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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Fam. ALCEDINIDÆ — Halcyon Vagans. — (New-Zealand Kingfisher.)

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Halcyon Vagans.
(New-Zealand Kingfisher.)

  • Alcedo sacra, var. D, Lath. Gen. Syn. Suppl. p. 114 (1790).

  • Alcedo sacra, var. ∊, Bonn. et Vieill. Enc. Méth. i. p. 295 (1823).

  • Alcedo vagans, Less. Voy. Coq. i. p. 694 (1826).

  • Alcedo Chlorocephala, var. γ, Less. Traité d’Orn. p. 546 (1831).

  • Halcyon vagans, Gray, Voy. Ereb. & Terror, p. 3, pl. 1 (1844).

  • Alcedo cyanea, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 76 (1844).

  • Todirhamphus vagans, Bonap. Consp. Gen. Av. i. p. 157 (1850).

  • Dacelo sancta (pt.), Schl. Cat. Mus. Pays-Bas, Alced. p. 37 (1863).

  • Halcyon sanctus, Finsch, J. f. O. 1870, p. 246; Hutton, Cat. Birds N. Z. p. 3 (1871).

Native names.

Kotare and Kotaretare; “Kingfisher” of the colonists.

Ad. suprà sordidè viridis, pileo laterali et dorso postico uropygioque cyanescentibus: Ioris et supercilio antico fulvis: genis, cum regione paroticâ utrâque circâ collum posticum conjunctâ, nigris vix viridi tinctis: maculâ nuchali et collo toto albidis, torquem collarem latam formantibus: tectricibus alarum cyanescenti-viridibus: remigibus nigricantibus, primariis ad basin et secundariis extùs læte cyanescentibus: caudâ suprâ cyanescente, subtùs griseâ: corpore subtùs toto lætè fulvescente, gutture albicante: rostro nigro, ad basin mandibulæ albo: pedibus saturatè brunneis: iride nigricanti-brunneâ.

Juv. similis adultis, sed sordidior: tectricibus alarum fulvo marginatis: pectoris et colli postici plumis brunneo marginatis.

Adult male. Crown, shoulders, and scapulars deep sea-green, with an olive tinge; back, tail-coverts, and upper surface of wings ultramarine, changing to green in certain lights; quills and tail-feathers washed with cobalt on their outer webs. A spot of bright fulvous fills the lores, a dash of ultramarine blue, bordered above the eyes and on the occiput with white, surrounds the crown; and a broad band of black, proceeding from the angles of the mouth, completely encircles the hind head. Throat, breast, and a broad nuchal collar buffy white; the rest of the under surface delicate fawn-colour, with deepening tints. Irides black; bill black, with the basal portion of the lower mandible white; feet dark brown, with paler soles. Extreme length 9·75 inches; extent of wings 13·6; wing, from flexure, 4; tail 2·6; bill, along the ridge 1·75, along the edge of lower mandible 2·1; tarsus ·6; middle toe and claw 1·05; hind toe and claw ·6.

Female. Tints of the plumage generally duller.

Young. In the young bird the throat is pure white; the underparts fulvous-white, tinged on the sides with fawn-colour; feathers of the breast broadly margined with dusky brown, forming an irregular pectoral zone; loral spots and nuchal collar rufous, with markings of the same colour on the fore part of the crown; nuchal collar indistinct and largely marked with brown; plumage of the upper parts darker than in the adult; the wing-coverts margined with yellow, in the form of narrow crescentic bands.

Progress towards maturity. Tints of the plumage brighter; the loral spots bright fulvous; the sides, flanks, lining of wings, and under tail-coverts bright fawn-colour; pectoral zone indistinct, the dark margins being page 122 very narrow; nuchal collar well defined and almost pure white. The full adult dress is not attained till after the second or third moult.

Obs. Mr. Reischek brought from the Little Barrier a brightly coloured specimen, which comes very near to Halcyon sancta. He saw a pair of them together on the south-west side of the island. They appeared to be exactly alike in plumage, and the one he shot proved to be a female. In this specimen the nuchal collar is half an inch wide, quite regular, creamy white, and margined on both sides with black; throat white; underparts and flanks plain fawn-colour; hind head, wings, and rump very bright blue; mantle largely tinged with verditer-green. Extreme length 9·5 inches; wing, from flexure, 4; tail 3; bill, along the ridge 1·5, along the edge of lower mandible 2; tarsus ·5; middle toe and claw 1. The bill differs from that of ordinary examples, the lower mandible having a more upward curve, and the upper, viewed vertically, being much compressed laterally, especially towards the point. Although I have thought it right to record these differences, I do not propose at present, at any rate, to separate this bird from H. vagans, which as a species is not very far removed from the Australian form.

