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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.



Graucalus Melanops.
(Australian Shrike.)

  • Black-faced Crow, Lath. Gen. Syn. Suppl. ii. p. 116 (1801).

  • Corvus melanops, Lath. Suppl. Ind. Orn. p. xxiv (1801).

  • Rollier à masque noir, Levaill. Ois. de Paradis, pl. 30 (1806).

  • Ceblepyris melanops, Temm. Man. d’Orn. i. pl. lxii. (1820).

  • Graucalus melanops, Vig. & Horsf. Tr. Linn. Soc. xv. p. 216 (1826).

  • Graucalus melanotis, Gould, P. Z. S. 1837, p. 143.

  • Campephaga melanops, Gray, Cat. B. N. Guin. p. 32 (1859).

  • Colluricincla concinna, Hutton, Cat. B. New Zealand, p. 15 (1871).

  • Graucalus concinnus, Hutton, Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. v. p. 225 (1872).

  • Graucalus melanops, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 148 (1873).

Descr. exempl. ex N.Z. Suprà cinereus: tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus: remigibus nigricanti-brunneis, primariis angustè, secundariis latiùs albido marginatis: rectricibus nigricanti-brunncis, parte basali cinereâ, pennis externis ad apicem albis, duabus exterioribus graduatim obliquè albis, rectrice extimâ etiam albo marginatâ: facie laterali totâ nigrâ: gutture et pectore superiore cinereis dorso concoloribus: corpore reliquo subtùs albo: rostro nigro versùs basin mandibulæ brunnescente: pedibus saturatè brunneis.

New-Zealand example (young). General plumage light cinereous or ashy grey; a patch of black fills the lores, crosses the eyes, and covers the cheeks and ear-coverts; on the upper part of the breast the grey fades into white, with a purplish tinge; lower part of breast, lining of wings, flanks, abdomen, and under tail-coverts pure white; wing-feathers dark brown, the primaries narrowly and the secondaries broadly margined with greyish white; tail-feathers dark brown, the two middle ones tinged with ashy grey, especially in their basal portion; the lateral ones tipped progressively outwards with white, the outermost one on each side having an inch at the extremity and a narrow line along the apical portion of its outer web pure white. Bill black, changing to brown at the base of the lower mandible; legs blackish brown. Total length 13 inches; wing, from flexure, 8; tail 5·5; bill, along the ridge ·9, along the edge of lower mandible 1·25; tarsus 1·12; middle toe and claw 1·2; hind toe and claw 1.

Adult male (from Australia). General colour above light French grey, the wing-coverts like the back, with edgings of still lighter grey; primary-coverts and primaries black, externally edged with grey, inclining to white towards the tips of the quills; secondaries black, the outer aspect of the feathers light grey on the innermost, with the outer web grey and the inner one black; two centre tail-feathers ashy grey, blacker towards the tip, which is white, all the other feathers black, washed with grey towards the base and tipped with white, which increases in extent towards the outermost feather, which is also edged with white along the outer web; entire forehead, feathers above the eye, ear-coverts, sides of face, sides of neck, entire throat, and fore neck black, with a greenish gloss, fading off paler towards the chest, which is iron-grey, becoming gradually lighter and more delicate grey on the sides of the body, so as to leave only the lower abdomen and under tail-coverts pure white; thighs grey; under wing-coverts and axillaries pure white, as also the inner lining of the quills, which are otherwise ashy grey below; bill black; feet dull ashy; iris black. Total length 12·5 inches, culmen 1·05, wing 7·65, tail 5·75, tarsus 1·05. (Cat. Birds Brit. Mus. vol. iv. p. 31.)

Obs. “♂, Louisiade Islands specimen, wing 8·1 inches; ♀ N.W. Australia, wing 7·1 inches. These two seem to be the extremes, and every intermediate link between them can be found.” (Id. l. c.)

