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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.


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Harpa Novæ Zealandiæ

  • New-Zealand Falcon, Lath. Gen. Syn. i. p. 57 (1781).

  • Falco novæ seelandiæ, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 268 (1788, ex Lath.).

  • Falco australis, Hombr. et Jacq. Ann. Sci. Nat. 1841, p. 312.

  • Hypotriorchis novæ zealandiæ, Gray, Gen. of B. i. p. 20 (1844).

  • Falco harpe, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 68 (1844).

  • Hieracidea novæ zealandiæ, Kaup, Isis, 1847, p. 80.

  • Harpe novæ-zealandiæ, Bonap. Comptes Rendus, xli. p. 652 (1855).

  • Ieracidea novæ zealandiæ, Gray, Hand-1. of B. i. p. 22 (1869).

  • Hieracidea novæ zealandiæ, Buller, Birds of New Zealand (1st ed.), p. 1 (1873).

  • Harpa novæ zealandiæ, Sharpe, Cat. Brit. Mus. Birds, vol. i. p. 372 (1874).

Native names.

Karearea, Kaiaia, Kaeaea, Kakarapiti, Karewarewa, and Tawaka.

♂ suprà nigricanti-brunneus, pileo unicolore saturatiore: dorso fasciis irregularibus fulvescentibus transnotato: remigibus nigricanti-brunneis, pogonio interno albo transfasciato: secundariis extùs fasciis angustis albidis notatis: caudâ nigricanti-brunneâ, albido angustè et interruptè transfasciatâ: facie laterali nigricante, supercilio indistincto et genis imis rufescentibus: gutture fulvescenti-albo, scapis plumarum nigro indicatis: corpore reliquo subtùs lætùs fulvescente, pectoris plumis saturatè brunneo medialiter striatis et fulvo plus minusve distinctè ocellatis: hypochondriis imis cum cruribus et subcaudalibus lætisimè castaneis: subalaribus fulvescentibus, castaneo tinctis, his et axillaribus fulvescenti-albo ocellatis: rostro cyanescenti-nigro, ad basin mandibulæ corneo: cerâ pallidè flavâ: pedibus flavis: iride sordidè flavâ.

♀ mari similis, sed paullò major.

juv. suprà fuliginoso-brunneus, pileo magis cinerascente: caudâ minùs distinctè transfasciatâ: gutture fulvescenti-albo, angustè brunneo striato: subtùs fuliginoso-brunneus, pectore paullò nigricante et hypochondriis cruribusque vix castaneo tinctis; pectore medio albido obscurè maculato: abdomine imo crissoque fulvescentibus: hypochondriis distinctè fulvo ocellatis: cerâ et plagâ oculari cyanescenti-albis: pedibus plumbeis: ungulis nigricantibus.

Pull. lanugine plumbeâ indutus.

Adult male. Crown of the head and nape glossy black; upper surface generally brownish black, barred on the scapulars and tail-coverts with rufous, and narrowly on the wing-coverts with rufous grey; a line over each eye, and sides of the neck, varied with rufous; facial streak and ear-coverts black; throat fulvous white, with narrow black shaft-lines, broadening out towards the breast; fore part of the neck and breast fulvous varied with rufous, and having the centre of each feather brown; sides of the body dark brown varied with rufous, and with large rounded spots of fulvous white; abdomen and vent rich fulvous; under tail-coverts and tibial plumes rufous brown, with narrow black shaft-lines; quills and secondaries obscurely marked on their outer webs with grey; tail with eight narrow interrupted bars of greyish white, and slightly tipped with rufous; under surface of quills and tail-feathers dusky, the former largely toothed and the latter page 214 barred with white. Bill bluish black; base of lower mandible horn-colour; cere pale yellow; legs brighter yellow; claws black; irides brownish yellow, becoming purer yellow with advancing maturity. Extreme length 19 inches; extent of wings 31; wing, from flexure, 11·25; tail 8·25; culmen 1·2; tarsus 2·5; middle toe and claw 2·75; hind toe and claw 1·75.

Adult female. The plumage is similar to that of the male, excepting, perhaps, that the spotted markings on the sides are more distinct; but there is a slight difference in the size. Extreme length 19·5; wing, from flexure, 11·5; tail 8·5; tarsus 2·75.

Young. Crown of the head and upper parts generally brownish black, glossed with grey in certain lights; line over each eye reddish fulvous; throat fulvous white, with a central line of brown on each feather; sides of the neck, breast, lining of wings, and underparts generally dark brown varied with fulvous; sides marked with rounded spots of fulvous white, very obscure in some specimens; tibial plumes reddish brown; lower part of abdomen, vent, and inner side of thighs fulvous; under surface of quills and tail-feathers dusky, with numerous transverse bars of white. Cere and bare space around the eyes bluish white; irides black; legs dark grey, with black claws.

Nestling. Covered with plumbeous-grey down.

Obs. The above measurements were taken from a pair of birds of this species formerly in the Christchurch Acclimatization Gardens, and now preserved in the Canterbury Museum, the sex in both cases having been carefully ascertained by dissection. The figure of the adult female is from a fine specimen obtained in the South Island, and now in my collection. Examples vary in the details of their colouring. In some the light spots on the sides are far more conspicuous and the tibial plumes are of a brighter rufous than in others. As a rule, the white bars on the tail-feathers, although interrupted in the middle, are conterminous on each side of the shaft. In a specimen, however, obtained by Mr. Travers in the South Island the bars are alternate on each web, as was also the case with another, shown to me at Ohinitahi; but this character is quite exceptional.

