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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.


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The first published list of the birds of New Zealand was drawn up by the late Mr. G. R. Gray of the British Museum, and appeared in 1843 in the Appendix to ‘Dieffenbach’s Travels.’ This enumeration contained the names of eighty-four recorded species; but many of these were of doubtful authority, and have since been omitted. In the following year the same industrious ornithologist, in the ‘Voyage of H.M.SS. Erebus and Terror,’ produced a more complete list, embracing the birds of New Zealand and the neighbouring islands, accompanied by short specific characters, and illustrated by twenty-nine coloured figures, many of them of life-size. In July 1862 he published in ‘The Ibis’ a revision of this synopsis, with the newly-recorded species added, including, moreover, the birds inhabiting the Norfolk, Phillip, Middleton’s, Lord Howe’s, Macaulay’s, and Nepean Islands. This enumeration contained altogether 173 species, of which 122 were said to occur in New Zealand and the Chatham Islands. In the ‘Essay on the Ornithology of New Zealand,’ written by myself at the request of the Exhibition Commissioners, in 1865, and afterwards published by the New-Zealand Institute*, eleven additional species were recorded; and in a paper which I communicated to the Wellington Philosophical Society in August 1868 I gave the names of fourteen more. A few other species have since been added to the list; while, on the other hand, it has been found necessary to strike out several which had been admitted on insufficient evidence.

My first edition of the present work, published in 1873, contained descriptions of 147 species; and in my ‘Manual of the Birds of New Zealand,’ prepared at the request of the Colonial Government in 1882, twenty-nine more species were added to the list. The present edition does not profess to add many more to the number; but the classification and nomenclature have been revised, and a far more complete history has been given of each species than was possible before, seeing that I have, for a further period of fourteen years, enjoyed favourable opportunities for becoming better acquainted with the subject.

In the Introduction to the former edition it was stated that I had considered it necessary to omit the following species, there being no satisfactory evidence of their having occurred in New Zealand, viz.:— Halcyon cinnamomina, Anthochœra carunculata, Gerygone igata, Rhipidura motacilloides, Aplonis zealandicus, A. caledonicus, Ortygometra fluminea, O. crex, Nesonetta aucklandica, Anous stolidus, Procellaria incerta, P. mollis, Dysporus piscator, Phalacrocorax sulcirostris, and Aptenodytes pennantii. Further research has shown that Gerygone igata is only a synonym of G. flaviventris;

* Trans. N.-Z. Instit. 1868, vol. i.

Ibid. pp. 105–112.

page xiv that Nesonetta aucklandicaAuckland Is. duck belongs legitimately to our list; and that Anthochœra (rectius Acanthochœra) carunculata and Aptenodytes pennantii (= A. longirostris), being of occasional occurrence, have now an undoubted claim to a place in our recognized Avifauna.

I ought perhaps here to refer to a species mentioned in the former Introduction as a newly-discovered addition to the New-Zealand Avifauna, but now omitted from our list. It was introduced by me in the following terms:—“In a country possessing such forms as NotornisMo[unclear: h]o and PorphyrioPukeko we might naturally look for the occurrence also of Tribonyx. Both of the latter are known to have a wide geographic range, while Notornis, which is a strictly local form, appears to combine in some measure the characters of each, being allied to Porphyrio in the form of its bill and in its general colouring, and to Tribonyx in the structure of its feet; while in the feebleness of its wings and the structure of its tail it differs from both. The recent discovery, therefore, in the South Island, of an example of Tribonyx mortierip. 84. vol II which has been brought to England, and is now living in the Zoological Society’s Gardens, is a very interesting fact in geographic natural history.

“The former acquisition by the Society of a similar bird, in July 1867, led to the discovery by Dr. Sclater that the species figured and described by Mr. Gould in his ‘Birds of Australia’ under that name was not the true Tribonyx mortieri of Du Bus (Bull. Acad. Sc. Brux. vii. p. 214), but a distinct bird, characterized by its smaller size and by the absence of white stripes on the wing-coverts. Dr. Sclater accordingly proposed the name of Tribonyx gouldi for the latter species (Ann. N. H. 1867, xx. p. 122), and gave the following distinguishing characters for T. mortieri:—‘Major; alis albo striatis; plaga magna hypochondriali alba.’