page 67

The example from which the above description is taken was shot by Mr. Giblin at Motueka, in the Provincial district of Nelson, and now forms part of the public collection in the Nelson Museum. Mr. Huddleston informs me that he saw the bird in the flesh, and knows the precise locality in which it was shot. There can be no doubt, therefore, as to the authenticity of the specimen as a New-Zealand bird; but as it appears to be quite unknown to the natives of the country, it may, I think, be safely assumed that this was an accidental visitant from Australia, where the species is very plentiful. Another example was shot at Invercargill in April 1870, and forwarded to the Colonial Museum. Of this Professor Hutton writes (l. c.):—“Like the bird shot in Nelson province, this one also has the general plumage of the young of G. melanops; but the feathers of the chin and forehead are similar to those on the throat and top of the head, and not lighter as in G. melanops; there is also no indication of any black feathers coming on the chin or upper part of the head. It differs from the Australian bird in having a more slender bill, a rather longer tail, the feathers of which are acutely pointed at the tip instead of being rounded, and in having much more white on the wings. These differences are, I think, quite sufficient to warrant its being kept as a distinct species”*. He adds:—“Mr. Mantell has informed me that he saw this bird many years ago at Port Chalmers in Otago; Mr. W. Travers says that he has seen it at Nelson, and Captain Fraser says that he saw it near Hawea Lake in Otago.”

This species is liable to so much variation, both in plumage and size, that I am unable at present to consider the form which has thus occurred at such rare intervals in New Zealand as distinct from the Australian one. Of the latter Mr. Gould says that the “infinite changes of plumage which these birds undergo from youth to maturity render their investigation very perplexing.”

Dr. Finsch expresses his belief that the bird which has occurred in New Zealand is G. parvirostris, Gould; but Mr. Sharpe, in his account of G. melanops (Cat. of Birds Brit. Mus. iv. p. 31) says:—“This species varies much in size, but it is impossible to believe in the existence of more than one species; and G. parvirostris is little more than a race of the present bird.”

I have gone carefully over the whole series of skins in the British Museum, and am confirmed in my original conclusion that our bird is the young or immature state of G. melanops. I attach no value to the two characters on which Professor Hutton appears mainly to rely, namely, the white margins to the greater wing-coverts and the more acutely pointed tail-feathers. In a large series, of all ages, I find the extent of white on the wings very variable, and in the younger birds the tail-feathers are undoubtedly narrower at the points than in fully adult specimens. In the Nelson bird, of which a full description is given above, it will be seen that the former of Professor Hutton’s distinguishing characters is absent. I should be inclined to give more weight to the colour of the primaries, as described by him, because in every specimen of G. melanops examined by me the first five primaries are uniform brownish black, or with only a very narrow greyish-white margin on the outer web, there being no sign of any white tips. This difference, however, appears to me too trivial to separate the species, the more so as it is wanting in the Nelson example. The “white circular page 68 bands” afford to my mind further evidence of immaturity. If, however, it were the young of G. parvirostris (as suggested by Dr. Finsch), it ought to present other markings, for the young of this form exhibits numerous arrow-heads of brownish black on its chin and throat.

Assuming, therefore, the species to be the same, this bird is very common in New South Wales, especially in the summer months, frequenting “plains thinly covered with large trees,” rather than the thick brushes. It is said to be also abundantly dispersed over the plains of the interior, such as the Liverpool, and those which stretch away to the northward and eastward of New South Wales.

“It breeds in October and the three following months. The nest is often of a triangular form, in consequence of its being made to fit the angle of the fork of the horizontal branch in which it is placed; it is entirely composed of small dead twigs, firmly matted together with a very fine, white, downy substance like cobwebs and a species of lichen, giving the nest the same appearance as the branch upon which it is placed, and rendering it most difficult of detection. The ground-colour of the eggs, which are usually two in number, varies from wood-brown to asparagus-green, the blotches and spots, which are very generally dispersed over their surface, varying from dull chestnut-brown to light yellowish brown; in some instances they are also sparingly dotted with deep umber-brown; their medium length is thirteen lines, and breadth ten lines. Its note, which is seldom uttered, is a peculiar single purring or jarring sound, repeated several times in succession.” (Gould, Handb. Birds Austr. i. pp. 193, 194.)