The synonymy given above will serve as a tolerably complete guide to the scientific and literary history of the present species; but much confusion has arisen at various periods with regard to the nomenclature employed, and a few words in further explanation of the subject appear to be necessary.

In Mr. G. R. Gray’s ‘List of the Birds of New Zealand,’ published as an Appendix to Dieffenbach’s ‘Travels’ (1843), that naturalist recognizes only two species of Accipitres, which he calls respectively Falco harpe, Forst., and Falco brunneus, Gould, thereby intending, of course, to indicate the existence of two distinct species of true Falcons in New Zealand; but in this list there is no mention whatever of the Harrier (Circus gouldi), a common and well-known bird in our country. In adding the native names an unfortunate mistake occurred; for Falco harpe was stated to be the bird known to the inhabitants as “Kahu” and “Kahu-papango,” whereas these are in reality the native appellations for the Harrier, which, as already stated, had been omitted from the list. This will, no doubt, account for the mention of Gould’s Harrier, in the earlier writings of Layard, Haast, and Taylor, under the erroneous title of Falco harpe. Mr. Gray himself afterwards, in his ‘Birds of New Zealand’ (Voy. Ereb. and Terror), partially rectified this error by introducing the Circus in its proper place; but the misapplication of the native names was continued. In that work Mr. Gray substituted the prior title of Falco novæ zealandiæ, Gmel., for F. harpé, Forst., with F. australis (Homb. et Jacq.) correctly added as a synonym; he likewise reduced Gould’s F. brunneus to the rank of a synonym; but in a subsequent list (Ibis, 1862, p. 214) he recognized it again as a distinct species, and equivalent to F. ferox of Peale (U. S. Explor. Exped. 1848), referring both forms to Kaup’s genus Hieracidea. Unfortunately Mr. Gould’s description of H. brunnea was founded on an page 215 immature bird, in a condition of plumage exactly corresponding with the young of H. novæ zealandiæ. This circumstance, together with the great difference in size between the male and female, led me, among others, to the conclusion that the two birds were referable to one and the same species*. Dr. Otto Finsch (Journal für Ornithologie, 1867, p. 317) expressed his belief that H. brunnea was the female of H. novæ zealandiæ—a decision based (as he has since informed me) on Forster’s account of the bird; but in a subsequent paper (op. cit. 1870), referring to my observations on the subject, he adopts the view of its being the young of that species, quoting, at the same time, Dr. Haast’s opinion to the contrary. In Captain Hutton’s ‘Catalogue’ only one species is admitted, the author remarking that it is very variable in size, and that “a large male can be distinguished from a small female by its more slender legs, which are 0·6 of an inch in circumference in the male, and 0·88 of an inch in the female.” On the other hand, several excellent local observers have always held that they could distinguish a larger and a smaller species, the former differing in some of its habits from the common Bush-Hawk, and frequenting the open country in preference to the woods. Mr. Gurney also called attention to the subject in a letter to ‘The Ibis’ (1870, p. 535), in which he gave the dimensions of various examples that had come under his notice. Of these, the small specimen of H. brunnea, in the Norwich Museum, marked ♀ (measuring 14·5 inches in total length, wing 9·25), is, no doubt, as Mr. Gurney suggests, incorrectly labelled; for I have never met with so small an example of that sex; and it must be confessed that conclusions based on a mere examination of skins, in the absence of a positive determination of the sex, are very unsatisfactory.

It will be seen, on reference to the measurements I shall give in treating of the smaller species, that the sexes differ very much in size, the female, as is always the case with members of this family, being the larger bird. The fact that a male of the present species (of which the sex was carefully ascertained by Dr. Haast) was actually larger than the female of H. brunnea appeared to me sufficient of itself to warrant a specific separation. Having, however, brought with me to England good examples of both forms for illustration in my former edition, I compared them with the fine series of specimens in the British Museum (about twenty in number) and with Forster’s original drawings, and came to the conclusion that there were in reality two distinct species, closely resembling each other in plumage in both the young and adult states, but differing appreciably in size. In this examination I was kindly assisted by Mr. J. H. Gurney, an ornithologist who, as is well known, has made Birds of Prey his special study; and as he entirely concurred in the conclusion arrived at, I felt that I could publish it with some degree of confidence.

Mr. Sharpe afterwards pointed out (Ibis, 1873, p. 327) that the name of Falco brunneus of Gould had been preoccupied by Bechstein, who thus called the common Kestrel of Europe, and that consequently our small bird, if allowed to be distinct from H. novæ zealandiæ, must bear another title. He considers that this should be Hieracidea australis (Homb. & Jacq.); but it seems to me that this is only a synonym of the older species and that the right name to fall back upon for the former is Falco ferox of Peale. In his official catalogue of the Accipitres in the British Museum, under the generic name of Harpa, he not only gives H. australis the precedence, but commits (as I venture to think) the further error of making it a “subspecies,” or constant variety, of H. novæ zealandiæ. The two birds are either specifically distinct or they belong to one and the same species.

