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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Fam. TIMELIPHGIDÆ — Pogonornis Cincta. — (Stitch-Bird.)

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Pogonornis Cincta.

  • Meliphaga cincta, Dubus, Bull. Acad. Sc. Brux. vi. pt. 1, p. 295 (1839).

  • Ptilotis auritus, Lafr. Rev. Zool. 1839, p. 257.

  • Ptilotis cincta, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terror, Birds, p. 4 (1844).

  • Pogonornis cincta, Gray, Gen. of B. i. p. 123 (1846).

Native names.

Hihi, Tihe, Kotihe, Kotihewera, Tiora, and Tiheora; male and female sometimes distinguished as Hihi-paka and Hihi-matakiore or Tihe-kiore.

♂ suprà nigerrimus: fasciis duabus conspicuis postocularibus albis: dorso imo et uropygio cinerascenti-brunneis, vix olivaceo tinctis: dorsi plumis quibusdam lateralibus læte aurantiaco terminatis: rectricibus alarum minimis lætè aurantiacis, plagam magnam formantibus, majoribus nigris, extùs aurantiaco margiuatis: alæ spuriæ plumis ad basin albis speculum exhibentibus: remigibus nigris, primariis versus apicem albido, secundariis aurantiaco marginatis: tectricibus alarum majoribus intimis et secundariis dorsalibus purè albis, plagam distinctam formantibus, dorso proximis medialiter nigris: gutture toto et collo laterali nigerrimis: torque pectorali angustâ aurantiacâ: corpore reliquo subtùs cinerascente, hypochondriis et subcaudalibus saturatioribus, illis brunneo striatis: subalaribus cinerascentibus, margine alarum aurantiaco: rostro brunnescenti-nigro: pedibus brunneis: setis rictalibus nigris: iride nigrâ.

♀ mari omninò dissimilis: suprà brunnea olivaceo lavata, pileo obscuriore: maculâ parvâ postoculari albâ: tectricibus alarum olivaceo-fulvo lavatis, minimis aurantiaco nitentibus, majoribus intimis et secundariis dorsalibus albis, brunneo medialiter lineatis et marginatis plagam magnam albam formantibus: remigibus et rectricibus cinerascenti-brunneis, extùs latè fulvescente lavatis, primariis ad basin pogonii interni albis: subtùs obscurè brunnea, pectore et abdomine fulvescentibus, obscurè brunneo striatis.

Adult male. Head, neck, and upper part of the back velvety black; on each side of the head there is a tuft of snow-white feathers which the bird has the power of erecting. A band of rich canary-yellow encircles the breast, contrasting finely with the dark plumage immediately above it; narrow in the centre, it widens on both sides and expands on the wings, covering the small coverts and the margins of the scapularies, and becomes very conspicuous when the wings are spread. Underparts light greyish brown, inclining to olivaceous brown on the sides of the body. Primaries and tail-feathers black, margined outwardly with olivaceous brown; the secondaries in their basal portion and their coverts white; the upper tail-coverts olivaceous brown. Irides and rictal bristles black; bill brownish black; tarsi and toes pale brown. Total length 8 inches; extent of wings 12·5; wing, from flexure, 4; tail 3; bill, along the ridge ·60, along the edge of the lower mandible ·75; tarsus l; middle toe and claw 1; hind toe and claw ·75.

Female. Obscure olivaceous brown, darker on the upper parts, and changing to pale brown on the abdomen and under tail-coverts. The primaries and outer tail-feathers have their external webs narrowly margined with very pale brown; the rest of the quills and tail-feathers are dusky black, edged externally with olivaceous brown. There is a large spot of white on the secondaries corresponding to that in the male, with faint indications of yellow towards the root of the wing; but this is only apparent when the wings are spread. There are a few minute touches of white on each side of the head, corresponding in position to the tufts in the male bird; but these adornments are wanting in this sex. Total length 7·25 inches; wing, from flexure, 3·75; tail 2·75; culmen ·55; tarsus 1.

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Young male. In the Auckland Museum there is a young male, in transitional plumage, which is very interesting, as showing that in the young state both sexes have the colours of the female. At the first moult the male bird puts on the adult livery, although the tints of the plumage are less bright than in the fully matured bird. In the present example the plumage of the head, neck all round, and shoulders is changing from dull olive-brown to black, the new feathers being very conspicuous and predominating. The white tufts on the head have appeared, but have not attained their full development, being only about one third of the usual size; the canary-yellow band on the upper edge of the wings is well defined, but the pectoral zone is narrow and indistinct; on the breast the old plumage has almost entirely disappeared, being replaced by the black, but there are enough remnants to show what it was originally; the rest of the body-plumage the same as in ordinary examples, being alike in both sexes.