Much difference of opinion has existed as to whether this bird is really distinct from the Halcyon sancta of Australia. Mr. R. B. Sharpe, in his ‘Monograph of the Kingfishers,’ pronounces it a good species, being “always of a more robust size, and having the colours much less bright than the Australian bird.” Professor Schlegel and Dr. Finsch proposed uniting it to H. sancta; but in a letter which I afterwards received from the latter of these experienced ornithologists he admits that the species is quite distinct, adding that his former conclusions were based on two specimens only, and not on the good series of skins since obtained. I have always contended for the recognition of Halcyon vagans; and the question may now be considered fairly set at rest.

In habits the two species are very much alike. The New-Zealand bird is very generally dispersed, being met with in all suitable localities. It frequents alike the sea-shore, the open country, forest-clearings, and the banks of freshwater streams. It is, moreover, one of those birds that seem instinctively to resort to the habitations of man; and instead of, like many other indigenous species, decreasing, it thrives and multiplies under the altered physical conditions resulting from the colonization of the country. It seeks out the new home of the settler, and becomes the familiar companion of his solitude. During the winter months especially, it resorts to cultivated grounds in quest of grubs and worms, which at this season constitute its principal food. In the early morn it may be seen perched on the fences, gateways, and out-buildings of the farmyard, sitting upright with contracted neck, looking stiff and rigid in the cold frosty air; and as the day advances, it enlivens the landscape by its darting flight, while it attracts notice by its shrill, quickly repeated call, which is not unlike the note of the European Kestrel. In the pairing-season this species becomes very noisy and lively, the mated birds chasing each other, in amorous play, from tree to tree or from post to post, with loud unmusical cries, something like the syllables cree-cree-cree uttered in quick succession. Its ordinary call-note is more like chiu-chiu-chiu, with a clear accent. When wounded or caught in a trap it utters a peculiar rasping cry, exactly like that of the Indian Mynah when alarmed or excited, only louder.

They breed late in the year; the brood numbers five or six; and for several weeks after quitting the nest the young family keep together. This will probably account for the abundance of Kingfishers in the autumn months, which has been regarded by some as indicating a seasonal migration.

The flight of this species is short, rapid, and direct, being performed by a quick vibration of the wings. It flies with considerable velocity; and I have known several instances of its dashing headlong through a pane of glass. On one occasion this occurred in the church at Raglan during divine service; and the Kingfisher, after recovering from the shock, remained to the last perched on the end of a pew, looking more devout, says our correspondent, than the Jackdaw of Rheims! Another page 123 instance occurred more recently at Wanganui, where, according to a local paper, the family of the Rev. C. H. S. Nicholls were startled one day at dinner by the entrance of a Kingfisher, which “flew through a pane of glass in one of the windows, scattering the fragments around,” and was forthwith made prisoner by the household cat.

Its food consists of lizards, small fish, grubs, earthworms, locusts, insects of all kinds, and even mice. On examining a young Kingfisher just taken from the nest, I observed the tail of a half-grown mouse protruding from its bill; and on taking hold of it I drew the unmutilated carcass of the rodent from the throat of the bird. I was not previously aware that mice formed part of the Kingfisher’s bill of fare*. I have often, however, witnessed its fondness for lizards, two species of which (Mocoa zealandica and M. ornata) are very common in all the open glades. I have seen it seize the nimble little reptile by the tail, and after battering its head against a stone or the branch of a tree, to destroy life, swallow the captive, head foremost. It has been known to attack and kill chickens in the poultry-yard. On one occasion, at Otaki, I saw one of these birds dart down into the midst of a very young clutch; but the old barn-door hen proved too active, and with one rapid stroke of her bill put the assailant hors de combat. The bird was picked up stunned with the blow, but soon after, recovering itself, escaped from the hands of its captor. In Wanganui it provoked the hostility of the Acclimatization Society by preying on the young of the House-Sparrow (Passer domesticus), which had been introduced at much expense; and the committee encouraged a crusade against the offenders by offerring a premium for Kingfishers’ heads. But in the present attitude of the public towards the ubiquitous Sparrow, which has become a nuisance, it would be scarcely prudent to repeat such an offer. According to the Report of the Auckland Acclimatization Society for 1868–69, it has proved very troublesome in destroying birds, and has even attacked and killed a Californian Quail. In Otago it has been accused of purloining the speckled trout; and in Canterbury it was found necessary to protect the newly hatched fish by stretching wire netting over the shallow artificial streams. A valued correspondent, and very careful observer, informs me that on one occasion he killed a blackfish about twelve feet long in Whangarei harbour, and dragged it ashore; and on visiting the place a few days later he observed an unusual number of Kingfishers present. On watching them, he found that they were preying on the swarms of flies attracted by the dead cetacean, darting after them with the swiftness of an arrow, and capturing them on the wing.

