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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Fam. MUSCICAPIDÆ — Rhipidura Fuliginosa. — (Black Fantail.)

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Rhipidura Fuliginosa.
(Black Fantail.)

  • Muscicapa fuliginosa, Sparrm. Mus. Carls. pl. 47 (1787).

  • Muscicapa deserti, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 949 (1788, ex Sparrm.).

  • Rhipidura melanura, Gray, in Dieff. Trav., ii. App. p. 191 (1843).

  • Leucocerca melanura, Bonap. Consp. Gen. Av. i. p. 324 (1850).

  • Rhipidura tristis, Hombr. et Jacq. Voy. Pôe Sud, Ois. iii. p. 76, pl. xi. fig. 5 (1853).

  • Rhipidura sombre, iid. op. cit., Atlas, pl. xi. fig. 4 (1853).

Ad. nigricans, dorso alisque brunneo tinctis: maculaâ postauriculari parvâ albâ: subtù dilutiùs brunneus: rostro nigro, mandibulâ versùs basin albicante: pedibus nigricanti-brunneis: iride nigrâ.

Adult. Entire plumage black, tinged on the back and wings with rusty brown, and on the under surface with paler brown; behind each ear a small spot of white. Irides black; bill black, white at the base of the lower mandible; tarsi and toes blackish brown. 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 to the male, but with the white spots behind the ears much reduced.

Obs. In the full-phimaged male the white mark described above usually consists of twelve diminutive feathers. In an example which came under my notice at Kaiapoi this feature was exaggerated, the white spreading entirely over the ear-coverts and surrounding feathers. In some it is scarcely visible, while in others (probably young birds) it is altogether wanting.

This dark-coloured species is, generally speaking, restricted to the South Island, where it is far more common than the preceding one.

Its life-history differs in no respect from that of its congener, as described in the foregoing pages. The stomachs of two which I dissected contained, in addition to the remains of small dipterous insects, the minute seeds of some wild berry.

Mr. G. R. Gray gives Cook’s Strait as its habitat; but although common enough on the Nelson side, at the date of my former edition I knew of only one instance of its occurrence on the northern shore of the strait, or in any part of the North Island. After very stormy weather in May 1864, I shot a specimen in a flax-field near the mouth of the Manawatu river, on the south-west coast of the Wellington Province. It was evidently a straggler from the opposite mainland, and having by some means been deprived of its ample tail, which serves to balance the body, it had probably lost command of itself, and thus been borne across the sea by the prevailing gales. That the Flycatcher does sometimes indulge voluntarily in a water excursion, I have myself had proof; for in April 1869, when entering the Whangarei Heads, a Pied Fantail (Rhipidura flabellifera) flew off from the shore, and after making a circuit of our little steamer, apparently to satisfy its curiosity, returned to the land.

Ten years later another specimen was killed near a streamlet in the Pirongia Ranges, Waikato; and a third was obtained by my son in a shrubbery near Wellington on the 2nd April, 1876. Again, a pair of these Black Fantails visited my garden on Wellington Terrace on the 15th of the same page 73 month, and, as I would not allow them to be molested, returned on several successive days. They disappeared together, and I did not see them afterwards, although fondly hoping that they would breed with us, and that this pretty bird might become at length fairly acclimatized in the North Island.

Several more instances of its occurrence in the North Island, in the year following, have come to my knowledge. Major Mair recorded a second example from the Pirongia ranges in the Waikato; another was seen by Mrs. Howard Jackson in the shrubbery at Major Marshall’s, near Rangitikei; and another was reported from Auckland. Of the last-mentioned Mr. T. F. Cheeseman, the Curator of the Auckland Museum, writes to me:—“You will be interested to hear that a solitary individual of the Black Fantail has been repeatedly seen near Auckland this winter. It was first noticed by Mr. James Baber in his garden at Remuera; afterwards it visited Mr. Hay’s nursery-garden, where it remained for some weeks; and it has since been noticed about several of the residences at Remuera. I was fortunate enough to see it one evening when walking home, and can consequently vouch for its being the South Island species. Its occurrence so far to the north is certainly very remarkable.”

Mr. Colenso, F.R.S., informs me that he met with one, in February 1882, at Napier; and to Mr. Leonard Reid, the Assistant Law Officer at Wellington, I am indebted for the following note:—“It may interest you to know that I met with a specimen on the Pukerua Range near Pauatahanui, when out shooting there in May 1883, in company with two residents of the district who had never seen a Black Fantail before. We tried hard to secure it alive, but though, like its northern congener, it was remarkably tame and fearless, our efforts were unsuccessful. We observed none others of either species in the same locality, and though a frequent visitor to the bush in various parts of this district I have never observed its occurrence on any other occasion”*.

A very interesting phase of character exhibited by this species is that, in its wild state, it associates and interbreeds with the Pied Fantail (Rhipidura flabellifera), as represented in the Plate.

There is a nest of this sort in the Canterbury Museum, containing three eggs. It was taken, in October 1870, by Mr. Potts, who informed me that the female was a dark bird and the male a pied one. In another case of intercrossing which came under his notice the relative position of the sexes was reversed, the female being R. flabellifera: the eggs proved to be fertile, and the young assumed the plumage of the female parent.

On the nesting-habits generally he has furnished me with the following interesting note:—“To my view, the most remarkable feature in the breeding-habits of our Flycatchers is the situation usually selected for rearing their young. Security does not appear to be the first consideration; security by concealment seems the leading feature which guides most arboreal birds in choosing the site of their home, and it is one in which the most admirable displays of instinct may be frequently observed. The Flycatchers rather appear to be led by the same consideration which actuates many sea-birds in selecting the position of their breeding-place—proximity to the food supply. Stroll carefully along the rocky bed of a creek which rambles through some bushy gully, and you may perchance see the beautiful nest perched on some slender bough, in so delicate a manner that it appears scarcely so much to be fixed as to rest balanced there, and without any attempt at concealment.”

The eggs of this species are of similar size and shape to those of the Pied Fantail, but I have remarked that they usually have a darker zone of purple and brown spots.

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* Mr. Hamilton writes:—“I obtained a specimen of this bird in the Pohue Bush, about 20 miles north of Napier, July 7, 1885. I have seen it occasionally nearer Napier. In 1876 I got two or three in the Horokiwi district, near Wellington.” (Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. xviii. p. 125.)

Writing of another, exhibited at a meeting of the Zoological Society in November 1884, he says:—“Before I removed it, I saw both parent birds undertake the duties of incubation in turn, velieving each other at brief intervals. The cock bird was R. fuliginosa, with the aural plumes very small but quite distinct; the hen, R. flabellifera, occupied the nest till gently pushed off with the finger.”