Young female. The specimen in the Auckland Museum has no appearance of the white marks on the head; the spots covering the base of the secondaries are yellowish white or very pale fawn-colour, becoming pure white at the roots of the feathers; the small feathers at the carpal flexure are pale yellow; quills blackish brown, the primaries very narrowly, and the secondaries broadly, margined with pale olive; tail-feathers blackish brown margined on their outer webs with dull olive.

Obs. In some examples of the male the colours are brighter, the pectoral zone being wider and deepening to a clear orange-yellow, while the quills and larger wing-coverts have a narrow external margin of yellowish olive.

Remarks. This species is furnished with hair-like bristles at the angles of the mouth measuring half an inch in length. The tongue has a pencilled or brush-like termination; the hind claw is almost twice the length of those of the fore toes, which are about equal, measuring ·25 of an inch in their curvature; the tail is of medium length and slightly cuneiform. The plumage, especially that of the female, is soft to the touch, and, in the adult, has a peculiar silky gloss.

This New-Zealand form approaches closely to a numerous group of Australian birds comprehended under the generic name of Ptilotis, among which it originally was placed. It has since, however, been recognized as the type of a distinct genus.

In my former edition of this work I wrote thus:—” This handsome species has only a limited range. It is comparatively common in the southern parts of the North Island, and may be met with as far north as the wooded ranges between Waikato Heads and Raglan, beyond which it is extremely rare. It is never found in the country north of Auckland, with the exception of one locality, the Barrier Islands, where Captain Hutton records it ‘not uncommon’ in December 1868. I have never heard of its occurrence anywhere in the South Island. It affects deep wooded gullies, and is seldom found on the summits of the ranges. In the dense timber covering old river-bottoms or lowlying flats it may be sought for; but it rarely frequents the light open bush or the outskirts of the forest. It is, moreover, a very shy bird; and being most active in all its movements, it is not easily shot. Its food consists of insects, the honey of various bush-flowers, and the smaller kinds of berries. It often frequents the topmost branches of the high timber, where it may be seen flitting about in search of insects. If disturbed by the report of a gun, it will fly off to a neighbouring tree with a light and graceful movement of the wings; but when descending to a lower station, it adopts a different manner of flight, elevating the tail almost to a right angle with the body, and scarcely moving the wings at all. The male bird erects the tail and spreads the ear-tufts when excited or alarmed; but the female habitually carries the tail perfectly erect and the wings drooping. The sexes vary so much in appearance that many of the natives regard them as distinct species, and call them by different names. The male bird utters at short intervals and with startling energy a melodious whistling call of three notes. At other times he produces a sharp clicking sound like the striking of two quartz stones together: the sound has a fanciful resemblance to the word ‘stitch,’ page 103 whence the popular name of the bird is derived. The female also utters this note, but not the former one; and being recluse in her habits as well as silent, she is seldom seen.”

Although only fifteen years have elapsed since the above was penned, the Hihi has become the rarest of our existing native birds. To show how rapidly it has disappeared, I may mention that after my return to the colony, in 1874, I met with it only twice—the first time in a sunny glade in the Forty-mile Bush, near Eketahuna, and two years later in a strip of forest at Tarawera, midway between Napier and Taupo. I know of one other instance of its being seen of late years on the mainland. Mr. Tone, a Government Surveyor who has been working for many years past in the bush, and is familiar with all the native birds, met with it in February 1883 on the summit of one of the wooded spurs of the Tararua range, leading down into the Wairarapa valley. He saw the bird several times during the day, heard its note and carefully observed its habits.

The Maoris allege that it still lingers in the Kauwhanga range, above the famous gorge of the Manawatu, but the report lacks confirmation. A more likely refuge is another they assign to it on the Island of Kapiti, where Korimako, Popokatea, and Toutouwai (all absent from the mainland) are still to be found.