Professor Hutton contributed to ‘The Ibis’ for October 1879 a table of measurements for the purpose of showing that there existed only one species; but in my reply to that paper (Ibis, 1881, p. 453) I pointed out that his argument was quite inconclusive, inasmuch as “his ♂ specimen B gives a wing-measurement only ·25 of an inch longer than that assigned by me to the female of the smaller species.”

* Vide Trans. N.-Z. Instit. vol. i. p. 106 (1868).

‘Catalogue of the Birds of New Zealand,’ by F. W. Hutton, Geol. Survey of N. Z. (1871).

page 216

Since that time the question has received much attention at the hands of local ornithologists; and although there may be still some difference of opinion as to the propriety of keeping the birds distinct, nearly all the subsequent evidence is in support of my contention.

Apart from the manifest difference in size already mentioned, the Quail-Hawk may be distinguished from the smaller species by the colour of the irides, which become yellow in the fully adult bird, whereas in Harpa ferox they are dark brown.

This larger form is seldom if ever met with in the North Island, where the other is comparatively plentiful. The only specimen ever obtained by me there was shot in the Kaipara district, more than five-and-twenty years ago, and this is preserved in my old type-collection in the Colonial Museum. It is met with in suitable localities all over the South Island.

Its food consists of birds, rats, mice, lizards, and the larger kinds of insects. It often takes its prey on the wing, swooping down on its terrified quarry with the rapidity of an arrow. It never feeds on carrion or offal.

I have been informed by a credible eye-witness that on one occasion a Quail-Hawk swooped down upon a man who was carrying a dead Pigeon, and, striking the bird forcibly out of his hands, retired to its station in a puriri tree to wait the course of events. It unfortunately fell a victim to its intrepidity, as it was instantly shot.

The late Sir J. von Haast, who always believed in the existence of two species, stated that their habits differ in the manner of taking their prey; and his collector, the late Mr. Fuller, assured me that he had invariably found the large birds paired together in the plains, and the small ones in the bush.

Mr. Reischek, who has been collecting for eight years in every part of the country, declares that all the examples obtained by him in the North Island were undoubtedly referable to the smaller form. He has collected both species in the South Island, where he invariably found the Quail-Hawk on the plains and lower ranges of hills, and the Bush-Hawk near the summits of the wooded ranges. Even on the Hen Island (in the Hauraki Gulf) he found the latter species frequenting only the tops of the hills. Having studied the birds in their native haunts and shot and compared scores of specimens in every condition of plumage, he unhesitatingly affirms that the two forms are specifically distinct.

Mr. Smith, whose full notes on the subject were communicated by me to the Wellington Philosophical Society*, writes that having procured upwards of thirty specimens and worked out the subject for himself he is “decidedly in favour of the existence of two species.” He states that he had nestlings of both, and that those of H. ferox never attained to the size of H. novæ zealandiæ, although he kept them four months longer. In disposition, too, they differed, being fiercer and more untamable than the larger form.

Mr. Potts, who also recognizes two species, makes the following pertinent remarks:—

“If the cabinet ornithologist will not permit the fauna to possess two species, Falco ferox= F. brunnea must be the young state of Falco novæ zealandiæ. In this case we must try to believe that the greatest boldness and audacity in attacking, the greatest activity and swiftness of wing in pursuing, is exhibited by the Quail-Hawk before it has reached the adult state; neither may we have regard to the difference of size which specimens of either sex very often present.

“In November 1868 two sets of young Falcons were found on Lake Coleridge by Mr. Oakden’s shepherd; they were taken from the nesting-place and presented by Mr. Oakden to the Canterbury Acclimatization Society. He stated to the writer that the birds from one nest were readily distinguishable from those of the other nest even from the first. In size there was a marked difference,

* Trans. N.-Z. Instit. vol. xvi. pp. 318–322.

page 217 perhaps of about one-third, this contrast of size being maintained up to the time when some of the birds were shipped for export to England. The writer has seen numbers of both species, and has a series of many specimens that have been collected in the course of some years. In life, besides the marked difference in size and in robustness of frame, the Sparrow-Hawk (F. ferox) looks flatter about the head and carries the wings more prominently forward, this carriage giving the bird a less rounded appearance than is observable in the larger species. The smaller Falcon is more savage and resolute, and swifter in flight than its congener*.

“The Quail-Hawk exhibits great perseverance in pursuit of its prey, and almost unequalled audacity. I have known it pursue and strike down a large Spanish hen in a stockyard, not relinquishing its hold till killed with the blow of a stick. I have also known it pursue its prey into the inner room of a small cottage. When Quail-shooting, years ago, I have been on different occasions attended by this dauntless fowler, and have shot an individual in the act of pouncing on the flying Quail. I have seen a female of this species bear off a Tui trussed in her talons, and carry it some distance without a rest, the male bird apparently keeping watch and ward, soaring within easy distance. I remember also seeing a Quail escape the rapid pursuit of one of these Hawks by dropping like a stone, at the very instant that I expected to see it trussed up in the talons of its pursuer, so close was the chase before the Quail adopted its last resource for escape.”

