibus: genis et colli lateribus sordidè fulvis brunnescente variis: subtùs fulvescens, corporis lateribus et subalaribus ferrugineis: gutture lineis longitu-dinalibus parvissimis, pectore et hypochondriis lineis angustioribus et longioribus striatis: rostro brunneo: pedibus brunneis: iride nigrâ.

Juv. similis adulto, sed suprà magis brunnescens: uropygio fulvescenti-albido: subtùs albicans, corporis lateralibus vix rufescente tinctis.

Adult male. Forehead chestnut-brown; crown of the head, hind neck, the whole of the back, and the small wing-coverts glossy steel-blue; rump and inferior upper tail-coverts yellowish buff mixed with pale rufous, each feather with a narrow shaft-line of dark brown; longer upper tail-coverts dark brown with paler edges; throat, fore part and sides of neck, and all the under surface pale yellowish buff, marked on the throat with numerous touches of brown, stained on the sides of the body, inner linings of wings, and under tail-coverts with chestnut-brown; quills and tail-feathers dark brown, with paler shafts, greyish on their under surface and slightly glossed above. Irides black; bill, tarsi, and toes light brown. Total length 5·25 inches; wing, from flexure, 4·5; tail, to extremity of lateral feathers, 2·25 (middle feathers ·4 shorter); bill, along the ridge ·25, along the edge of lower mandible ·5, breadth at the gape ·4; tarsus ·4; middle toe and claw ·55; hind toe and claw ·45.

Female. Slightly smaller than the male, with the colours somewhat duller and the markings on the throat less distinct; but, as a matter of fact, the sexes are scarcely distinguishable from each other.

Young. Plumage of the upper parts duller, the head and back being dark umber-brown with only a slight steel gloss; the rump and tail-coverts yellowish brown, with darker shafts; the underparts altogether lighter, the abdomen and under tail-coverts being fulvous white, and the throat more distinctly spotted with brown.

The Tree-Swallow, which is a native of Australia, was first admitted into our list of birds on the authority of a specimen shot by Mr. Lea at Taupata, near Cape Farewell, on the 14th of March, 1856, and still preserved in the Otago Museum.

page 75

In the summer of 1851, Mr. F. Jollie observed a flight of Swallows at Wakapuaka, in the vicinity of Nelson, and succeeded in shooting one, the description of which, as given by him, left no doubt in my mind that it was of the same species. According to a statement made by the late Sir David Monro at a meeting of the Wellington Philosophical Society in February 1875*, it would appear that about the same period there were other appearances of this Swallow in the vicinity of Nelson.

At a later period, again, the bird appeared at Blenheim, in the provincial district of Marlborough, the fact being announced to me in a letter from Mr. J. R. W. Cook, dated June 22, 1878, from which I quote the following:—

“On Sunday, the 9th instant, about two miles from Blenheim, on the bank of the Opawa river, I saw the first Martin I have met with in New Zealand. The bird was hawking after insects close to the ground in a ploughed field. I was accompanied by two residents in the town of Blenheim, and we watched it closely for some time. It passed us at one time within a few yards. There was no mistaking either the appearance or the flight of the bird. It seemed to me more like the English House-Martin than the common Australian Martin. It seemed, however, dingier in the black than the English bird, and rather smaller—more like the Sand-Martin, in fact. Unfortunately I was absent from the district for some days after seeing it, but since returning I have carefully watched for its reappearance. I have not again seen the bird, so presume it has shifted its quarters.”

I had a further communication from Mr. Cook on August 23rd in which he said:—“I saw what I believe to be the same bird, about half a mile from where I saw it before, a month after its first appearance.”

In April of the following year I had the pleasure of receiving from him a freshly skinned specimen of this bird, accompanied by the following letter:—

“Since writing to you last winter, reporting the occurrence here of the Australian Swallow, I did not again notice the bird until the 16th of February last, when I saw another hawking over one of my stubble paddocks. I watched it for some time, and had good opportunities of remarking its plumage. The bird appeared to me either immature or weary, the flight being weak and uncertain. I found, too, that the white on the rump was dingy, and the chestnut on the breast faded-looking. There was a stiffish nor’-west breeze blowing at the time, and the bird tried in vain to get past a belt of willow and poplar so long as I was watching.