In light rainy weather the Kingfisher is in his element in the meadows. The moisture brings the grubs, earthworms, and other small animal life to the surface. From his post of observation on the fence he drops nimbly to the ground, swallows his captive and remounts to his perch, repeating the operation every few minutes, and for more than an hour at a time. It is evident, therefore, that this bird is of use to the agriculturist, and deserves protection rather than persecution.

When engaged in fishing, it does not plunge into the stream, like the common British Kingfisher, but dips into it lightly as it skims the surface of the water or darts downwards from its post of observation on a rock or overhanging branch.

* “It may not be generally known that Kingfishers are excellent vermin destroyers, and on this account are well worthy of protection. Yesterday a number of gentlemen in the neighbourhood of the Park Hotel, Wellesley Street, observed a curious scene. A Kingfisher which was perched on one of the newly-planted trees was observed to make a sudden dart towards the high bank at the side of the street, and he speedily returned to his perch on the fence which protects the tree. It was then seen that the bird had a mouse, which was alive and struggling, in his beak. The attention of those present became concentrated on the movements of the bird, and they saw him repeatedly strike the mouse’s head against the rail. As the latter became stunned, the bird removed its hold from the centre of the animal’s back to his hind quarters and tail, and while so holding it beat the mouse to death against the rail, and flew off to devour its prey.”—New Zealand Herald.

As the fact of our Kingfisher being piscivorous has been challenged, it may be well to reprint here a note which I sent to the Wellington Philosophical Society in 1878 (Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. xi. p. 369):—.

“On driving round Porirua harbour on the 19th July last, I noticed an unusual number of Kingfishers perched on the rocks along the beach, and on the telegraph wires stretched across the numerous little bays. They were evidently attracted by the shoals of little fish that were frequenting the shallow water at the time; and at one spot I had an ocular demonstration of my argument with Captain Hutton, which I should like him to have witnessed. Ten little Kingfishers sitting in a row were in possession of a short span of telegraph wire overhanging the water, and, one after the other, they were dipping into the shallow sea-water in pursuit of fish. Sometimes two or even three of them would dip at the same moment, raising a tiny splash all round, and then mount again to the wire or fly off to the shore with their finny prey. In further illustration of the piscivorous habits of the bird it may be mentioned that Mr. Brandon, of this city, has an indictment to file against the Kingfisher for robbing the fountain in his garden of goldfish.”

I have frequently observed these birds fishing from the scaffolding under Queen Street Wharf, in Auckland Harbour, at a distance of fully two hundred yards from the shore; and my son, on one occasion, saw a Kingfisher capture a sea-minnow about four inches long and devour it.

The custodian of the trout-ponds at Hastings, near Napier, informed me, on my last visit there, that the Kingfisher had proved very destructive to the young trout, often attacking even good-sized fish in the ponds and picking out their eyes!

The following communication from Capt. Mair (l. c. vol. x. p. 202) bears on the same point:—

“The Kingfisher is found in all the mountain streams of the Urewera and Bay of Plenty districts. It subsists largely on small freshwater fish (mohiwai of the natives), also on flies, moths, and beetles.”

Mr. Potts says, in his interesting little volume ‘Out in the Open’ (p. 150):—“It remains for me to state that these Kingfishers really do fish at times. We have watched with great pleasure and interest displays of their remarkable skill and activity. In the lovely island of Kawau, these birds are very numerous; and well they merit the protection extended to them for their useful labours in clearing off many of the crickets that are to be seen there in abundance. At ebb-tide we have noticed Kingfishers settled on the twisted trunks of pohutukawa trees that spread out their crooked limbs over wave-washed and shelly beaches. From such convenient perches the birds plunge boldly into the sea, often wholly immersed, sprinkling round showers of spray. They swiftly emerge, rarely failing to bear back with them to their standing places their finny spoil.”

page 124

On the feeding-habits of this species, Mr. Henry C. Field of Wanganui has sent me the following interesting observations, which exhibit the Kingfisher in the new character of a frugivorous bird:—

