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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Casarca Variegata. — (New-Zealand Sheldrake.)

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Casarca Variegata.
(New-Zealand Sheldrake.)

  • Variegated Goose, Lath. Gen. Hist. iii. pt. 2, p. 441 (1785).

  • Anas variegata, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 505 (1788, ex Lath.).

  • Casarka castanea, Eyton, Monogr. Anat. p. 108, pl. 10 (1838).

  • Casarca variegata, Gray, in Dieff. Trav. ii., App. p. 198 (1843).

  • Anas cheneros, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 92 (1844).

  • Anser variegata, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7471.

Native names.

Putangitangi; Putakitaki in the South Island; “Paradise Duck” of the colonists.

♂ pileo undique et cervice virescenti-nigerrimis: collo undique nigricante, ochraceo vermiculatim vario: dorso saturatè cinerascenti-fusco, plumis omnibus albido transvermiculatis, plumis castaneis absentibus: dorso postico nigricante obscurè albido transvermiculato: uropygio et supracaudalibus purpurascenti-nigris: remigibus nigris, minoribus extùs pulcherrimè viridibus, secundariis extùs lætè castaneis, intùs cinereis, versus apicem albo vermiculatis: caudâ nigrâ: corpore subtùs reliquo cinerascenti-fusco, albido transversim vermiculato: abdomine medio castaneo obscurè nigro transfasciato: eubalaribus albis, imis cinera-scentibus, marginalibus paullò nigricante vermiculatis: rostro plumbescenti-nigro: pedibus et iride nigris.

♀ mari dissimilis: suprà fuscus, plumis fulvescente vel albido transversim vermiculatis, quibusdam castaneis aut eodem modo vermiculatis vel omninò unicoloribus: dorso postico nigricante obscurè albido transvermiculato: dorso postico et uropygio, alis et caudâ ut in mari coloratis: pileo undique et cervice purè albis: corporesubtùs castaneo, plumis quibusdam nigricantibus fulvescente aut albido transvermiculatis: abdomine medio saturatè castaneo, nigro transfasciato: subcaudalibus lætiùs castaneis: subalaribus ut in mari coloratis.

Adult male. Head and greater portion of neck black, with bluish-green reflexions; neck below and fore part of breast rich dark brown, minutely spotted or freckled with pale rufous; back and scapulars, as well as the lower part of the breast, sides of the body and flanks black, mottled and marked with wavy lines or vermiculations of white; on the sides and flanks the vermiculation is very distinct, and adds much to the beauty of the plumage; the rest of the underparts dark rufous spotted and barred with black; under tail-coverts bright ferruginous with darker stains; the whole of the wing-coverts pure white; the primaries glossy black, lighter on their under surface; the lesser quills shining green on their exposed webs, dusky and margined with white on their inner, forming a large, bright speculum; the four inner secondaries have their outer webs rufous, becoming paler towards the tips, and their inner webs dark cinereous, freckled more or less with white. The contrast of colours described above gives the upper surface of the wings a very beautiful appearance when partially spread; the under surface or lining of the wings is pure white. Irides and bill black; legs greyish black. Total length 24 inches; extent of wings 47; wing, from flexure, 14·5 tail 6; bill, along the ridge 1·75, along the edge of lower mandible 2; tarsus 2·75; middle toe and claw 2·75; hind toe and claw ·6.

Obs. In some examples (probably immature birds) the middle tail-feathers are terminally margined with pale brown, and the lateral ones vermiculated at the tips with white.

Adult female. Head and greater portion of neck pure white; lower part of neck, breast, and sides of the body page break


page break page 265 bright ferruginous, with freckled margins, and varied more or less with brown; on the sides and long plumage overlapping the thighs numerous freckled vermiculations of brown and white; shoulders and mantle dark brown mixed with rufous, beautifully vermiculated with fulvous white and largely varied with ferruginous; middle portion of back minutely freckled with white; surface of wings precisely as in the male; rump and upper surface of tail glossy black; abdomen ferruginous largely mixed with dark brown, presenting a banded and mottled appearance; under tail-coverts paler ferruginous, freckled with black at the tips.

Young. In the young state the sexes are alike, the plumage resembling more nearly that of the adult male. Head and upper portion of neck sooty black, varied with light brown; lower portion of neck dark brown, with narrow transverse lines of rufous; the whole of the under surface blackish brown, mottled and barred with rufous, each feather narrowly margined with white; shoulders, back, and lower sides of the body black, with white freckles and vermiculations; wings as in the adult; rump and tail black; under tail-coverts pale ferruginous.

Progress towards maturity. Examples exhibit much individual variety in their progress towards maturity; this is especially the case with the female, the first indication of change being the appearance of irregular white feathers on the head and neck, which rapidly increase in number till the plumage of those parts becomes entirely white; and in a more advanced state the underparts are varied with scattered feathers of rufous in such a manner as to impart a very lively effect. Some specimens of the immature male are marked with rufous on the forehead and lores.