On the breeding-habits of this species, the same observer has communicated the following particulars:—“At present it is in the ‘back country’ only that we can hope to find its breeding-place, which is usually in a ledge of rock commanding a prospect over some extent of country. Such an outlook gives an advantage of no little value, of which the Falcon is not slow to avail itself, should such a bird as a Tui or Pigeon appear in sight. Several of the breeding-places which we have had opportunities of examining have presented, in a remarkable degree, very similar conditions as regards situation. Amongst bold rocks, on the mountain-side, somewhat sheltered by a projecting or overhanging mass, appears to be its favourite site for rearing its young. The eggs very closely resemble those of Falco peregrinus of Europe in colour, size, and shape, are usually three in number, and are deposited on any decayed vegetable matter that wind or rain may have collected on the rocky ledge; for the efforts of this bird in the way of nest-building are of the feeblest description.” He gives October, November, and December as the breeding-months; and states that above the upper gorge of the Ashburton or Haketere River he discovered a nesting-place on the bare soil, sheltered by a large isolated rock. It contained two young Hawks covered with grey down; and the old birds were very bold in defence of their offspring.

From my brother, in Canterbury, I received a very handsome pair of eggs belonging to this species. Although taken from the same nest, they differ somewhat from each other, both in size and in the details of their colouring. One of them measures 2 inches in its longer axis, by 1·4 in diameter; is elliptical in form; mottled and blotched with dark brown on a lighter ground, and encircled at the larger end with a broad zone of very rich brown, varied with blotches of a paler or

* “We once had the gratiflcation of witnessing a most interosting trial of powers between a Sparrow-Hawk and the Brown Parrot (Nestor meridionalis). It was near the shore of that most romantic sheet of water Lake Mapourika. Standing just within the trees that fringe its margin, we heard the alarm-cry of the Kaka, and swiftly there came in sight, crossing a corner of the open space above the placid waters, two birds in active contest, the Parrot labouring heavily, wheeling and clumsily gliding aside, as its fierce pursuer drove at it with its talons. Then the rapid shifting of colours—now one saw the olive-brown of the Kaka’s back, then the blood-red markings of its soft under-plumage, almost hidden the next instant with the dark brown, blackish pinions of the Falcon. Borne downwards with the momentum of a lost stroke, the Hawk occupied some time in regaining ‘the air,’ whilst the terror-stricken Kaka hastened at its topmost speed towards the friendly cover of the wood. Once more its persevering enemy darted towards it with almost incredible swiftness, but the persecuted bird seemed to tumble amongst the trees that ensured its safety, quite regardless of appearances, so that it reached an asylum.”—Out in the Open.

page 218 reddish tint. The other is more broadly elliptical, measuring in its axis 1·9; diameter 1·45. It wants the well-defined dark zone of the former, the whole surface being more or less mottled and blotched with reddish brown on a paler ground.

The fine series of eggs of this species in the Canterbury Museum exhibit considerable individual variation. Two specimens, taken from the same nest, are more ovoido-conical than ordinary examples, having an appreciably smaller end. One of these is of a rich reddish brown towards the larger end, with darker blotches, and towards the other end pale brown, profusely sprinkled and mottled with dark reddish brown. The other is somewhat similar, but more blotched with dark brown in its median circumference, and with the ground-tint towards the smaller end reduced to a whitish cream-colour. In two other examples (also from one nest) the whole surface is reddish brown, stained, mottled, and blotched with darker brown; but one of them has the brown of a richer tint, and the mottled character more distinct.

Among the more recent additions to this collection there is a singular specimen of the egg of this species. It is very ovoido-elliptical in form, measuring 2·25 inches by 1·4, of a warm sepiabrown, prettily freckled and spotted, more thickly so in the middle, and confluent in a large patch at the larger end, with reddish brown varied with darker brown.

A very handsome specimen in my son’s collection (obtained at Oamaru) is broadly ovoido-conical, measuring 1·9 inch in length by 1·8 in breadth; it is of a rich cream-colour, thickly spotted, speckled, and freckled over the entire surface with dull reddish and chocolate-brown, these markings becoming entirely confluent at the larger end, which is entirely reddish brown smudged and daubed all over with chocolate-brown.

On the subject of the systematic position of this form, Dr. Finsch published the following remarks in the ‘Journal für Ornithologie’ for March 1872, which I have translated from the German:—“Falco novæ zealandiæ must be ranged among the Tree-Falcons, and follows next in order to Falco femoralis, having, like the latter, a long tail, which is only half covered by the wings…… Third primary longest; second shorter and somewhat longer than fourth; first and fifth equal. Tarsi covered in front with ten hexagonal scutes in double rows. Middle toe very long, being with the claw nearly as long as the leg; lateral toes equal, the points of their claws scarcely reaching to the base of the middle-toe claw. A subgeneric distinction appears justifiable.”

Mr. Sharpe, who contributed to ‘The Ibis’ (1873, p. 327) some critical notes on the subject, says:—“The New-Zealand Hieracideœ are rather abnormal members of the Falconine series; for it is rare to find a bird which, when young, is uniform above, and becomes barred when it is old; nor do they here closely coincide with their Australian congeners, excepting as regards their uniformly cloudy breasts when young.” He afterwards (Cat. Birds Brit. Mus. vol. i.) adopted Bonaparte’s genus for our bird, merely altering the termination, for classical accuracy, and making it Harpa.

In a communication to the Wellington Philosophical Society, in September 1878*, I took exception to the proposed generic separation of our bird from that inhabiting Australia; but I have lately gone into the question with Mr. Sharpe himself and have come to the conclusion that the distinction he makes is a reasonable one. I have accordingly adopted Harpa in lieu of Hieracidea, although my Plate of the species, which had already been worked off, bears the latter name, being that by which the bird has been hitherto known in the Colony.

