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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Fam. MOTACILLIDÆ — Anthus Novæ Zealandiæ — (New-Zealand Pipit.)

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Anthus Novæ Zealandiæ
(New-Zealand Pipit.)

  • New-Zealand Lark, Lath. Gen. Syn. ii. pt. 2, p. 384, pl. 21 (1783).

  • Alauda novœ seelandiœ, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 799 (1788).

  • Alauda littorea, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 90 (1844).

  • Anthus novæ zealandiæ, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terror, Birds, p. 4 (1844).

  • Anthus grayi, Bonap. Consp. Gen. Av. i. p. 249 (1850).

  • Anthus aucklandica, Gray, Ibis, 1862, p, 254.

  • Corydalla aucklandica, id. Hand-l. of B. i. p. 253 (1869).

  • Corydalla novæ zealandiæ, id. op. cit. i. p. 253 (1869).

Native names.

Pihoihoi and Whioi; “Ground-Lark” of the colonists.

Ad. brunneus, fulvescente lavatus, plumis medialiter paullò saturatioribus, uropygio unicolore fulvescenti-brunneo: loris et supercilio lato fulvescenti-albis: lineâ brunneâ per oculum ab ortu rostri ductâ: genis et regione paroticâ albidis, hâc paullô brunneo maculatâ: fasciâ mystacali irregulari brunneâ: colli lateribus dorso concoloribus et eodem modo notatis: tectricibus alarum brunneis, minimis lætè et conspicuè aurantiacofulvo lavatis, majoribus angustè fulvido marginatis: remigibus brunneis, primariis angustissimè, secundariis latiùs fulvo marginatis: caudâ brunneâ, fulvo marginaâ, rectrice extimâ ferè omninò albâ, pogonio interno versùs basin brunneo, proximâ versùs apicem obliquè albâ, tertiâ extùs angustè albo limbatâ: subtùs fulvescenti-albus, hypochondriis brunneis: pectore superiore brunneo longitudinaliter maculato: rostro corneo, mandibulâ flavicante: pedibus flavicanti-brunneis: iride saturatè brunneâ.

Juv. similis adultis, sed pallidior, plumis indistinctè fulvo marginatis: collo postico conspicuè fulvescente: tectricibus alarum, remigibus et rectricibus latiùs fulvo marginatis: subtùs sordidè albus, pectore superiore vix distinctè brunneo striolato.

Adult. Upper parts brownish grey, darker on the rump and upper tail-coverts; on the back, each feather centred with brown; from the base of the bill a broad line of white passes above, and an irregular band of black extends across the eyes; cheeks greyish white, minutely spotted with black; chin, or intercrural space, white; throat, fore neck, and upper part of breast fulvous, with numerous broad dashes of brown; under-parts white, tinged on the flanks and under tail-coverts with fulvous; sides of the body greyish white, with longitudinal streaks of brown; all the plumage of the underparts plumbeous at the base; wing-feathers and their coverts dark brown, margined on their outer webs with fulvous-grey, broadest on the tertiaries, and reduced to a mere line on the primaries; the marginal colour changes to fulvous-white on the secondary-coverts, presenting, when the wings are closed, a series of small crescentic bands; tail-feathers dark brown, with paler edges, except the two outermost ones on each side, which are white, the inner one crossed by an oblique band of dusky brown, and the outer one with a mere streak of the same colour near the root. Irides very dark brown, almost black; bill and feet yellowish brown. Total length 8 inches; extent of wings 12; wing, from flexure, 3·35; tail 3; bill, along the ridge ·5, along the edge of lower mandible ·75; tarsus 1; middle toe and claw ·85; hind toe and claw ·75.

Young. The young has the breast more spotted, and the feathers of the upper parts narrowly margined with pale rust-colour.

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Obs. The sexes are alike. In some examples the under tail-coverts are pure white, while in others the upper wing-coverts are broadly margined with light rufous-brown. Allowing for this variation, I cannot see the propriety of admitting the supposed new species from Queen Charlotte’s Sound (Anthus grayi, Bonap.), which I have accordingly expunged from our list.

Varieties. Albinos, more or less pure, are of common occurrence. The following is the description of an example in the Canterbury Museum:—General plumage pure white, varied on the back and wings with brownish grey; some of the quills and tail-feathers pure white, the others dark brown, as in ordinary specimens; bill and feet white horn-colour; the hind claw conspicuously long, measuring ·55 of an inch. Another specimen, in Mr. J. C. Firth’s fine collection at Mount Eden, has the whole plumage dull creamy white, stained and washed on the upper parts of the body with yellowish brown. Captain Mair writes to me:—“I saw a pure white Lark, two days in succession, at Sulphur Point, but could not find it when I went with a gun”; and several other correspondents refer to similar occurrences in various parts of the country.

Of this bird I may remark that it is a true Pipit both in structure and in its habits of life. It bears a general resemblance to an Australian species (Anthus australis); but the specific differences are sufficiently manifest on an actual comparison of the two birds.

