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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Anas Superciliosa. — (Grey Duck.)

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Anas Superciliosa.
(Grey Duck.)

  • Supercilious Duck, Lath. Gen. Syn. iii. pt. 2, p. 497 (1785).

  • Anas superciliosa, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 537 (1788, ex Lath.).

  • Anas leucophrys, Forster, Descr. Anim. p. 93 (1844).

  • Anas mülleri, Bonap. C. R. xliii. p. 649 (1856).

Native names.—Parera and Maunu (Taupo).

Ad. suprà brunneus, plumis omnibus fulvescente marginatis, pilei et colli postici plumis quasi striatis: lineâ superciliari distinctâ fulvescenti-albâ, alterâ inferiore brunneâ a summâ maxillâ per oculum post regionem paroticam ductâ: facie reliquâ, et gutture toto. fulvescenti-albis, lineâ faciali indistinctiore a basi maxillæ versus regionem paroticam, hâc et colli lateribus brunneo striatis: tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus et eodem modo limbatis, majoribus velutino-nigro terminatis: remigibus brunneis, secundariis extùs lætè purpurascenti-viridibus, versus apicem velutino-nigris, angustè albo terminatis: caudâ brunneâ, rectricibus angustè fulvo marginatis: corpore reliquo subtùs pallidiùs brunneo, latè fulvescente marginatis, quasi marmoratis; subalaribus albis: rostro plumbeo, mandibulâ brunnescente: pedibus flavicanti-brunneis: iride rufescenti-brunneâ.

Adult. Top of the head and a broad streak from the base of the upper mandible through the eyes brownish black, the former slightly marked with grey; a narrow streak from the forehead over the eyes, the cheeks and the whole of the throat yellowish white, sometimes tinged with rufous; from the gape, or angles of the mouth, and crossing the cheeks a mottled streak of very dark brown; ear-coverts and sides of the neck greyish brown, mottled or striated with yellowish white; general upper surface blackish brown, each feather margined more or less distinctly with fulvous white, and those composing the mantle having a strong coppery hue; fore neck, breast, and underparts greyish brown, varied with fulvous white; inner lining of wings and axillary plumes pure white; sides of the body and flanks blackish brown, each feather margined with dull fulvous white; primary quills dark velvety brown on their upper surface, greyish underneath; speculum rich glossy green, bounded on both sides with velvety black; the secondaries with a narrow terminal edge of white, and of those overlapping the speculum the whole of the inner webs deep velvety black; the superior wing-coverts dark brown, with a broad edging of velvety black, below which there is a line of yellowish white. Irides reddish brown; bill bluish lead-colour, the nail black, and the lower mandible tinged with brown; legs yellowish brown, the webs darker. Length 20 inches; wing, from flexure, 16; tail 2·5; bill, along the ridge 2, along the edge of lower mandible 2·25; tarsus 1·5; middle toe and claw 2·25.

Young. General plumage paler than in the adult; the facial streaks, and the throat, washed with fulvous brown; the underparts tinged with rufous brown.

Nestling. Upper parts dark olive-brown, with produced hair-like filaments of paler brown; sides of the head and underparts of the body pale yellowish brown, lightest on the abdomen; from the base of the bill, on each side, a dark band passes beyond the eye, and another in a curve below it; there are markings of fulvous white on the edges of the wings; and on each side of the back there are two irregular spots of the same, about an inch apart. Irides black; bill and legs plumbeous, the nail of the former brown.

Varieties. Slight differences are observable in the plumage of fully adult birds; and a specimen which I obtained at Manawatu in the winter of 1864 was very curiously marked on the breast, each feather having a crescentic page 252 or horse-shoe band of yellowish white, similar to the markings on the breast of the Shoveller. There is also a manifest difference in the size of the birds from different localities.

A specimen in my collection (marked ♀) has the whole of the face and throat stained, and the white of the underparts strongly suffused, with chestnut-brown; the speculum on the wing indistinct, the feathers being outwardly edged with brown.

An example obtained from the Wairarapa Lake, and presented by me to the Colonial Museum, is much larger than ordinary examples, and presents some peculiar markings in the plumage. There is a broad irregular patch of white on the lower part of the fore neck; the speculum on the wings is nearly obliterated, the secondaries being dull white on their outer webs, while their coverts have a broad terminal band of pale brown and white. The two outer primaries in one wing, and the second and third in the other, are entirely white. There are likewise some eccentric markings on the feathers of the crop and sides of the breast. These individual peculiarities may be due to hybridism, possibly the result of a cross with the Domestic Duck.