Mr. Gurney in his ‘Diurnal Birds of Prey’ (p. 95) says, in reference to the smaller species:—“Mr. Sharpe applies to this Falcon the specific name of ‘australis’ proposed by MM. Hombron and

* Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. xi. pp. 366, 367.

page 219 Jacquinot in the ‘Annales des Sciences Naturelles,’ 2nd series, vol. xvi. p. 47; but, according to the letterpress of the ‘Voyage au Pôle Sud,’ Zool. vol. iii. p. 47, this name was given to the species inhabiting the Auckland Islands as well as New Zealand, which is H. novæ zealandiæ. I therefore agree with Dr. Buller in considering ‘Falco australis’ a synonym of the larger species.” He also questions Mr. Sharpe’s right to sink the specific name of brunnea, for he argues that “its having been proposed for a species of the genus Tinnunculus does not render its employment illegitimate when it is applied to a bird belonging to another and distinct genus.” As will be seen, however, I have followed Mr. Sharpe in this respect, so as to avoid all possible confusion of names in the future.

Mr. Gurney, after a careful study of the series of specimens in the Norwich Museum, wrote to me saying, “I am sure you are right about the distinctness of the two New-Zealand Hieracideœ”; but Professor Button, who still adheres to the contrary opinion, says in one of his last letters:—“I examine and measure carefully every specimen of H. novæ zealandiæ that comes in. So far as my present measurements go they indicate one species only.”

Before passing on, however, to my account of Harpa ferox, I will give here the results of a comparison of two carefully selected birds which I exhibited at a meeting of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, as recorded in the ‘Transactions of the New-Zealand Institute’:—

“Among Hawks generally—and the genus Hieracidea is no exception to the rule—the female is both larger and more handsomely marked than the male. Such being the case, let us for our present argument compare an adult female of Hieracidea novæ zealandiæ with an adult female of H. ferox. This will afford us the fairest mode of determining their relative size, and the best means of ascertaining any differences in the plumage of the two species.

“For this purpose I shall lay before the meeting two specimens selected from the type collection in the Canterbury Museum. The larger of these birds was obtained at Castle Hill, and the other on the Bealey—well known localities within this province—and both individuals proved on dissection to be females. The following is a comparative statement of their measurements:—

H. novæ zealandiæ. inches. H. ferox. inches.
Extreme length 19·5 16
Wing from flexure 12 10·5
Tail 8·5 7·75
Culmen (from cere to tip) 1 ·8
Tarsus 2·5 2·2
Middle toe and claw 2·8 2·25
Hind toe and claw 1·85 1·35

“It will be seen from this that Hieracidea novæ zealandiæ is a considerably larger bird than H. ferox. It has a proportionately powerful bill, while its legs and feet are decidedly more robust. In the colours and markings of the plumage there is a general similarity between them; but on a close comparison of the two examples exhibited it will be seen that H. novæ zealandiæ has the bars on the upper surface far more distinct and numerous besides being of a brighter rufous, the tail-coverts are more conspicuously marked, the bars on the tail are broader and whiter, and there is a larger amount of white on the throat, breast, and abdomen. In the present example of H. ferox the breast is much darker than in the other bird, the middle portion of each feather being occupied by a broad lanceolate mark of blackish brown, and there is less of the buff and rufous stains which impart so warm an effect to the breast of H. novæ zealandiæ. There are other minute points of difference, but these may be mere individual peculiarities. Enough has, however, been pointed out to show that the two species may be readily distinguished from each other; and this is the only point at issue.

“Of course the whole value of this evidence depends on the accuracy of the ‘sexing’ in each case. I think this, however, is placed beyond all doubt, for the larger bird was determined by Mr. J. D. Enys, who obtained it, while the smaller one was received at the Museum in the flesh, and was dissected by the taxidermist for the express purpose of ascertaining the sex. Mr. Fuller assures me that he was most careful in his examination, and that the specimen exhibited is to an absolute certainty a female.”

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Harpa Ferox.

  • Falco brunneus*, Gould, P. Z. S. 1837, p. 139.

  • Falco ferox, Peale, U. S. Expl. Exp. p. 67 (1848).

  • Hieracidea brunnea, Gray, Ibis, 1862, p. 215.

  • Harpe brunneus, Gray, Hand-1. of B. i. p. 22 (1869).

  • Hieravidea brunnea, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 6 (1873).

  • Harpa australis, Sharpe, Cat. Birds Brit. Mus. vol. i. p. 373 (1874).

Native names.

The same as those applied to the preceding species; but sometimes distinguished as Karewa rewa-tara. “Sparrow-Hawk” of the colonists.

♂ similis H. novæ zealandiæ, sed valdè minor: suprà magis cinereus: caudæ fasciis angustioribus et obscurioribus: subtùs pallidior, distinctiùs striatus et maculatus.

♂ maris staturam conspicuè superans.

Juv. a specie præcedente haud distinguendus, sed subtùs obscurior.