It is common throughout the country, frequenting the open land, and sometimes resorting to the dry sands along the sea-shore. During the autumn months it is gregarious, and may then be observed in flocks varying in number from twenty to fifty or more, alternately collecting and mounting in the air with a loud cheerful note, and scattering themselves again on the open ground to search for their food, which consists of insects and their larvae, small earthworms, and occasionally minute seeds as well. At sundown the flocks break up, each bird seeking a convenient resting-place for the night; and with the first streak of daylight they begin to reassemble. On the approach of winter the flocks disperse*, and the birds appear to pair off at once, and remain so till the breeding-season arrives. They are always plentiful on the settlers’ farms, and may be seen during the summer months perched in large parties on the roofs of the country houses or on the surrounding fences and outbuildings. They may sometimes be observed in similar situations within the towns, and notably on the roofs of churches and other lofty edifices. They love to resort to the roads and beaten paths, where they amuse the traveller by their playfulness, running before him as he advances, then rising in the air with a sharp but pleasant chirp, settling down again and running forward as before, and continually flirting the tail upwards. During the heat of the day they may often be seen sitting on the logs or fences with their beaks wide open as if gasping for air. They repose at night on the ground, finding shelter among the grass or fern on the open ridges or on the wayside, where the benighted traveller, as he plods along, may often disturb them and hear the sharp rustling of their wings as they rise startled at his very feet.

When searching for food, a flock of these birds will spread themselves out in all directions; but the instant a Hawk appears in sight, or some other common danger threatens, they will rise into the page 65 air together with much clamour, and sometimes mount to a considerable height. I have frequently seen a number of them pursue and harass the Bush-Hawk, which is doubtless their worst natural enemy. Their ordinary flight is rapid and undulating, being performed, as it were, by a succession of jerks. During the breeding-season the male bird frequently soars, mounting to a height in the air, and then descends with tremulous wings and outspread tail, uttering a prolonged trilling note, very pleasant to the ear.

This is one of the few species that appear to thrive and increase in the cultivated districts; and in localities where formerly it was only tolerably plentiful it has kept pace with the progress of colonization, becoming every year more abundant. It frequents the mountain-tops, being often met with above the snow-line. Mr. Ernest Bell observed one on the very summit of Mount Egmont.

It is never met with in the woods; and I have observed that in the open country it is rarely seen to alight on a green tree or shrub, although often poising itself on the slender stalks of the Phormium tenax or on a bunch of fern. I have occasionally seen it dusting itself after the manner of some gallinaceous birds, rolling in the dust with evident delight, and then shaking its feathers, probably in order to free the body of parasitic insects.

It is amusing to watch a pair of them chasing and making love to each other at the commencement of the breeding-season, each one alternately springing up in the air, with expanded wings and tail, and curvetting over the other in the most playful manner. The call of the young resembles the sharp note of the Silver-eye (Zosterops cœrulescens); and when engaged in feeding them, the parent bird displays an unusual degree of caution in the presence of an intruder, alighting ten or fifteen yards from the nest, and loitering about for a considerable time with the food in its bill before attempting to deliver it. I have seen a pair skimming playfully together over the ground but close to the surface, when one would suddenly drop out of sight in the vicinity of the nest, leaving the other to pursue its wayward flight, as if to divert attention.

The natives catch this bird by means of a running-noose at the end of a long stick; and there are various modes of trapping it, very generally known and appreciated among colonial school-boys.

I have noticed that it is very subject to a disease of the foot, which takes the form of a large irregular swelling. This may probably result from accidental burns; for I have often observed these birds alight on ground over which a fire had recently passed, leaving a light surface of smouldering ashes, and rise again immediately in evident pain.

On the Hastings-Napier railway line and elsewhere I have observed a peculiar habit which this species has developed of following the train. I have seen, in autumn, a flight of a hundred birds keeping abreast or a little ahead of the train in rapid motion for two or three miles at a stretch, picking up stragglers en route, and to all appearance thoroughly enjoying the excitement.

The breeding-season of the New-Zealand Pipit extends from October to February or March, and, like the other members of the same group, it appears to rear two broods; for I have seen well-fledged young ones in November, while nests containing eggs are often met with as late in the season as January or the early part of February. The nest is composed of dry grass and other fibrous substances loosely put together, and is always placed on the ground, generally in a horse’s footprint or in some natural depression, and under shelter of a tussock or clump of rushes. The eggs are usually four in number, rather ovoido-conical in shape, measuring, as a rule, ·9 of an inch by ·65, and marked over the entire surface with numerous spots or freckles of dark grey on a paler or ashy ground. A fine series of eight in my son’s collection exhibit a considerable amount of individual variation both in form and colouring. The smallest of these measures ·85 inch in length by ·65 in breadth, and is almost a perfect oval; and the largest 1 inch in length by ·70 in breadth. The ground-colour varies from pale stone-grey to a warm creamy-grey, and the markings pass through every gradation, from a covering of uniform speckles and freckles of greyish brown to a much darker character, blotched and mottled with purplish brown of different shades.

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* The accuracy of the above statement, in my former edition, having been called in question (Ibis, 1874, p. 38), I made careful observations over a continuous period of ten years, during which time I was constantly moving from one part of the colony to the other. From the notes in my diary I have abstracted the following particulars:—Autumn months (March, April, and May), numerous flocks, and often of considerable size, all over the country; winter months (June, July, and August), always in pairs; spring and summer (September to February, inclusive), still in pairs, but sometimes congregating. I have seen a flock numbering upwards of fifty as early as September 4, In the months of November and December it is a common thing to see parties of five or six, consisting probably of early broods of the year; and I find a note of one party of five on the 23rd October. The autumnal gathering commences about the second week in March, at the close of a prolonged breeding-season, with probably two broods; and I have no record of any flock after the beginning of June. Professor Hutton’s statement that “they congregate in the autumn after the breeding-season is over and disperse to breed in spring” would seem to imply that the flocks keep together during the winter; but this is certainly not the case.