“The bird now in the ‘Gardens’ was brought home (with other birds from New Zealand) by Mr. Richard Bills, and purchased by the Society on the 21st October, 1872. I am informed by the late owner that it was captured on the shores of Lake Waihora, in the Province of Otago, by a party of men who hunted it down with dogs. When first brought to him at Dunedin it was very wild and shy; but it soon became reconciled to confinement, and when he exhibited the bird to me in London it was perfectly tame and would feed from the hand”*.

Professor Hutton, having made the necessary inquiries on the spot, satisfied himself that the story was a pure invention, and that the dealer had purchased the bird in Dunedin, where it had doubtless been brought from Australia.

After the appearance of my first edition Dr. Otto Finsch, who had previously written several papers on the subject, contributed to the ‘Journal für Ornithologie’ (1874, p. 107) an admirable article entitled “Zusätze und Berichtigungen zur Revision der Vögel Neuseelands,” which every student ought to consult.

* Descr. ♀. Crown and sides of the head, nape, hind neck, back, and rump brownish olive, washed more or less with chestnut; wing-coverts greyish olive, shading into brown, each feather with a white streak down the centre; throat, fore neck, breast, and sides of the body dark ashy grey, passing into slaty black on the abdomen and under tail-coverts, where the plumage is slightly tipped or freckled with grey; the overlapping feathers on the flanks pure white in their apical portion, forming a conspicuous mark on each side of the body; under wing-coverts dull blackish brown, and all largely tipped with white; quills blackish brown, the secondaries brownish olive on their outer webs; tail-feathers black, the middle ones tinged with brown on their outer margins. Irides bright crimson, with a paler rim surrounding the pupil; bill greenish yellow, lighter towards the tip; legs and feet pale plumbeous tinged with yellow, the claws black. Total length 16·5 inches; extent of wing 25; wing, from flexure, 8; tail 4·5; bill, along the ridge 1·5, along the edge of lower mandible 1·4; tarsus 2·75; middle toe and claw 3·25; hind toe and claw 1·1.”

page xv

In 1875 there appeared a new edition of the ‘Voyage of the Erebus and Terror,’ with an Appendix from the pen of Mr. R. Bowdler Sharpe, containing valuable notes on many of the species, and giving illustrations of some birds not figured in the earlier issue.

The most recent work containing notices of New-Zealand birds is Mr. Seebohm’s on ‘The Geographical Distribution of the Charadriidae’*, where there is an excellent plate by Keulemans representing Charadrius obscurus in full summer plumage.

With regard to the changes I found it necessary, in my first edition, to make in the generally accepted nomenclature, my explanation was a simple one. While fully admitting the advantages of the rule “quieta non movers” in the case of names which had obtained universal currency, I considered it better, in undertaking a general revision of the whole subject, to apply the strict principle of modern nomenclature, and, in all cases where the subject was free from doubt, to adopt the oldest admissible title. I knew that we could not look for any finality in the generic appellations so long as the science was a progressive one; but I was desirous of giving something like fixity and permanence to the specific names; and with this view I endeavoured, so far as I could, to rectify all existing errors–altering the names entirely in cases where it appeared to me that wrong ones had hitherto been employed, and correcting obvious classical defects in others–substituting, for example, Hymenolaimus for Hymenolaimus, and antipodum for antipodes. In no instance did I introduce any change without very careful consideration and research; and the fact that the authorities in the British Museum, adopted, with scarcely a single exception, my corrections and identifications in the classification of the New-Zealand birds in the national collection, may, I think, be accepted as a proof that I exercised proper judgment in this respect.

In the present edition some other corrections of a trivial kind have been made in the nomenclature, and in every instance I have given what I venture to think are sufficient reasons for the proposed changes. For example, no ornithological student will object to the rectification of albicilla into albicapilla, or the substitution of Limosa novae zealandiae for the museum name of Limosa baueri, originally published without any description.