Another, which I likewise presented to the Colonial Museum, is a partial albino received from Marl-borough. In this specimen the primaries and secondaries in both wings are almost entirely white in their apical portion; a broad band of white meets the upper margin of the speculum; the wing-coverts are irregularly barred with white, and some of the scapulars are entirely white.

My eldest son, during a shooting-excursion to Ngapuke, in the Hawke’s Bay district, saw on several occasions a pure albino among several hundred of the Grey Duck, and remarked on its large size and swiftness of wing. It was very shy and he was unable to get a shot at it.

Obs. The sexes are alike in plumage, but differ slightly in size. In well-plumaged birds the light margins on the wing-coverts form crescentic loops, like fine network.

Hybrid. More recently (in March 1885) my son shot at Wainuiomata, near Wellington harbour, what is undoubtedly a hybrid. It is a fine bird, and weighed in the flesh 3 lb. 9 oz.

This specimen combines in a very pronounced way the characters of the two species to which it owes its parentage. On dissection it proved to be a female. Careful measurements before the bird was skinned gave the following result:—Extreme length 24·5 inches; tail 4; bill, along the ridge 2, along the edge of lower mandible 2·25; tarsus 1·75; middle toe and claw 2·5. The crop was widely distended with the seed-vessels of some cyperaceous plant. The following is a description of the plumage:—Head, neck, and breast the same as in the male parent bird, except that there is a broad patch of pure white on the chin, and another, two inches wide, crossing the fore neck immediately above the breast; underparts generally uniform brownish black; small wing-coverts exactly as in the parent bird, with marginal crescents; speculum broad and black with steel-blue reflections at the base, margined on both sides with white, which is continued on the secondaries, being more or less mixed with grey; quills black, the first two in both wings white; lining of wings white; mantle, back, rump, and upper tail-coverts black, the whole of the back having a bluish gloss; tail-feathers brownish black; bill (which is large and broad like that of the Domestic Duck) greyish black, with a darker nail; under mandible dull yellow marked with brown; legs and feet dull orange-yellow, the inter-digital webs brownish black, marked irregularly with bright yellow towards the outer edge, as so commonly seen in the domestic bird.

When shot it was in association with a male of Anas superciliosa and two well-grown young birds.

Common in every part of our country, the Grey Duck ranges over the whole of Australia as well, and is found also in some of the Polynesian islands. I found it extremely abundant at the Chatham Islands; and it is said to occur on Norfolk Island also*.

* In my former edition I treated Anas sandwichensis (Bonap. C. R. xliii. p. 649, sine diag.) as a synonym of this species; and in my Introduction to the present work (page lvi) I have extended the range of our bird accordingly. But my attention has since been directed to Dr. Sclater’s more recent differentiation of that species under the name of Anas wyvilliana (Proc. Zool. Soc. 1878, p. 350).

Mr. Layard writes of Anas superciliosa (Ibis, 1882, p. 537):—“This is the common Duck of the country (in New Caledonia), being found on all our marshes and rivers when not too much persecuted by sportsmen and pot-hunters; it also frequents the sea-shore and islands within the circling reef. It breeds inland, generally on the mountains covered with niaoulie-forest near some damp spot, either a rivulet of water or a little swamp, but is especially careful to place its rough loose nest above the reach of a chance inundation.”

page 253

It is deservedly in high estimation for the table, and may be regarded as perhaps the most valuable of our indigenous birds. It is less plentiful than it formerly was, which is no doubt partly attributable to the increased traffic on our rivers, but is chiefly owing to the indiscriminate use of the gun. Happily, however, the Colonial Legislature has undertaken the care of this among other native species, and the Wild-Birds Protection Act now makes it a punishable offence to shoot or trap these birds during certain months of the year.

It frequents rivers, bush-creeks, lagoons, and swamps, often consorting in large flocks, but more generally associating in parties of from three to seven. In some localities it affords very good shooting; and being seminocturnal in its habits, a clear moonlight night is considered by many the best time for this kind of sport. The birds on reaching their feeding-ground make a circuit in the air to reconnoitre, and then descend in an oblique direction, the rapid vibration of their wings producing a whistling sound, very familiar and pleasant to the ear of a sportsman.

In its habits, the Grey Duck differs in no respect from the other members of its group. In the water it swims low, with the neck erect and the head gently swayed to and fro; when at rest it either floats on the surface, with the head drawn closely in, or it reposes on the bank very near to the water’s edge, often selecting a jutting point of land, as affording a more unobstructed view and less danger of surprise; and when the banks are soft and muddy it takes up its station on a log of wood, bare rock, or other projecting object. Naturally of a wild disposition, the attempts to domesticate this bird, even when it is taken from the nest and reared by hand, generally end in failure—although I have met with one or two striking instances to the contrary, and with one case of its crossing, in captivity, with the Domestic Duck.