The ornithology of New Zealand has now been so thoroughly explored that we cannot hope to make any further additions to our list of species, except by recording accidental visitants like the above at long intervals of time—such birds, for example, as Acanthochœra carunculata and Eurystomus pacificus; or the occurrence of foreign Waders, such stragglers from the flock as may occasionally pass out of their course to New Zealand during their seasonal migration—as, for instance, Charadrius fulvus and Phalaropus ruficapillus; or of oceanic species whose home is on the rolling sea and whose habitual range, within uncertain degrees of latitude and longitude, is often extended almost indefinitely by the terrific and long-continued storms that sweep over the face of the great Pacific Ocean—such as the beautiful red-tailed Tropic-bird (Phaëton rubricauda), or that noble “Vulture of the sea,” Tachypetes aquila, and the rarer kinds of Petrel. The opportunities, however, of recording such occurrences are becoming every year more difficult for the practical ornithologist, owing to the number and variety of foreign birds that are being introduced into the country through the efforts of Acclimatization Societies and other local agencies. In the early days of the colony nothing that was new escaped the vigilant eye of the Maori, and the appearance of a strange bird, whether on the sea-shore, in the lagoons, or on the land, was immediately noticed, and the fact sooner or later reported to the colonists. But nowadays the country teems with imported birds of every kind —Thrushes and Blackbirds, Greenfinches and Linnets in the woods and shrubberies; Pheasants, Partridges, and Quail in the open, with Sky-Larks and Starlings on the meadows; Black Swan and Egyptian Geese on the lagoons, and the ubiquitous Sparrow in every street and hedgerow, besides numberless other introduced species of more or less importance. Consequently, when a Maori sees a bird hitherto unknown to him he puts it down in his mind as a “manu pakeha,” and pays no further heed to it.

The occurrence in New Zealand, from time to time, of Australian and Polynesian forms, without any suspicion of human intervention or of artificial assistance such as that afforded by ships’ rigging, is a matter of extreme interest to the philosophic naturalist, because these cases serve to illustrate the manner in which the avifauna of oceanic islands lying far apart from one another or from any continental area—as, for example, Norfolk Island and Lord Howe’s Island—may undergo, in process of time and by insensible degrees, important changes of feature through the accidental intrusion of foreign types. For this reason, I have been very careful to notice in the present work every instance of the kind that has come to my knowledge.

* Graucalus concinnus, Hutton (l. c.):—“The whole of the upper surface uniform pale grey, the feathers of the forehead with the shafts darker; feathers of the throat and breast pale grey, slightly tipped with white; those of the upper abdomen and thïghs pale grey, with white circular bands; lower abdomen, vent, and under tail-coverts pure white; a broad band of black passes from the nostrils and gape through and below the eye to the region of the ears; primaries brownish black, the first slightly tipped with white, the second, third, fourth, and fifth margined outwardly and slightly tipped with white, the remainder margined all round with a white band, which is broader on the tip and inner web; secondaries greyish black, with more or less grey on the outer webs near the base, and with a rather broad white margin on the outer web and tip; greater wing-coverts margined outwardly with white; tail-feathers acutely pointed at the tip, the two middle ones brownish grey, laterals brownish black tipped with white, the white decreasing inwards; shafts of the tail-feathers greyish black above and pure white below; bill (dry) brownish black, paler at the base; legs and feet (dry) black. Wing 8 inches; tail 7; tarsus 1·1; hind toe ·8; middle toe 1·1; bill, culmen, ·85, breadth at nostrils ·4, height at nostrils ·35.”

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Rhipidura Flabellifera.
(Pied Fantail.)

  • Fan-tailed Flycatcher, Lath. Gen. Syn. ii. pt. 1, p. 340, pl. xlix. (1783).

  • Muscicapa flabellifera, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 943 (1788, ex Lath.).

  • Rhipidura flabellifera, Gray, in Dieff. Trav. ii., App. p. 190 (1843).

  • Muscicapa ventilabrum, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 86 (1844).

  • Rhipidura albiscapa, Cass. U. S. Expl. Exp. p. 150 (1858, nec Gould).

Native names,

Piwaiwaka, Tiwaiwaka, Piwakawaka, Tirairaka, Pirairaka, Tiwakawaka, and Pitakataka.

Ad. suprà olivascenti-brunneus, pileo nigricante: lineâ supraoculari albidâ: tectricibus alarum brunncis, olivaceo lavatis, albido terminatis: remigibus nigricanti-brunneis extùs dorsi colore lavatis: caudâ aordidè albâ, scapis purè albis, rectricibus duabus centralibus nigricantibus ad apicem albidis, reliquis extùs brunnescentinigris, pennâ extimâ omninò albidâ: facie laterali pileo concolore: gulâ albidâ: torque pectorali nigrâ: subtùs aurantiaco-fulvus, pectore superiore et subcaudalibus pallidioribus: cruribus nigricantibus: rostro nigro: pedibus brunnescenti-nigris: iride nigrâ.