“On the 20th of last month (March) when duck-shooting, I mentioned the occurrence to a party of sportsmen, when one remarked ‘Oh! there have been some birds answering to your description flying about Grovetown for some time back.’ Grovetown, I may remark, is situated about four miles from this, and nearly in the centre of the Wairau valley. After a little talk on the subject it struck me that possibly the birds had been bred there. I said—‘The next time you see them, shoot one and send to me.’ Yesterday morning one was handed in, but unfortunately I did not see the man who brought it. Fearing that the weather might not allow me to send it to you in the flesh, I have skinned the bird and now send it to you.”

Mr. Cook having very thoughtfully sent me also the body, preserved in spirit, I was able to dissect it. It proved to be an adult female, and the stomach contained four large blue-bottle flies, almost uninjured, and the remains of others in black comminuted matter.

As bearing on this point, he remarks:—“Certainly the condition of the specimen is not that of one which has lately made a long aerial trip. In skinning it, although I freely used cotton wool and kept the pepper-castor going, I could not help getting the plumage saturated with oil, owing to the excessive fatness of the body.”

page 76

Writing to me again, under date of June 11th, Mr. Cook says:—

“Since I wrote I have seen no further specimens, but note a paragraph in the ‘Kaikoura Star’ newspaper, stating that two Swallows had been seen at Kaikoura about the same time as the birds appeared here.

“I have since seen Mr. Cheeseman, who shot the specimen I sent. He tells me there were some six or seven birds in all; that they had been hanging about Grovetown for some weeks before he shot the one; and that he fancied they were young birds, or, at least, that some of them were. He could not, however, say that the party consisted of a pair of old birds with their brood…… The one interesting question possibly may be why the first notice of occurrence of the Swallow is on our east coast. If the ‘drift’ (from Australia or Tasmania) is to and through Cook Straits, I can understand it. Otherwise we should expect notice of arrivals on the west coasts of both islands.” Commenting on the fact that this bird appears in our country only at long intervals and as a stray migrant from a warmer clime, he makes the following very pertinent remarks:—“Is our New-Zealand winter too rigorous for this family of birds? I scarcely fancy so. Even here there are few winter days when an occasional blink of sunshine does not fetch out dancing myriads of Ephemeridœ on the river-banks. In olden days I fancy this was not so much the case. The rapid growth of willows now overhanging the water must afford protection to delicate new-born insects such as mosquito and other gnats which the old fringe of flax and toetoe never could have given. The temperature of the water in which the larvæ reach their fullest development is scarcely affected by the season. Indeed, in many snow-fed rivers the temperature, far from the source, when the water is at its lowest, must often be higher in winter than in summer, when the melting snows are in full swing and the river body too great to be affected materially by sun-heat. I hope you will agree with me that the natural acclimatization of the Australian Swallow is not impossible.”

Mr. J. D. Enys states that he observed this Swallow skimming over the Avon, near Christchurch, in the year 1861 (Journ. of Science, ii. p. 274).

On another occasion (as reported in the ‘Otago Daily News’) a flight of five was seen at Moeraki, still further south, by Mr. Bills, who was then engaged catching native birds for the Acclimatization Society, and got near enough to the Swallows to be sure of their identification.

There can be no doubt that these occasional visitants are stragglers from the Australian continent, and that to reach our country they perform a pilgrimage on the wing of upwards of a thousand miles!

In its own country it is a migratory species, visiting the southern portions of Australia and Tasmania, arriving in August and retiring northwards as autumn advances.

It visits the towns, in company with the Common Swallow (Hirundo frontalis); and I remember seeing it comparatively numerous in and about Sydney, during a visit there in August 1871.

Mr. A. R. Wallace brought specimens from the Aru Islands; so also did the ‘Challenger’ Expedition; and it is likewise recorded from New Guinea, New Britain, and the Ké Islands.

According to Gould it breeds during the month of October, nesting in the holes of trees, and depositing its eggs (three to five in number) on the soft, pulverized wood. The eggs are pinky white, freckled at the larger end with five spots of light reddish brown, and measure eight lines in length by six in breadth.

* Trans. New-Zealand Instit. vol. vii. p. 510.

Op. cit. vol. xi. p. 360.