“Knowing the interest you take in our New-Zealand birds, I have thought you might like to be informed of the following trait in the habits of the Kotare, which I think is not generally known. About a week before Christmas my children reported to me that in what they took to be a rat’s hole in the pumice bank of the stream, just behind my garden, there was something which growled at them whenever they passed the hole or looked into it. On the matter being mentioned a second or third time the hole was examined, and proved to be a Kotare’s nest, containing four young ones about half-fledged. The old birds, of course, manifested a strong objection to the nest being touched, flying round, screaming, and darting at us whenever we went close to it. I desired the children not to meddle with the young birds, but told them that if they sat a little way off and watched they would see the old ones catch fish, lizards, and insects, and bring them to the nest for the young ones to eat. The children were very pleased to do this, but quickly discovered that very few fish, and apparently very little animal food of any kind, was brought to the nest, and the young brood were being reared on the cherries out of our garden. I at first thought the children were mistaken, but as they assured me they saw the birds fly to the trees, and bring back the cherries in their bills, I examined the nest, and from the quantity of cherry stones that it contained saw that the youngsters’ eyes had not deceived them. It was evident, in fact, that, up to the time they left the nest, fruit formed the chief food of the young birds. It has occurred to me that possibly the Kingfisher, from its habits, consumes a large quantity of fluid with its food, and that the juice of the fruit supplies moisture necessary to the proper growth of the young birds. At all events it is clear that young fruit forms an important article in their diet, though I never saw them eating it, or heard of their doing so at a later stage of their existence.

“I accidentally got corroborative information as to the frugivorous habits of the Kotare lately. I met Mr. Enderby, who mentioned that he had been greatly annoyed by these birds this autumn. page 125 He said that scarcely a peach in the garden escaped having one or more large pieces pecked out of it, and that the birds did not meddle with the ripe fruit, but attacked it when it was just ripening and before it became soft. This seems to indicate that, as in my case, the fruit was wanted not for the consumption of the old birds themselves, but as food for their young, and that it was taken therefore before it was too soft to be carried in the bill, or not required after the fruit was ripe, because the young birds were then fledged. Mr. Enderby was quite positive that it was the Kotares and not Sparrows who were the depredators, as he saw them taking the fruit, and said he at first had a great mind to shoot them, till he noticed that they evidently carried it away to their nests.”

I am not aware that the Kingfisher is ever nocturnal in its habits; but on one occasion, when travelling by coach along the banks of the Manawatu river, about 2.30 a.m., it being a cloudy night and quite dark, I heard the loud call-notes of this bird with startling distinctness. Probably it was a sleeper disturbed by the passing of the coach; although under these circumstances birds, as a rule, betake themselves off in silence to another roosting-place.

The New-Zealand Kingfisher commences to breed towards the end of November or early in December, usually selecting for its nesting-operations a tree denuded of its bark and decayed at heart, standing near the margin of the forest or in an old Maori clearing. By means of its powerful bill it cuts a round passage through the hard exterior surface, and then scoops out a deep cavity, proceeding in a horizontal direction for several inches, and then downwards to an extent of ten inches or more. The bird thus instinctively protects its chamber from the inclemencies of the weather. There is no further attempt at forming a nest, the eggs being deposited on a layer of pulverized decayed wood, the shavings and sawdust, so to speak, of the borer’s operations in finishing the cavity.

The labour of boring a cavity is often greatly augmented by natural impediments. If, after drilling through the hard external surface, the bird finds the inner wood too hard for its tools, it at once abandons the spot and sounds the tree in another place. I have counted half a dozen or more of these abortive borings on a single tree, in addition to the finished one, affording evidence of indomitable perseverance on the part of the bird, and a determination not to forsake a tree which it had instinctively selected as a suitable one for its operations. In two instances, however, I have known the Kingfisher to adopt an existing hollow in a partially decayed kahikatea tree, dispensing altogether with the labour of boring and forming it.

The nestling of this species is a very curious object. On bursting from the shell it presents the following appearance: the abdomen, as in most young birds, is perfectly bare; on the other parts each feather is encased in a sharp-pointed sheath of a greyish colour, closely studded, and bristling like the quills of a porcupine. Before the young birds quit the nest, the sheathings gradually burst, exposing the true feathers in all their brilliancy; vestiges, however, of this spiny condition adhere to the fore part of the head for several days after the birds have quitted their cell.

On being alarmed or excited, the young Kingfisher utters a prolonged rasping cry, sounding very harsh to the ear. The parent birds are very fierce when their nest is molested, darting into the face of the intruder, and flying off again, with a loud, quickly repeated note of alarm.

Mr. Robertson, of Waireka, near Wanganui, informs me that he once saw a cat killed by a pair of these birds. The unfortunate puss had been treed by a dog and was hanging on to the bole, spread-eagle fashion, when she was fiercely attacked by a pair of Kingfishers who appeared to consider their nest in danger. After receiving repeated thrusts from the bills of her assailants the cat fell to the ground and shortly afterwards expired.