In 1880, the indefatigable Austrian collector, Herr Reischek, determined to visit the Little Barrier in quest of this bird*. He remained on the island three weeks without any sign of it. Two years afterwards he sent down his assistant who, after a sojourn of three months, succeeded in shooting a pair, but unfortunately knocked them to pieces with heavy shot. In October 1882, he went down again himself, determined to remain till he had secured good specimens. After five weeks’ continuous search, traversing every part of this rugged island and climbing over ranges some 2000 feet above the level of the sea, he was at length rewarded by the sight of Pogonornis. A beautiful male bird was disporting himself in the sunlight, erecting his snow-white tufts and hopping about in a very excited manner. Suddenly the bird disappeared as by magic; and the discovery immediately afterwards of an unfinished nest explained the singular performance he had witnessed. This structure was composed of small twigs, partially lined with fine native grasses, and was placed in a bunch of mangimangi creeper hanging from a low tree, about eight feet from the ground. Frequently after this he heard the sharp call of the male bird in the vicinity of the nest and at length, on November 8, succeeded in shooting both male and female. He had now discovered that the favourite haunt of the Stitch-bird was a deep ravine near the top of the range, where the rocks formed steep precipices and the low scrub was covered over with a mass of creeping mangimangi so rank and thick in its growth as to be almost impenetrable. Some idea of the inaccessible nature of the place may be gathered from the fact that it took Reischek two whole days tramping, climbing, and scaling precipices to get back to his landing-place; but he had visited the last home of the Hihi and had obtained, besides several specimens of the male bird, a female in perfect plumage.

The nature of the ground often prevented his using his gun, even with dust-shot, but he was able to make some interesting observations on the habits of the bird.

He often observed it using its brush tongue among the wild flowers, and in the stomachs of those he skinned he found some minute seeds as well as insect-remains.

On one occasion he noticed a female perforating very singular antics, hopping round and round within a restricted circle, with her wings drooped and the tail slightly elevated. She kept up this

* Mr. Reischek has communicated to the New-Zealand Institute (Trans, vol. xviii. pp. 84, 87) a short account of his expedition in search of Pogonornis cincta; but I prefer to give, in my own words, the more detailed information obtained from him immediately after his return. On the general habits of this species he says :—“I have only once seen these birds sitting still and that was near the nest. They appear always on the move, carrying their heads proudly, their wings drooped, and their tails spread and raised; and, at each successive movement, they utter that peculiar whistle from which the natives have named them Tiora. The female has a different note, sounding like toc, toc, toc, repeated several times.”

page 104 performance for fully twenty minutes and apparently for mere sport. Then some movement alarmed the bird, and in an instant she had disappeared amongst the mangimangi.

It is somewhat curious that whereas the male bird never descended to the ground, his mate seemed to delight in doing so, hopping about with outstretched wings, and uttering every now and then her peculiar note. On the slightest alarm, however, she would hide herself and remain perfectly quiet. The male appeared to be always on the alert, keeping a strict guard, and giving the signal at the least sign of danger. The instinct of caution must be strongly developed in this bird, to manifest itself thus in the most secluded part of a lonely island, where probably the face of man had never appeared before.

I have already remarked upon the shy and retired habits of the female. Twenty years ago, when the bird was comparatively common in the valley of the Hutt, and at Makara, near Wellington, although frequently out with the gun I never succeeded in shooting more than two of this sex; and whilst the bright-plumaged male bird was being constantly brought in to the local birdstuffers I never saw a female in their hands. One of those shot by me was too much shattered to be of any use; the other is in my old type collection in the Colonial Museum at Wellington. There is a specimen from the Little Barrier in the Auckland Museum; but this sex is a desideratum in all the other local museums. There is one old and dingy skin in the British Museum (obtained by Percy Earl in 1842), and another (from Sir William Jardine’s collection) in the new University Museum at Cambridge, but no other English or foreign museum can boast a specimen of the female Hihi.

My own private collection was equally deficient till I induced Mr. Reischek, in 1884, to make another visit to the Little Barrier in quest of it. In this further search he succeeded, although the rarity of the bird may be inferred from the fact that he was fifteen days on the island and did not even hear the Hihi till within the last three days of his stay. As already stated, the bird frequents the deep wooded ravines in the highest part of the Barrier, and to reach this ground he had to perform a toilsome journey of two days, on foot, being accompanied all through by his trusty dog, who had in places to be hoisted up with a rope. In the end his efforts were rewarded by his finding a family party of five—an adult male and female with three birds of the year, curiously enough, all males. At first the male birds alone were visible. They seemed much interested in the movements of the dog, and hopped about in the branches above him, peering down in a very inquisitive manner. The female bird had secreted herself on the ground and kept perfectly silent. Once or twice she left her place of concealment, and darted off uttering on the wing her peculiar rapid snapping note. For two hours this watch was continued before there was an opportunity of shooting her.

The Maoris state that formerly this bird was very plentiful in the Rotorua district, where it was known under the name of Kotihe; and that, at a certain season of the year, it was accustomed to come out of the woods to feast on the berries of the tupakihi (Coriaria sarmentosa), on which occasions numbers were killed for the oven, sometimes as many as a hundred being taken in a day. They were caught in the same manner as the Korimako, by means of a tuke or pewa, baited with flowers, as described at page 89. If the birds proved to be matakana, or shy, the hunter would at once move his snare to another place, it being perfectly well recognized that these birds were often fastidious and had to be humoured.