Regarded as an article of food, the Grey Duck is in its prime during the autumn and commencement of winter; but the quality of the game differs according to the locality, those from the lakes and rivers of the interior having a richer flavour as a rule than birds living in the vicinity of the seashore, where the food is coarser.

In many of our harbours and estuaries, when the tide has ebbed and the exposed sandy spits run far out into the rippling waters, flocks of Grey Duck may be seen resting there in long straggling lines, with here and there, in the very midst of them, a Sea-Gull displaying his snow-white head and breast, or a Black Shag spreading his wings, like funereal banners, to dry in the morning air. On these occasions a person on horseback, or even on foot, if not carrying a gun, may often come within easy range of them; but it is notorious that, except in the more unfrequented parts of the country, the Grey Duck has learnt from cruel experience to detect the presence of fire-arms, and, unless under cover, a sportsman has no chance whatever of getting within shot-range. The same remark applies to other Ducks, but particularly to this species and to Casarca variegata. Any one carrying a long stick, or indeed anything having any resemblance to a gun, is similarly avoided by the wary Grey Duck.

They seem generally to prefer cool and shady resorts, but I have also seen dozens of them floating on the bosom of the Waikato, under a strong noonday sun, as if enjoying the perfect calm. In the deep, quiet pools, or basking in the sunshine on the scattered rocks in the midst of a mountain-stream—its plump form exhibited to perfection—it is one of the commonest features of a New-Zealand river.

From the box-seat of the passing coach I once witnessed, in the Manawatu gorge, a very unusual sight. A fine old Hawk (Circus gouldi) was apparently determined to dine off young duck, and was persistently chasing a small brood that were disporting themselves in the water below us. He made frequent dips upon them with his outstretched talons, but the little things were always on the alert, diving under the moment their pursuer approached. The old birds, evidently quite satisfied as to the safety of their brood, took no heed of what was going on, and remained quite motionless on their post of observation till we had passed out of sight.

page 254

In the Bay of Plenty district there are Duck-preserves which are a source of great profit to the natives and are jealously guarded by them. From October to February no canoes are permitted on the principal lake, and no fires are allowed to be lighted in the vicinity. Various kinds of Duck breed here in great numbers. From feeding on the small green beetle and on the nahonaho, a stingless gnat which swarms in countless myriads over all the waters in the lake district, the birds become extremely fat; and during the moulting-season, which extends over part of February and March, they are incapable of flight owing to the loss of their quills. The strict “tapu” which is enforced during the close season is now removed with great ceremony, and all the population, men, women, and children, start together on a Duck-hunting expedition. The men with dogs in short leashes keep within the belt of manuka scrub along the margin of the lake; the women and children proceed to the middle of the lake in canoes, then take to the water, and with great noise and splashing drive the frightened birds up into the bays or inlets, where they seek refuge in the scrub and sedges and are immediately pounced upon by the trained dogs which are still held in leash. The Duck-hunter snatches the bird away from the dog, kills it noiselessly by biting it in the head, and then throws it behind him to be collected by a party of women who follow on foot for that purpose. In the season of 1867, seven thousand, it is said, were caught in this manner, in three days, on one lake alone. These were not all Grey Duck, but included also the Black Teal (or Scaup), the Shoveller, and the White-winged Duck.

At the Bitter Lake (Rotokawa), in the Taupo district, they are caught in a similar manner. Those that escape the dogs are caught by snares set at night. The snares are placed along the margins of the lake and on the warm stones where the Ducks are accustomed to congregate after dark.

Captain Mair says:—“At Rotoiti, Rotoehu, and Rotoma, as well as on other lakes in the Bay of Plenty district, I have observed that the Ducks at one season leave the waters and travel into the surrounding woods. This happens about March and therefore not during the breeding months. Probably they retire for more security during the seasonal moult; for although at other times these lakes fairly swarm with Ducks, at this period they are quite deserted. In the woods, however, the dogs turn them up in all directions. When on the lakes it is interesting to watch the Ducks feeding on the gnats and green beetles which float on the surface of the warm water, forming a thick scum. On this diet they are always in good condition. The beetles, I may mention, get shaken into the water from the overhanging scrub by the action of the winds, and the gnats appear to be killed by the sulphurous vapour that rises from the water, and are seen floating on the surface in countless millions.”

From the gullet I have taken a quantity of the minute seed of Triglochin triandrum, a common aquatic plant. The various species of Lemna appear also to contribute to the sustenance of this bird.