Adult male. Upper parts generally greyish black, darkest on the head and nape; shoulders, scapulars, and small wing-coverts narrowly barred with greyish white, the back and upper tail-coverts with small crescentic bands of rufous; throat yellowish white; ciliary bristles, ear-coverts, and the facial streak black; a line over each eye, and the sides of the neck, reddish brown, varied with fulvous and black; breast and sides fulvous, varied with reddish brown, and largely marked with black. On the breast each feather has a central dash of black; and on the sides these markings assume a triangular form, giving a spotted character to the surface of the plumage. The wing-feathers are marked, on their outer web, by narrow transverse bands of greyish white; and the tail-feathers, which are black with a purplish reflection, have a series of seven narrow white bars disunited at the shaft, and are tipped with rufous brown; axillars dark rufous brown, with a series of round white spots on each web; abdomen and vent pale fulvous; tibial plumes rufous, with black shaft-lines. Bill black, white at the base of lower mandible; irides very dark brown; cere, lores, and eyelids bright lemon-yellow, slightly tinged on the cere with green; legs and feet paler yellow and more tinged with green; claws black. Extreme length 16 inches; extent of wings 26·5; wing, from flexure, 9; tail 6·5; tarsus 2·25; middle toe and claw 2·3; hind toe and claw 1·3; bill, along the ridge ·85, along the edge of lower mandible 1.

Adult female. Differs from the male in its somewhat larger size and in the darker and richer colouring of its plumage; but in other respects the sexes are alike. Extreme length 16·75 inches; wing, from flexure, 10; tail 7·7; tarsus 2·4.

Young. The young of this species bears a general resemblance in its plumage to that of the preceding bird; but on a close comparison it will be observed that the brown of the underparts is darker, while the spotted markings on the sides are rather more conspicuous. The tibials, moreover, are of a brighter rufous, and are crossed with numerous arrow-shaped marks of brown.

Nestling. Covered with bluish-grey down; bill black; tarsi and toes leaden grey.

* Preoccupied by Bechstein, as mentioned on page 215.

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Var. Individuals exhibit the usual variation in the details of their markings. A young example from the Bay of Islands, which I had the opportunity of examining, was peculiar in being largely marked with pale fawncolour on the throat, breast, and abdomen, the lower part of the body being entirely of that colour.

A beautiful adult male specimen, from the Seventy-mile Bush, which came into my possession alive, differed slightly in its dimensions from that described above. Total length 15·5 inches; extent of wings 27·26; wing, from flexure, 9·5; tail 6·5. Another, from Wainuiomata, measured 16 inches in length; 28·5 in extent; tail 7.

Obs. This species closely resembles Harpa novæ zealandiæ, but is decidedly smaller, and has more slender legs and claws; otherwise it would perhaps be impossible to distinguish the two birds.

Although not so common as it formerly was, the Bush-Hawk is more frequently met with than its congener. The high wooded lands of the interior appear to constitute its favourite haunts; and on the southern mountain-ranges of the North Island, as well as in the subalpine woods of the Canterbury provincial district, I have found it comparatively abundant. The skin of a Hawk from Macquarie Island, sent to me by Mr. Bourne of the Otago Museum, proved on examination to be identical with this species.

It is a spirited little hunter, and subsists by the chase, its food consisting principally of mice and small birds. During the breeding-season it is more than usually bold and fearless, assailing with fury all intruders upon its nest or young. Some remarkable instances of its courage are mentioned by the late Sir J. von Haast in his interesting ‘Journal of Explorations in the Nelson Province’*.

“One day,” says this traveller, “walking along near the margin of the forest in Camp Valley, my hat was suddenly knocked off my head, and at the same time I heard a shrill cry. On looking up, I found it was one of these courageous little Sparrow-Hawks that had attacked me, and which, after sitting for a moment or two on a branch, again pounced on me; and, although I had a long compass-stick in my hand, with which I tried to knock it down, it repeated its attack several times…… We met with another instance of the courage of these birds in the Matakitaki Plains. A White Crane, of large size, standing in the water, was attacked by three of them at once; and they made frequent and well-concerted charges upon him from different quarters. It was admirable to behold the Kotuku (White Crane) with his head laid back, darting his pointed beak at his foes with the swiftness of an arrow, while they, with the utmost agility, avoided the spear of their strong adversary, whom at last they were fain to leave unmolested. Another day, in the same neighbourhood, a Cormorant (Graculus varius) passing near a tree on which two of these Sparrow-Hawks were sitting, was pounced upon by them and put to hasty flight with a shrill cry of terror, followed closely by his small but fierce foes; and all three were soon out of sight.”

The ordinary flight of this Hawk is direct and rapid; but it may sometimes be seen soaring high in the air, with the wings almost motionless and the tail spread into a broad fan. On the wing it often utters a prolonged petulant scream. Thia is the signal fora general outcry among the small birds within hearing; and the Tui and Korimako will often rise in large flights and follow him into the air. But the little Hawk, heeding not their menaces, pursues his course, and the excitement among the feathered fraternity gradually subsides till all is quiet again. The appearance of an Owl in the daytime produces a similar commotion among the small birds of the forest; and I have often been guided to the hiding-place of the unfortunate “Morepork” by the clamour of the persecuting mob.

Besides the prolonged shrill note which is generally uttered on the wing, this species has also a low peevish cry, exactly like the squealing of a young pig, which is peculiar, I believe, to the breeding-season.

* Report of a Topographical and Geological Exploration of the Western Districts of the Nelson Province, New Zealand, undertaken by the Provincial Government. Nelson: 1861.