Juv. similis adulto, sed suprà magis brunnescens: gutture grisescenti-albo: corpore reliquo subtùs sordidè fulvescentó: torque pectorali absente: tectricibus alarum fulvido apicatis, et secundariis extùs eodem colore marginatis.

Adult male. Crown, nape, and sides of the head sooty black; the whole of the back, rump, and upper surface of wings dark olive-brown; the small wing-coverts tipped with fulvous white; rictal bristles black; throat and mark over the eyes greyish white; across the fore neck and upper part of breast a broad band of sooty black; lower part of breast and all the under surface fulvous, tinged with cinnamon, the base of the feathers plumbeous; quills dark olive-brown, with paler shafts, the inner secondaries edged with fulvous white; the two middle tail-feathers brownish black, with pure white shafts, and tipped with greyish white; the lateral feathers greyish white and, with the exception of the outermost one on each side, margined on their outer webs with brownish black, all having pure white shafts. Irides and bill black; feet blackish brown; soles greyish. Total length 6·5 inches; extent of wings 8; wing, from flexure, 2·75; tail 4; bill, along the ridge ·3, along the edge of lower mandible ·4; tarsus ·7; middle toe and claw ·6; hind toe and claw ·5.

Female. Similar in plumage to the male, but slightly smaller.

Young. The young bird has the throat greyish white; the breast and all the under surface dark fulvous brown; the small wing-coverts are largely tipped and the secondaries narrowly edged with fulvous brown, and the plumage of the back is more or less tinged with the same colour.

Obs. I have observed birds in the young plumage as late as the middle of March; but the adult livery is certainly assumed at the first moult.

The Pied Fantail, ever flitting about with broadly expanded tail, and performing all manner of page 70 fantastic evolutions, in its diligent pursuit of gnats and flies, is one of the most pleasing and attractive objects in the New-Zealand forest.

It is very tame and familiar, allowing a person to approach within a few feet of it without evincing any alarm, sometimes, indeed, perching for an instant on his head or shoulders. It will often enter the settler’s house in the bush, and remain there for days together, clearing the window-panes of sand-flies, fluttering about the open rooms with an incessant lively twitter during the day, and roosting at night under the friendly roof*. It is found, generally in pairs, on the outskirts of the forest, in the open glades, and in all similar localities adapted to its habits of life. It loves to frequent the wooded banks of mountain-streams and rivulets, where it may be seen hovering over the surface of the water collecting gnats; and I have counted as many as ten of them at one time so engaged. It affects low shrubby bushes and the branches of fallen trees; but it may often be seen catering for its insect-food among the topmost branches of the high timber.

You may always make sure of finding it flitting noiselessly about the bushes at the edges of the little mountain-stream which

“Chatters over stony ways,
In little sharps and trebles,
And bubbles into eddying bays,
And babbles on the pebbles.”

These localities often swarm with minute diptera, on which the bird subsists. And I have seen five or six of them together displaying their fans, and hawking, as it were, for these invisible flies above the surface of the water.

In winter it generally frequents the darker parts of the forest, where insect-life is more abundant at that season; but it is nevertheless to be met with, wherever there is any bush, all the year round. It is a true Flycatcher, subsisting entirely by the chase: darting forth from its perch, it performs a number of aërial evolutions in pursuit of invisible flies-the snapping of its mandibles as it catches its prey being distinctly audible-and generally returns to the twig from which it started. It hops about along the dry branches of a prostrate tree, or upwards along the tangled vines of the kareao (Rhipogonum scandens), with its tail half expanded and its wings drooping, seizing a little victim at almost every turn, and all the while uttering a pleasant twitter. When hurt or alarmed it immediately closes its pretty fan, and silently flies off in a direct course, disappearing in the denser foliage.

It breeds twice in the season, producing four young ones at each sitting. It generally commences to build in September, and brings out its first brood about the last week in October. The second brood appears to leave the nest about the beginning of January.