There is a large raupo-swamp at Matata—lying between the sea-coast and the hills—extending some fifteen or sixteen miles in all directions, crossed in some places by narrow ridges of dry land, and intersected by a perfect network of streams whose courses are indicated by long tortuous lines or fringes of weeping-willows. It was from the Maori pahs placed in well selected positions within these extensive marshes that Major Mair and his Arawa contingent had, in 1865, to dislodge the hostile tribes who were harbouring the murderers of Volkner and Fulloon. Accompanied by a force of 500 “friendlies” he pursued the enemy from point to point, and finally captured the whole of them (numbering in all 600) in the very gallant attack which he made on Te Teko. These singular fens are naturally a great rendezvous for Waterfowl of all kinds, and since the destruction of Rotomahana by the volcanic outbreak of Tarawera, it is undoubtedly the best shooting-ground in the colony. The Grey Duck, Scaup, Brown Teal, Shoveller, Bittern, and Pukeko are all equally abundant, and a sportsman in a canoe, with a Maori boy to do the paddling, may easily bag 50 brace page 255 in the course of a single morning. Other birds, too, are to be met with in these dreary marshes. The Dabchick is plentiful in all the open spaces of water, and in one little lagoon I counted as many as ten in a flock. The Water-Rail (Ortygometra tabuensis) and its spotted congener (O. affinis) are frequently to be heard, although seldom seen; and the melancholy cry of the Fern-bird is so general and persistent that its nickname of “Swamp-Sparrow” is not undeserved.

On the 5th October, standing on the Paikakariki road-cutting, waiting for Cobb’s coach to come up, and gazing with a delight that never tires on the magnificent panorama that there presents itself to view,—the far-reaching ocean, with the rock-bound island of Kapiti rearing its majestic outline a few miles distant, and away to the north the low-lying coast-line, intersected with streams, and forming a border to the long sweep of sandhills and swamps that lie between Ruahine and the sea,—I cast my eyes for a moment below, and there, in a “negro-head” swamp, of which from the position I occupied I had a complete view, I witnessed a very pretty picture of wild bird-life. A Grey Duck had brought out her brood and was keeping watch on a clump of toetoe, just above the surface of the water, while the ducklings (of which I counted eleven or twelve) were gaining their first experience of “life in the swamps.” It was interesting to observe how they pursued one another through the intricacies of that stagnant pool, all covered with duck-weed, broke up into parties of two and three, skimmed along the surface of the water, disappeared in the sedge and tangle, assembled again for a moment, then dispersed in opposite directions, every now and then rallying round the parent bird, as if to be assured that all was right. On the appearance of a Hawk overhead, or of an innocent sea-bird making a wider circuit than usual in its survey of the sandy beach beyond, an alarm-note from the old Duck operates like magic and not a sign is visible of the brood of young ones, all hidden away under the overhanging tufts of vegetation till the threatened danger has passed. Cautiously one of them reappears on the pool and is followed by others, as one by one they recover confidence, and in a few minutes all is excitement again, and they are frolicking about in the liveliest manner.

This intuitive or instinctive sense of danger and the impulse to hide so generally manifested by the Waterfowl, especially in the earliest stage of their existence afterquitting the egg-shell, is indeed very remarkable. The downy young of many species of Limicolæ and other Seafowl appear to find their best security in perfect stillness. On being surprised or alarmed they simply squat on the ground and remain perfectly motionless, without uttering a sound of any kind, instinctively trusting to escape detection from their likeness to surrounding objects. I have often passed and repassed within a foot of a young bird thus concealed without being able to find it; and at length, on discovering it, I have been astonished at the passive manner in which it would allow itself to be handled without making any sign.

This species sometimes breeds rather late in the season; for I have a note in my journal that I saw a flock of very young ducklings in the Horse-shoe lake (Whangaehu) on the 14th January, more than three months later than the instance recorded above.

As an instance of how the Grey Duck may be tamed by protection, I may mention that, on October 26, I saw a pair with eleven young ones within a few yards of Travers’ Bridge, Avon, almost in the heart of Christchurch, and several other pairs in the vicinity. It has generally been found almost impossible to domesticate this bird owing to its tendency to revert to the wild state. But not very long ago, when riding between Woodville and the Manawatu Gorge, I saw, at a “Cockatoo homestead,” a flock of domestic ducks on the roadside, and with them a perfectly tame Anas superciliosa, apparently a bird of the first year. It was distinguishable at a glance from the rest by its manner of walking, carrying its head low or in a crouching attitude. Its smaller size and more slender form also betrayed it, before I came near enough to examine the plumage.