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It is well known, as already stated, that birds are good natural barometers. The height to which they rise in the air renders them susceptible to the slightest change in the temperature of the atmosphere; and they are thus warned of approaching changes in the weather. Thus the continuous screaming of the Bush-Hawk is understood by the natives to be a sure indication of change; and they have a common saying “Ka tangi te Karearea &c.” (If the Karearea screams in fine weather, ‘twill soon rain; if in rainy weather,’ tis about to clear). Wilson, the American ornithologist, in treating of the Fish-Hawk (Pandion haliaëtus), states that when these birds are seen sailing high in air, with loud vociferations, “it is universally believed to prognosticate a change of weather, often a thunder-storm in a few hours.… On the faith of the certainty of these signs, the experienced coaster wisely prepares for the expected storm, and is rarely mistaken.” I have met with some remarkable instances of this unerring instinct in the species under consideration, and this, at times, when the glass gave no indication of a coming change.

The Bush-Hawk is generally met with on the outskirts of the woods or among the dead timber of native “wairengas,” these localities being favourable for mice, on which it largely subsists. I once observed a young male of this species playing in the air with mice, after the manner of a cat; and the sight was as pretty as it was novel. When I first observed the bird, he was perched on the naked limb of a tree, apparently engaged in examining his quarry. Then mounting in the air with a mouse in each of his talons, and expanding his wings and tail to their full extent, he dropped first one mouse and then the other, and instantly darted after them, catching them in his talons before they reached the ground, then mounting high in the air again to renew the feat. Ultimately losing one of the mice, he discontinued his play, and, returning to the tree, killed and devoured the remaining one.

Formerly this spirited little Hawk was very common in the Hutt Valley and in the wooded suburbs of Wellington; now it is rarely, if ever, seen there. The last instance I know of was in April 1883, when a Sparrow-Hawk, after sailing inquisitively over the city and hovering for a time above the Colonial Museum—uttering all the time its shrill cry, as if in defiance of taxidermists and naturalists in general—eventually settled in the blue-gums in my garden, where it remained for half an hour; and then, after another rapid survey of the town, disappeared over the hills in the direction of Makara. A few years more, and the clarion cry of this fierce little hunter will be a thing of the past! Its appearance on this occasion was quite unusual, for my gardener, who is an old Wellington settler, declared he had not seen or heard the bird for more than ten years before.

I may mention that this species, unlike the generality of Hawks (so far as I am aware), may be attracted by an imitation of its cry. Riding along alone one fine autumn evening through the country at the northern end of Lake Taupo, on my way to Ohinemutu, I saw what appeared to be a Bush-Hawk come out of the woods at some distance and descend into an old or deserted Maori garden. By way of experiment I imitated the clamorous cry of this bird when on the wing; and in a few minutes the Hawk (a fine young male) came sailing up to me and performed several circuits in the air immediately overhead, and then took up his station on the dry limb of a tree close by the road, where he remained till I was out of sight.

The natives state that this little Hawk usually builds its nest in a bunch of puwharawhara, often at a great elevation from the ground, forming it rudely of loose materials; that it lays generally two, but sometimes three eggs; and that the young birds remain on the tree for several days after quitting the nest. The puwharawhara (Astelia cunninghamii) is a parasitical plant, with short, thickly set flag-leaves, radiating upwards from a clump of roots by which it adheres firmly to the parent tree. These plants, which often attain a circumference of many feet, are very common on the forks and naked branches of aged or withered trees on the outskirts of the forest, a single tree sometimes supporting twenty or more of them. A better situation for a Hawk’s nest than the centre of one of these plants could hardly be selected, combining as it does the requisites of warmth, security, page 223 and shelter; and the Bush-Hawk seems to be instinctively aware of this. Some years ago I was informed that a pair of these birds had bred for several successive seasons in a nest placed as described, and situated in the high fork of a dead kahikatea tree near the Horowhenua Lake. Having waited for the breeding-season, I offered the natives a half-sovereign each for the eggs; but, although excellent climbers, they failed in all their attempts to reach the nest. They afterwards observed the Hawks carrying mice, lizards, and small birds to their young; and the latter, on quitting the nest, were shot and destroyed. When I last visited the spot the old kahikatea was still standing, and the bunch of withered Astelia, which had cradled several successive broods, was still clinging to the tree; but the persecuted Hawks had quitted their exposed eyrie for some more secure retreat.