In the Canterbury district, where timber is scarce, it more frequently burrows a hole in a bank, and often near the sea-beach. On examining one of these holes, Mr. Potts observed that the bottom inclined slightly upwards from the entrance, and that the eggs were deposited on a page 126 layer of crustacean remains about a foot from the outside. The exuviæ within the nest consisted of mud, with numerous remains of crustacea and the wings of coleopterous insects*.

The eggs are generally five in number, sometimes six, broadly oval in form, and measuring 1·2 inch by ·95. They are of the purest white, with a smooth or polished surface, and very fragile in texture; sometimes the shell is marked by minute limy excrescences at the larger end.

In the British Museum collection there is a specimen from Norfolk Island (marked Halcyon sancta, ♂) which is undoubtedly referable to H. vagans.

In ‘The Ibis’ (1880, p. 459) Mr. Layard described a new Kingfisher from the Solomon Islands, under the name of Halcyon tristrami, stating that it was distinguishable from H. juliœ, H. chloris, and H. sancta by the well-marked supercilium and the rich colour of the underparts, in which respects, he said, it exactly accords with H. vagans from New Zealand. Dr. Ramsay has already pointed out (Proc. Linn. Soc. N. S. W. vol. vi. p. 833) that Layard’s description does not altogether agree with the coloured figure which accompanied it. Canon Tristram states (Ibis, 1882, p. 609) that the type of H. tristrami has “no occipital patch whatever” and seems to be “further removed from H. vagans than from any other of the group.” In reference to this Mr. Sharpe remarks (Gould’s ‘Birds of New Guinea’):—“We cannot understand why Canon Tristram should object to the close resemblance of H. tristrami and H. vagans.” He expresses a doubt whether the bird exists at all in the Solomon group, all the examples in the British Museum having come from New Britain; and he adds that in all of these the nape-patch is present, being plainly discernible even in the nestling.

I have examined all these specimens and I do not hesitate to say that H. tristrami is readily distinguishable from H. vagans by its larger size, brighter blue on the upper surface, more conspicuous nuchal collar, and greater extent and depth of cinnamon hue on the underparts. But, after all, it is hardly possible to resist the conclusion that these closely allied forms are little more, if anything, than local or climatic races of one common species. For example, in the British Museum there is a Tongan specimen of H. sacra (from the collection of Sir E. Home, Bart.) in which the bill is quite as large, the upper surface fully as bright, and the nape-patch as distinct as in H. tristrami, although the underparts, as well as the nuchal collar, are perfectly white. On the other hand, a specimen of H. vagans (brought by H.M.S. ‘Herald’ from Raoul Island), albeit a comparatively young bird, is as highly coloured in every respect as ordinary examples of H. tristrami, although it is appreciably smaller in all its dimensions.

* “Referring to your interesting account of its nesting-habits in the ‘Birds of New Zealand’ (1st ed.), I may mention that I have found three or four pairs building in close association in a clay bank, and that on one occasion I counted ten pairs boring in the standing trunk of a dead and decaying rimu. I have never found more than five eggs in a nest.”—Gilbert Matr.

“The Kingfisher makes its nest in our neighbourhood (Oamaru) by digging out a hole in a clay bank. A tunnel is driven horizontally into the bank for twelve inches; at the end of this a round hole, five inches in diameter and two in depth, is formed, and here the beautiful white eggs are deposited. There are usually four or five in a nest, and the incubation takes nineteen days. After the young are hatched out, a strong stench is experienced at the mouth of the nest, owing to the nature of the food supplied to them, consisting of small fish, lizards, &c. On one occasion I caught an adult bird in the vinery, where it appeared to be testing the quality of the grapes. It bit my hand savagely when captured, and uttered a loud discordant scream.”— W. W. Smith.

“On a Kingfisher’s nest and its contents:—October 10th, first egg laid in a nest on a cliff; second egg laid on the 12th before 10 a.m.; third egg laid on the 14th; fourth egg on the 15th; fifth egg on the 16th; sixth and last egg on the 17th. Subsequently the nesting-place was measured and gave the following dimensions: entrance rather over two inches in diameter; tunnel sixteen inches in length; egg-chamber of ovoid form, 7 inches in length, 5 ½ in width, with a height from the bottom of 4 inches. The size of the nest may create surprise when one thinks of the small space occupied by the eggs, but a roomy house is necessary, for, like those of most troglodytal breeders, the young remain in their hole till their wings are well grown.”— T. H. Potts.