Nestling. Covered with soft down, for the most part pure white, but largely varied on the upper surface with brown; the cheeks, throat, fore neck, and all the under surface entirely white; the top and upper sides of the head, in a line with the eyes, the hind neck and shoulders, a broad mark down the back spreading on the tail, the anterior portion and tips of wings, and a broad patch on each flank, continued in a line over the thighs, dull umber-brown; bill and feet pale brown.

Obs. Younger males differ from the perfectly matured ones in having a tinge of brown about the head, and the feathers of the shoulders more or less margined with dull fulvous brown, presenting on the surface wavy lines.

Of the eight species of this tribe inhabiting New Zealand the “Paradise Duck” of the colonists is undoubtedly the finest. It is spread all over the South Island, being extremely abundant in some localities; but in the North Island, although abundant in the Wairarapa and in the Ruataniwha plains, its range does not extend beyond lat. 39° S., or, in other words, it ceases to be met with after passing the Petane district, on the east coast*. It is difficult to understand why it should be thus confined, but it is nevertheless a well-established fact. A flock of five, many years ago, visited the Kaipara district, north of Auckland. Another flock of five visited Rotomahana Lake in March 1866, and a pair was seen on Lake Taupo in October 1873. These are the only instances that have come within my knowledge of the occurrence of this species beyond its ordinary range. At certain seasons of the year it associates in large flocks, which migrate from one part of the country to another, resorting at one time to the river-mouths and salt-marshes near the sea-coast, and at another retiring to the grassy plains and lagoons of the interior. In winter a partial separation of the sexes appears to take place, it being a common thing to see a flock of ten or more drakes to one duck, and vice versa. At other times they wander about in pairs; and whether reposing on the water or feeding

* On the west coast it is very scarce. A few are always to be seen on the river-flats near the mouth of the Ohau, and it has been shot on the Wanganni race-course; but its comparative rarity may be inferred from the following paragraph, which appeared, not long ago, in the ‘Rangitikei Advocate’:—“The well-known chief Utiku has a pair of rare curiosities at the Houhou pah, in the shape of a brace of tame Paradise Docks. The creatures are as docile as domestic poultry.”

page 266 on the shore, their strongly contrasted colours cannot fail to arrest and please the eye*; such a scene, in fact, as that represented in our Plate must be familiar to any onè who has travelled at all in the country.

In districts where it has been much molested it becomes exceedingly shy; and it is then impossible to shoot it except by stratagem. One bird appears to keep watch while its mate is feeding; and on the slightest alarm it sounds its note of warning, to which the other responds; and both then observe the strictest vigilance, taking wing on the first approach of danger. The call-notes of the two sexes differ remarkably: the drake, with his head bent downwards, utters a prolonged guttural note, tuk-o-o-o, tuk-o-o-o; and the duck, elevating her head, responds to her mate with a shrill call, like the high note of a clarionet.

Its habits resemble, in many respects, those of the Common Sheldrake of Europe (Casarca rutila); and, like that species, it subsists to a great extent on tender grasses and other succulent herbage. Its wings are armed at the flexure with a hard round knob, denuded of feathers, the use of which, in the economy of the bird, I have not yet been able to discover. During the moulting-season it is unable to fly, and, being a very indifferent diver, it is readily captured. Even when thus taken in an adult state it is easily domesticated, and it has been successfully introduced into England. It is to be seen, in all its beauty, on the artificial lake at Kew Gardens and on the ornamental waters of several private estates in various parts of the country; and it breeds in the Zoological Society’s Gardens in Regent’s Park. I have kept them in New Zealand, and found them easy to domesticate and very tractable. They require, however, constant access to a stream or pond of water; for if denied this privilege they become subject to attacks of cramp, which in the end prove fatal. On these occasions the bird entirely loses the use of its legs, and, lying flat on its breast, flaps the ground violently with its wings in apparent agony. When stationed years ago at Wanganui, as Resident Magistrate, I kept in my garden several pairs which had become perfectly tame. I ultimately presented them to Sir George Grey, and they were then removed to the island of Kawau, where, in the enjoyment of a larger amount of freedom, they soon commenced to breed.

On one occasion, when I was staying at Omahu, in the Hawke’s Bay district, the natives brought in a Paradise Duck, apparently in perfect health, but having only one wing, the other having been shot away at the junction at some former period, and the wound having then healed over.