In my classification I have departed considerably from the system followed in my first edition. This was inevitable in order to keep pace with the progress of Ornithological science. I may state that I have in general, and as far as practicable, adhered to the scheme of arrangement adopted in 1883 by a Committee of the British Ornithologists’ Union for the classification of the birds of Great Britain. But wherever I have thought it necessary to make any alteration in the arrangement of the Ordinal groups, I have not hesitated to do so. For example, I have made the Orders Gallinæ and Columbæ follow Accipitres instead of being placed after Steganopodes, as I consider this an equally natural arrangement and better suited to the proposed division of my work into two volumes, the first closing with the last-mentioned Order, and the second opening with the Limicolæ. I shall treat the Order

* Doubtless it is easy enough to discover “blunders and omissions” in any book that professes to treat exhaustively of the birds of a particular country, or the members of any special group or division; but Mr. Seebohm seems to have been exceptionally unfortunate in his references to New-Zealand species. He says of Charadrius obscurusPlover that “it breeds in the mountains, descending to the coast in winter;” be describes Anarhynchus frontalis as an “inland species;” and he confounds Himantopus novœ zealadia in winter plumage with the Australian Stilt under the novel title of “Himantopus leucocephalus picatus.” It is not easy, however, to find fault with an author who fairly and openly says:–“If I have criticised the work of my fellow ornithologists too severely, I ask their pardon and hope that they will pay me back in my own coin by correcting my blunders with an unsparing hand.”

page xvi Gaviæ as naturally coming next, instead of being divorced by the interposition of Pygopodes, as proposed by the B.O.U. Committee*. Grallæ, Herodiones, Steganopodes, and Tubinares will then follow in the order named; and I shall place Pygopodes after Anseres, closing the great Carinate division with the specialized group of Impennes or Penguins. After that, and concluding the work, will come a history of the Ratite forms in New Zealand (the various species of Apteryx), interesting not only on account of their low development but, as already explained, in respect of their relation to the extinct Struthiones.

In my arrangement of the genera composing the great Order of Passeres I have for the most part followed the now well-beaten track of modern systematists; but in some instances I have ventured to depart from it, giving my reasons in every case. For example, I have followed Professors Parker and Newton in placing the Corvidae at the head of the Order instead of the Turdidae, and I have accordingly commenced my history of our Avifauna with an account of the New-Zealand Crow. It must be acknowledged, however, that Glaucopis, instead of being a typical Crow, betrays certain strongly aberrant characters, and it is possible that we may hereafter have to alter its exact location. In the present unsettled state of Ornithological nomenclature I am anxious to avoid, as far as possible, the multiplication of names; but Glaucopis may prove to be one of those abnormal Antipodean forms of a very ancient fauna—generalized types though existing in a specialized form—which have no analogues or representatives in the Northern Hemisphere. In this event it must ultimately become the type of a new Family, to which the name of Glaucopididœ might be appropriately applied. At page 30 I have given my reasons for removing our two species of Thrush from the typical Turdidae and placing them in a new Family under the name of Turnagridae. So far, however, as the New-Zealand Ornis is concerned, alterations of this kind will not affect the generic arrangement of the groups in their mutual relation to one another.

But, as remarked in my former Introduction, any system of classification, however excellent in itself, or ably conceived and elaborated, must of necessity be a provisional or tentative one, so long as our knowledge of the structural character and natural affinities of the vast majority of species continues so imperfect as it confessedly is at present. When the anatomy of every known bird on the face of the globe has been as fully investigated as that of the Rock-Dove (Columba livia) was by the late Professor Macgillivray, and its life-history becomes as thoroughly known, then, but not till then, will it be possible to devise a system of arrangement absolutely true to nature. The aim and purpose of all classification being to aid the memory in its effort to comprehend and master the complex and ever varied productions of nature, or, in other words, to assist the mind by a ready association of ideas

* “Prof. Parker long ago observed (Trans. Z.S.v.p.150) that characters exhibited by Gulls when young, but lost by them when adult, are found in certain Plovers at all ages, and hence it would appear that the Gavioe; are but more advanced Limicoloe. The Limicolino genera Dromas and Chionis have many points of resemblance to the Laridoe; and on the whole the proper inforence would seem to be that the Limicoloe, or something very like them, form the parent-stock whence have descended the Gavioe, from which, or from their ancestral forms, the Alcidoe have proceeded as a degenerate branch.”—Enc. Brit. vol. xviii. p. 45.