The fine old Wanganui chief, Topine Te Mamaku, who was almost a centenarian when I last saw him, told me that in his young days this bird was very plentiful in the Upper Wanganui district—so much so that one of the chiefs of that period always appeared on public occasions in a gorgeous feather robe which was largely ornamented with the canary-yellow feathers from the wing of the Hihi. Considering how very minute these feathers are, it may be imagined how many were sacrificed in order to make this colour conspicuous in the historic mantle, which Topine called, by way of distinction, the kahu-hihi. page 105 It may be here mentioned that the Maoris excel in the manufacture of feather robes, many of which are very beautiful. The robe itself is formed of hand-prepared Phormium-fibre, soft and silky, which is woven and plaited into a thick fabric, over which the feathers are tastefully laid, with the webs overlapping, the shaft of each being doubled back and tied, thus imparting strength and durability to the garment. The pattern varies according to the kind of feather used, and sometimes much artistic skill is displayed in the grouping and arrangement of the colours. The kahu-kereru is composed of the bronzy-green feathers of the Wood-Pigeon, quite resplendent in the sunshine, and relieved with stars and stripes of snow-white tufts taken from the breast of that bird; the kahu-kaka is a mass of scarlet of different shades, from under the wings of Nestor meridionalis; the kahu-kakariki displays the brilliant green plumage of the Parrakeet, with which is usually mixed the feathers of the Tui and other birds, in squares or crosses or other fanciful designs; but far more valuable than any of these is the kahu-kiwi, covered entirely with the soft back-feathers of the Apteryx, and having a peculiarly rich effect when held against the light. One of special beauty, for which some forty adult birds were placed under contribution, was presented many years ago by the loyal Wanganui tribes to Her Majesty the Queen. There is a very fine one in the ethnological collection at the British Museum, and another in my own collection, in both of which there is a broad margin of bright Tui and Pigeon feathers, to heighten the effect. Far and away more precious than any of these must have been that mantle of golden yellow of which old Topine had so vivid a recollection; and one can only compare it, in imagination, with that gorgeous coronation-robe of costly yellow plumes worn by the kings and queens of Hawaii, of which mention is made by the early writers on Polynesia*.

Mr. F. H. Meinertzhagen informs me that in the spring of 1871 he observed a pair of Hihi nesting in a clump of blue-gums at Waimarama, near his own pretty homestead (Paparewa) about thirty miles from Napier. He at first mistook the female bird for a Green Linnet; but discovered his error the moment he saw the male and observed its peculiar flight. Hoping to retain these rare visitants, he allowed them to hatch out and rear their brood without molestation; but he never saw anything of them afterwards. The nest, which Mrs. Meinertzhagen fortunately preserved, is now in the Canterbury Museum.

A nest was discovered many years ago in the bush above the Kai-warawara stream, in the vicinity of Wellington, and is still preserved in the Colonial Museum. It is a shallow structure, with thin walls, and measures 4·75 inches across the top, with a cavity of 2·35 by 1·35. It is built of sprays, above which are laid fibres and dry rootlets of tree-fern; and the cavity is formed of fine grass, lined with cow-hair. This nest contained a single egg, of a narrow ovoid form, measuring ·75 inch in length by ·6 in breadth, of a yellowish-white colour, thickly spotted and clouded with pale rufous.

The assumption of the female plumage by the young of both sexes, as described above, is very singular, being the only instance of the kind we have among the Passeres in New Zealand. According to Reischek’s observations on the Little Barrier, the brood generally numbers three, and the young birds keep together till the change of plumage has been effected. He met with four broods’ in all, and out of those shot, no less than five young males were in transitional plumage. He generally shot the adult male first, then attracted the female by imitating the cry of the young birds, and after securing her, the rest of the family fell an easy prey to this insatiable collector.

* These Hawaiian robes are made with the beautiful red feathers of the Hehiwi (Vestaria coceinea) mixed with the goldenyellow plumes of a rare species of Nectarinia. “A cloak of yellow feathers could only be worn by the king” (see Lord Byron’s ‘Voyage of H.M.S. Blonde’ in 1826). “A feathered cloak which in point of beauty and magnificence is perhaps nearly equal to that of any nation in the world” (Cook’s ‘Third Voyage,’ 1783, p. 127). Mr. Fernander states that such cloaks, “irrespective of their value as insignia of the highest nobility in the land,” represent, in feathers alone, at their present price, apart from the cost of manufacture, from five to ten thousand dollars each (‘Polynesia,’ vol. ii. p. 186).

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