The nest is a beautiful little structure, compact and symmetrical, A forked twig is the site usually selected; and the nest, instead of being placed within the fork for support, is built around it, the branchlets being thus made to serve the purpose of braces and stays to strengthen the work and to hold it together. It is therefore generally impossible to remove or detach the nest from the branch without tearing it to pieces. In form it is cup-shaped, the upper part towards the rim being closely interwoven and securely bound, while the base is left unfinished or loosely constructed. The materials composing the foundation are light fragments of decayed wood, coarse mosses, and the skeletons of dead leaves. The centre and upper portion of the nest consist principally of the tough and elastic seed-stems of various mosses finely interwoven. There is an exterior wall composed of

* Major Jackson told me a romantic story about this bird. A friend of his met with an accident and got his leg broken. He was carried into a little country house, and could not safely be moved for some time. During his detention he suffered very much from the heat and the swarms of small flies that inraded his improvised hospital. On one occasion, however, the window being open, a Fantail came in from the adjoining garden, took up its station on a peg in the wall, and soon cleared the room of flies, flitting airily about, and snapping its mandibles so long as a single fly remained. After this and as long as the invalid remained, the bird was a daily visitors, ministering in the manner described to the peace and comfort of the fly-pestered inmate.

page 71 cow-hair, the downy seed-vessels of plants, and other soft materials, and the whole is admirably bound together with fine spiders’ webs. The interior cavity, which is rather large in proportion to the nest, is closely lined with fibrous grasses, or bents, disposed in a circular form. I have examined numbers of nests, and I have observed that the materials employed vary slightly, according to the locality, specimens collected in the vicinity of farmhouses disclosing tufts of wool, fragments of cloth, remnants of cotton-thread, &c. among the building-materials; nevertheless, in every instance that has come under my notice, the use of spiders’ webs for binding the walls has been adhered to, thus manifesting a very decided instinct. The eggs are usually four in number, slightly ovoido-conical, and measuring ·7 of an inch in length by ·5 in breadth; they are white, with numerous purplish-brown freckles, denser and forming an obscure zone towards the larger end.

Mr. J. H. Gurney (‘Ibis,’ 1860, p. 212), in his account of the Red-throated Widow-bird (Vidua rubritorques, Swains.), says:—“These birds build amongst the grass in the open country. The nest is curiously built; they select a convenient tuft of grass, and interlace the blades as they stand, without breaking them off; so that the nest is green during the whole time of incubation, and is very beautiful when thus seen.” This brings to my recollection a very pretty nest of the Pied Fantail which I found in the Kaipara woods many years ago. It was smaller and more cup-shaped than the generality of these nests, and was composed chiefly of moss firmly bound together with spiders’ webs; but it was an “old nest,” and the winter rains had soaked it, causing the moss to vegetate afresh; and when it came into my hands it was covered on the outer surface with a luxuriant growth of stunted moss of the brightest green, and presented a very beautiful appearance.

To any one having any experience of bird-craft, it is very easy to discover the nest of this species. The movements of the old birds, properly interpreted, are a very sure index. As you approach the nest, the Fantails, which follow your steps with an incessant twitter, become ominously silent. If you fail immediately to discover the object of your search, and chance to wander away from it, the anxious little birds give vent to their joy by an exuberant strain of notes, which, as I have often thought, might be appropriately compared to the supposed merry laugh of one of Gulliver’s Liliputians*. On one occasion I succeeded in capturing the old bird on the nest, which was found to contain four unfledged young ones. I placed my captive in a cage, together with the nest and young: she refused food, and vented her rage by pecking her young ones to death. On the following morning I liberated the parent, regretting much that I had invaded her domestic happiness.

The multiplication of numbers by second broods, in the proportion of four to one, as already noticed, appears to me a wise provision of Nature to save the species from extinction. At the close of the breeding-season the Fantails, principally in the immature plumage, are excessively abundant; by the end of the year their numbers have been considerably thinned, owing to the joint ravages of the wild cat, the Bush-Hawk, and Morepork, to all of which this defenceless little creature falls an easy prey. The reproduction by each pair of eight young ones every season seems, therefore, almost necessary to preserve the very existence of this species in the balance of life.

Long may the Pied Fantail thrive and prosper, in the face of cats, owls, naturalists, and the whole race of depredators; for without it our woods would lack one of their prettiest attractions, and our fauna its gentlest representative!

* In one of the Maori legends we are told that the great ancestor Maui-Potaka, whose ordinary companions were a flock of Piwaiwaka, was betrayed by this “laugh” when eating up the body of Hinenuitepo and was forthwith killed. The myth relates how those little birds could contain themselves no longer, and when Hinenuitepo’s head and shoulders had disappeared down Maui-Potaka’s throat “they danced about and laughed,” a pretty allusion to the habits of the Fantail.