It usually breeds among the sedge and tangle in low situations in the immediate vicinity of its haunts. As a rule, the place selected is a dry and convenient situation on the ground—always well-concealed page 256 from view, sometimes, too, at a considerable distance from the water. Occasionally, however, a more elevated site is fixed upon. On the famous Island of Motutaiko, in the Taupo Lake, there are some large pohutukawa trees (Metrosideros tomentosa). In the forked branches of these trees, some twenty or thirty feet above the surface of the water, the Grey Duck often builds her nest and hatches her young. The natives state that when the ducklings are ready to take to the water the old birds bring them down to the lake on their backs*.

I have sometimes found its nest on the summit of a cliff overlooking a river; and in one instance placed in a bunch of Astelia, in the fork of a dead tree, at an elevation of 20 feet or more from the ground. The nest is formed of dry grass, flags, or other soft materials placed loosely together in a circular form; and the interior is lined with down, plucked from the bird’s own body. The eggs vary in number, there being sometimes as many as ten; they are of a broadly oval form, measuring 2·5 inches in length by 1·6 in breadth, and are of a dull creamy-white colour.

* Mr. Barker contributes the following:—“A short account may interest you of a Grey Duck’s nest I discovered in a tree this spring, at Peel Forest; I was walking through the bush to ascend the gorge of a small mountain-torrent that drains Mount Peel, when from a tree above my head flew a wild Grey Duck. On inspection the tree turned out to be an old broad-leaf, well covered with a mass of ferns, overhanging a bank which had evidently been in former times the south bank of the creek, now running some twenty feet away. On climbing a young tree close by I was surprised and pleased to see, in the hollow formed by the divergence of two large branches in the broad-leaf, a beautifully formed Grey Duck’s nest of fine down inside with a basis of small twigs, and containing nine eggs of a creamy-green colour. The nest was made the more beautiful by the natural way the long pendent fronds of the ferns hung over and around it, completely hiding the mother from view when on the nest. On measuring the distance from the ground I found it to be thirteen feet nine inches. I was particularly anxious to find out how the mother would contrive to get her young ones down, as unless she carried them I could not see how she would manage it, for owing to the steepness of the tree they would not be able to clamber down, and even if shoved over the edge must tumble through small underwood on to hard stones. The bird’s way of getting to the nest was most ingenious: the nest was on the side of the tree away from the stream, and so obstructed with creepers that she could not get in on that side; but on the other a branch grew at right angles to the tree over the bed of the stream; she flew on to this branch, walked along it, and where it joined the tree was a small hollow arch formed by the curving and meeting together again of two old stems; through this small cavity she squeezed herself (so small is the orifice that if I had not seen it I could not have believed a Duck would think of working its way through), and on the other side about eight inches below her is the nest, into which by a steep slope she slides. The way from the nest along the bough was well worn by her constant traffic backward and forward.

“I visited the nest regularly for a week, when unfortunately bad weather set in, and it being in a rather inaccessible situation, owing to the torrents of water that come out of the narrow gorge after heavy rain, I was unable to get to it again for a fortnight, and when I did I was disgusted to find the young had all hatched out and gone, and the rain had quite spoilt the nest. However, I made a close examination of the tree, and could find no signs whatever of disturbance along the edges of the cavity in which the nest was built, or down the semiperpendicular fern-covered trunk of the tree, such as one might expect had they endeavoured to descend on that side; while through the arch I discovered some of the down of the nest clinging to the side of the bark, as if they had gone that way. I also looked well on the ground beneath, but could find no sign except under the arch connected with the bough at right angles to the tree; here was a small piece of moss-covered bark, which was detached from the bottom edge of the arch and had evidently been dislodged by their journeyings. However, I was fully convinced that they had escaped out of the nest through the hole on to the branch, the other way being quite impracticable. How the parent bird managed to get her young to the ground, I am unable to tell you; but I incline to the belief that she carried them on her back, as some bushmen assured me they had actually witnessed this feat.”

The following paragraph appeared in a Colonial newspaper:—“A curious freak of a wild Duck has been noticed in the Wairoa district, one of those birds having built its nest in a tree, and there brought forth its brood. As is well known, these birds usually build low; but in the instance we refer to, in a rata tree, high up on a cliff overhanging the river, the bird had formed its nest. The position of the nest, which is inaccessible, was first noticed by the bird’s efforts to entice its young into the water. The Duck was seen to fly out of the tree down towards the river, uttering a peculiar cry, and shortly afterwards the ducklings, six in all, fell one after another over the nest on to the river-bank, from which they scrambled into the water.”