Professor Newton, in his able article “Ornithology” in the ‘Encyelopaedia Britannica,” in treating of the recent and existing forms of toothless Ratitae, says:—“Some systematists think there can be little question of the Struthiones being the most specialized and therefore probably the highest type of these Orders, and the present writer is rather inclined to agree with them. Nevertheless the formation of the bill in the Apteryges is quite unique in the whole Class, and indicates therefore an extraordinary amount of specialization. Their functionless wings, however, point to their being a degraded form, though in this matter they are not much worse than the Megistanes, and far above the Immanes—some of which at least appear to have been absolutely wingless, and were thus the only members of the Class possessing but a single pair of limbs.”

page xvii in the grand study of Creation, it follows that the method of arrangement which best subserves this practical end is the right one to adopt. But we must be content to see our carefully elaborated systems swept away one after another, till, perhaps, in the distant future some gifted mind shall arise, who, with the constructive energy of a second Cuvier, may be able to fashion, from the more complete materials at his command, a system perfect in all its parts and destined to endure till time shall be no more.

In portraying the manners and habits of the various species I have been careful to omit nothing that seemed calculated to elucidate their natural history. It has been said that a zoologist cannot be too exact in recording dates and other apparently trivial circumstances in the course of his observations, and that it is better to err on the side of minuteness than of vagueness, because an observer is scarcely competent to determine how far an attendant circumstance, trivial in itself, may afterwards be found to enhance the value of a recorded fact in science when viewed in relation to other facts or observations. It must be borne in mind, however, that we are as yet only imperfectly acquainted with many of the native species, and that probably, in the history of all that are here treated of, new facts or new features of character will hereafter come to light. It is extremely difficult to cultivate an intimate acquaintance with birds that are naturally shy and recluse, and especially so in a thinly peopled country, where they rarely cross the path of man and must be assiduously sought for in bush, swamp, and jungle. While relying generally on my own opportunities for observation, I have not failed to avail myself of the kind assistance of others; and in the body of the work numerous acknowledgments will be found of information furnished by correspondents in various parts of the country, who, amid the multifarious duties and engagements of a colonial life, have found time to take notice of the natural objects around them.

Before passing on to a consideration of the existing Avifauna it may be useful to take a rapid survey of the Families and Genera known to us by their fossil remains as having formerly inhabited New Zealand, or roamed over the continent of which these islands are the only remnants at the present day. These ornithic relics of a bygone time have been interpreted, restored, and classified with marvellous felicity by Professor Sir Richard Owen in his ‘Memoirs of the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand’*. These memoirs had appeared, from time to time, since the year 1838, in successive Parts of the ‘Transactions of the Zoological Society of London,’ and following the example of Baron Cuvier, who thus reprinted his numerous detached papers under the title of ‘Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles de Quadrupédes,’ the venerable Professor has collected his many exhaustive Memoirs and combined them with additional matter and general remarks in two splendid volumes, replete with illustrations. In the prospectus announcing this work he did me the great honour to say that “his purpose, long entertained, was strengthened by the appearance and favourable reception of an excellent and comprehensive work on the existing Birds of New Zealand, to which the present Volumes may be deemed complementary.” The volumes, thus modestly announced, commence with an Introductory Notice of the circumstances which led to the discovery and restoration of the extinct Avifauna of New Zealand; the descriptions which follow are accompanied by illustrations of the natural size of the fossils, together with reduced views of the restored skeletons on which the several genera and species have been founded; the whole is preceded by an illustrated Anatomy of the existing wingless bird (Apteryx australis). which, as the Professor states, is the nearest ally of the

* Quarto, 1878, 2 vols.

page xviii extinct Dinornis, and is followed by notices of the food, footprints, nests, and eggs of the Moas, the Maori traditions relating to these gigantic birds, the causes and probable period of their extirpation, and a speculation on the conditions influencing the atrophy of the wings in flightless birds—to all of which the learned author has appended Supplementary Memoirs on the Dodo, Solitaire, and Great Auk, with evidences of other extinct birds in Australia and Great Britain.