In the summer, however, of 1867, during a visit to Taupo, I was fortunate enough to find the nest of this species. We had fixed our bivouac for the night on the banks of the Waitangi Creek, only a few miles from the base of the grand snow-capped Ruapehu. Our native companion soon detected the old Hawks carrying prey to their young, and on the following morning he discovered the nest*. It was situated on the ground, under cover of a block of trachyte, which cropped out of the side of the hill. There had been no attempt to form a proper nest; but the ground was covered with the feathers of birds (almost entirely those of the Ground-Lark) on which the young Hawks had been fed. The latter were three in number, of different sizes, the largest being apparently three weeks old, and the smallest scarcely a fortnight. They were extremely savage, striking vigorously with their sharp talons and uttering a peculiar scream. While we were engaged in securing them in a basket the old birds were flying to and fro, occasionally dashing up to within a few feet of us, and then off again at a sharp angle, alighting at intervals, for a few moments only, on the rugged points of rock above us, but never uttering a sound. They were in perfect plumage; and when they occasionally poised their bodies overhead, with outspread wings and tail, they presented a very beautiful appearance. During our journey of forty miles through the bush, the gun supplied the young Hawks with a sufficiency of food; but they were very voracious, two large Pigeons per diem being scarcely enough to appease their joint appetites. Fifty miles more by canoe, and about forty on horseback, brought the captives to their destination, when they were placed in a compartment of the aviary. They continued to be very vicious, punishing each other severely with their claws. The youngest one was an object of constant persecution, and ultimately succumbed to a broken back. A small tame Sea-Gull that had unwittingly wandered into the aviary, through an open doorway, was instantly pounced on, although the young Hawks, in their unfledged condition, could only move by hopping along the ground. In about three weeks these birds (which proved to be male and female) had fully assumed the dark plumage; and for about two months after they were very clamorous, especially during wet or gloomy weather. By degrees they became less noisy, till at length they were perfectly silent and moody, never uttering a sound for weeks together, with the exception of a peculiar squeal when they were fighting. A more quarrelsome couple never existed. The female, being the larger and stronger bird, generally came off best, leaving the male severely punished about the head. At the end of six months the climax was reached by her actually killing and devouring her mate. I found the aviary strewn with feathers, and the skeleton of the poor victim picked clean! The surviving bird underwent a partial moult in the month of September following, and the plumage began to assume a spotted character. The legs also became slightly tinged with yellow. By the beginning of March in the following year she had acquired the full adult plumage, except that the throat and spots on the sides were not so light as in more mature examples. The legs had changed to a pale greenish yellow, and the irides from lustrous black to a dark brown colour—the cere retaining its pale blue tint, but with indications of a change to yellow. After two months’ absence I

* Captain Mair, writing to me in February 1880, says:-“The Sparrow-Hawks still build at the cliff on the Waitangi Stream where we obtained our young birds in 1867.”

page 224 again saw the bird, and noticed that the lores were becoming tinged with yellow, while the colour of the legs had deepened. Unfortunately, at this stage she was found dead on the floor of the aviary; and on dissection I found in the cavity of the back an amazing number of parasitical worms, many of them measuring from six to eight inches in length. A wild specimen, which I afterwards examined, was similarly afflicted.

The result of my observations is, that the Bush-Hawk attains the mature livery during the second year, the plumage being liable to some slight variations as the bird gets older. The irides had undergone very little perceptible change at the time of the bird’s death, but the eyes were large and somewhat sparkling.

This bird, a stranger to liberty from the very nest, had become quite attached to its aviary. It never attempted to escape when the door was accidentally left open; and on one occasion when it did get out it remained perched on the dome of its house, and voluntarily re-entered it. It partook readily of all kinds of meat, cooked or raw, although preferring the latter. Beef, pork, or mutton were alike acceptable; but a preference was always shown for birds. On a live bird being offered to it, the Hawk would eye its quarry intently for a short time and then make a sudden swoop upon it, seizing with the talons of one or both feet, according to the size and strength of the object. It would then proceed cautiously to destroy life by crushing the head of its victim in its powerful beak, only relaxing its hold when life was quite extinct. While thus employed, its eyes were full of animation, and its whole body quivered with excitement.

A pair of these birds bred for two successive seasons on a rocky crag at Niho-o-te-kiore. They guarded their nest with great vigilance, fiercely attacking all intruders; and on both occasions brought up their brood in safety.

The description of the male is taken from a fine specimen shot in the Karori Hills, near Wellington, in 1859, and of which I sent, at the time, a descriptive notice to the Linnean Society. Its much smaller size led me to suppose that it was distinct from Harpa novce zealandice; and it was not then known that Mr. Gould’s H. brunnea was founded on an immature example. That such was really the case is sufficiently proved by the account given in the foregoing pages, and previously recorded in the Transactions of the New-Zealand Institute (1868, vol. i. p. 106).

The eggs resemble those of H. novce zealandice, but are somewhat smaller and lighter in colour. There are three examples in the Canterbury Museum, differing in the details of their colouring; but they may be defined as yellowish brown, stained and mottled with reddish brown, and having a rather soiled appearance. In one of them the blotched character is more apparent at the smaller end; in another it is equally dispersed, while in the third the dark brown markings present a smudgy character over the whole surface. They measure 1·9 inch in length by 1·45 in breadth.

In the same fine collection there is a beautiful specimen of the Bush-Hawk’s egg from the Chatham Islands. It is of a rich or warm reddish brown, freckled and slightly smudged with darker brown, presenting a close resemblance to the Merlin’s egg, broadly ovoido-conical in form, and measuring 1·95 inch by 1·5 inch There is another egg of the same species, from Paringa River (South Westland), differing very perceptibly in being of a dull cream-colour, freckled and stained all over with brown. It is of the same size as the Chatham-Islands specimen, but is slightly more oval in form.

A specimen brought by Mr. Reischek from Martin’s Bay, in the South Island, measures 1·8 inch in Iength by 1·5 in breadth, being of a regular ovoid form; the whole surface is pale reddish brown, blackish brown, and cream-colour mixed together in an irregular way, being decidedly darker at the larger end, and the light markings at the smaller end having the appearance of abrasions or scratches on the surface. The nest from which it was taken was placed in the leafy crown of a high forest tree.