The ingenuity with which the old birds decoy intruders away from the nest or young is very remarkable; and I have myself been so completely deceived by a Paradise Duck feigning a disabled wing, that I have followed it for a hundred yards or more, endeavouring to overtake it, before discovering the ruse it had so successfully practised. Mr. Travers refers to this subject, in a communication to the Wellington Philosophical Society , in the following terms:—

“The Paradise Duck breeds from October to January, and not unfrequently rears two broods during the season. I have, in fact, more than once seen two broods of different ages running with the same pair of parent birds. The single broods vary in number, the largest I ever saw being ten. Both parents are anxious and watchful about their young, resorting to the ruse of pretending lameness and inability to rise from the ground, in order to draw off any animal which they think

* Writing of this species, Darwin says, in his ‘Descent of Man’ (footnote p. 479):—“The New-Zealand Sheldrake offers a quite anomalous case; the head of the female is pure white, and her back is redder than that of the male; the head of the male is of a rich dark hazel colour, and his back is clothed with finely pencilled slate-coloured feathers, so that altogether he may be considered as the more beautiful of the two. He is larger and more pugnacious than, the female, and does not sit on the eggs. So that in all these respects this species comes under our first class of cases; but Mr. Sclater (Proc. Z. S. 1866, p. 150) was much surprised to observe that the young of both sexes, when about three months old, resembled in their dark heads and necks the adult males, instead of the adult females, so that it would appear in this case that the females have been modified, while the males and the young have retained a former state of plumage.”

Trans. N.-Z. Inst. 1871, vol. iv. p. 207.

page 267 likely to be mischievous. It is excessively amusing to see an old Duck waddling away as if with the greatest difficulty, her wings drooping and flapped occasionally, in order to assist her apparently struggling efforts to escape, whilst all the time she manages to keep in advance of even a fleet dog, until at last, having drawn him to what she deems a safe distance from her nest, she at once rises from the ground, screaming out her harsh danger-signal, to the complete discomfiture of the panting dog. Upon the danger-signal being uttered by the parent birds, the young ones usually make at once for the nearest flowing water, down which they float close to the bank, seeking cover, and availing themselves, with great sagacity, of every opportunity of shelter or concealment, in which they are assisted by their similarity in general colour to the soil and vegetation.”

All of our Plovers resort to similar expedients for the protection of their young, but some species appear to develop a greater degree of intelligence than others. For example, the Oyster-catcher, when in danger of molestation, has been known to bury its downy young in the soft sand, thus ensuring absolute concealment. Captain Mair assures me that he has witnessed this himself in the Bay of Plenty, and that, keeping his eye on the spot, he has actually scooped the young birds out with his hands.

Mr. Proctor Smith relates the following incident within his own experience at Otago:—“I have seen a drake of this species gallantly beat off a large Hawk from the duck I had wounded. On my reaching the scene of combat, the cunning drake feigned to be wounded, and limped away beyond gunshot, while the duck escaped by concealing herself in a large marsh close by.”

In selecting a breeding-place it displays some fastidiousness: generally speaking, the nest, rudely formed of dry grass, and deeply lined with feathers and down, is placed among the reeds and tussocks near the water’s edge; sometimes, however, it is situated on rising ground at a distance from its ordinary haunts; and in one instance, in the Upper Manawatu, I found a pair breeding in a small cavern in the face of a sandstone cliff overhanging the river*. The eggs vary in number from five to nine; and occasionally there are more, Mr. J. D. Enys having met with a nest containing eleven; and subsequently, in the Upper Waimakariri with a brood of thirteen young birds. The largest brood I have met with myself numbered eight. The eggs are of a regular ovoid form, measuring 2·6 inches in length by 1·9 in breadth, perfectly smooth on the surface, and of a yellowish cream-colour. Others in my son’s collection are somewhat smaller, measuring 2·4 inches in length by 1·7 in breadth, and are of an almost invisible greenish-white tint.

In May 1866 Dr. Sclater reported to the Zoological Society that a pair of these birds had bred for the first time in the spring of the previous year in one of the small ponds in the Gardens. Five eggs were laid in one of the breeding-boxes about the second week in April and five young birds were hatched on the 15th May. One of the five died in the first downy plumage; and when about three months old the other four moulted into the first feather-dress, in which stage they were all alike, having the head and neck black. In the autumnal moult three of them threw off the black hood and assumed the characteristic white head of the female.

* A correspondent (Mr. W. E. Barker) adds the following particulars:—“Two men inform me they have seen young Paradise Ducks carried by their mother; one man saw the Duck fly down on a small lagoon, and as soon as she touched the water the young Ducks were swimming around her. In the other case two men were watching a Paradise Duck which was flying swiftly out pretty close to the surface of the water; she settled quietly, and to their astonishment immediately there appeared around her several young ones. In both instances it happened in open water, and none of the observers could see where the young Ducks had come from, except that the moment the parent touched the water the young appeared around her. I have heard of numerous instances of Paradise Ducks building their nests in trees. One was rather a peculiar case: the bird building its nest 25 feet up a black-pine tree, close alongside the road going from Mt. Peel to Mr. Acland’s station.”