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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Podiceps Rufipectus. — (New-Zealand Dabchick.)

Podiceps Rufipectus.
(New-Zealand Dabchick.)

  • Podiceps (Poliocephalus) rufipectus, Gray, in Dieff. Trav. ii., App. p. 198 (1843).

  • Podiceps rufipectus, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terror, Birds, p. 17, pl. 16 (1844).

Native names.

Weweia, Totokipio, Taihoropi (Hokianga), and Taratimoho (Waikato).

Ad. suprà nigricans vix viridi nitens, interscapulii plumis scapularibusque pallidè brunneo marginatis: pileo nuchâque sordidè chalybeo-nigris, facie et collo lateralibus brunneis, genis et pilei lateribus filamentis pilosis albidis ornatis: tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus: remigibus cinerascenti-brunneis, secundariis conspicuè ad basin albis: gulâ brunneâ: jugulo et pectore anteriore rufescenti-brunneis: corpore reliquo subtùs argentescenti-albo, plus minusve brunneo lavato, corporis lateribus brunneis: rostro cyanescenti-cinereo, culmine nigricante: pedibus pallidè olivascentibus, suprà flavicante lavatis, unguibus cyanescentibus iride argentescenti-canâ.

Adult male. Crown and upper sides of the head black, with numerous white hair-like filaments having the appearance of pencilled markings; hind neck and all the upper parts dark olivaceous brown, margined on the back with paler brown, and glossed with green; lower sides of head, throat, and fore neck dusky brown; the cheeks pencilled with white, but not so thickly as on the crown; upper part of breast dark rufous brown; underparts of the body silvery white, stained on the sides and flanks with dusky brown; soft downy plumage at the lower extremities dull sooty brown. Irides silvery grey; bill bluish grey, shading to black on the ridge; feet light olive, marked with yellow on their upper surface, olive-brown below, the claws pale blue. Total length 12 inches; extent of wings 19; wing, from flexure, 5; bill, along the ridge 1, along the edge of lower mandible 1·25; tarsus 1·5; longest toe and claw 2·1; hind toe and claw ·5.

Female. In the female the pencilled markings on the head are not quite so distinct, and the rufous colouring on the breast is somewhat paler; but in other respects the sexes are alike.

Young. The following is the description of a young Dabchick in a transitional condition—that is to say, after it has ceased to be a nestling, but before it is fully fledged. On close examination a beautiful development exhibits itself: the body is covered with real feathers; but they are largely fringed with fine down, for the purpose of imparting greater warmth, and the whole of the plumage is soft and silky to the touch. The head is handsomely marked, the crown being blackish brown varied with rufous; sides of the head and throat fulvous white traversed with marbled veins of dusky black; hind part of neck varied with dull rufous; upper surface and sides of the body dusky brown; breast pale buff; abdomen yellowish white; bill dark brown; feet olivaceous yellow, with grey margins.

First year’s plumage. Head black, variegated on the crown with bright ferruginous, and marked on the sides with two broad streaks of buffy white, one commencing above the eye and passing round to the occiput, the other extending from the angle of the mouth down the side of the neck; throat and neck yellowish buff streaked with black; upper parts and sides of the body dusky black, indistinctly mottled with fulvous; breast and abdomen buffy white. Bill dark brown, crossed in the middle and near the tip with dull black bars.

Progress towards maturity. The head becomes dark brown, the facial streaks described above gradually disappearing, page 281 but the lengthened plumes with the white pencilled markings still wanting, these being characteristic of the fully adult plumage; chin whitish grey; lower part of neck and crop dull rufous brown; the breast, sides, and flanks much suffused with brown, and the white of the underparts without any lustre; upper parts greyish brown without any gloss.

Varieties. The following is a description of an albino presented to the Canterbury Museum by Mr. Thomas Waters:—General plumage pure white, the sides of the head and throat shaded with brown; crown, nape, and hind neck streaked and spotted with black; fore neck and breast varied with pale rufous; shoulders, back, and scapulars with numerous scattered black feathers, giving the upper surface a pied appearance; wings dusky black, more or less varied with white; bill and feet of the normal colours. Another abnormally coloured specimen in the same collection has the whole of the underparts dark buff, deepening into dull chestnut-brown on the breast and fore neck; the crown of the head and nape black with steel-blue reflexions, and with abundant white hair-like plumes on the vertex and occipital region all round.

Remarks. In this species there is no true crest, but the plumage of the crown and upper sides of the head is very soft, and the shafts are produced into hair-like filaments, the whiteness of which renders them more conspicuous. In place of a tail there is a tuft of black silky feathers about an inch in length. The toes are armed with flattened claws, resembling the human finger-nail; and that of the middle toe has a pectinate edge. The tongue is large and fleshy, filling the cavity of the lower mandible; and the palate is armed with two convergent rows of papillæ directed backwards.

Every country appears to possess at least one species of Dabchick; and the group does not admit of very much variety. The form inhabiting New Zealand, although readily distinguishable as a species, is very similar to Podiceps nestor of Australia; and its habits of life are precisely the same. It is very abundant in all the freshwater lakes and lagoons of the South Island, and equally so in the southern portions of the North Island. Strange to say, however, although the physical conditions of the country are the same, till late years it was rarely or never met with in the far north; indeed the only instance that had come to my knowledge of its occurrence in the district north of Auckland before 1869 was that of a pair shot by Major Mair in the Hurupaki lake (Whangarei) as far back as 1852. One of these was sent to Europe; and the other is in my old type collection in the Colonial Museum. Its rarity in that part of the country may be inferred from the fact that the Ketenikau and other neighbouring natives had never seen or heard of the bird before. In 1869, however, Major Mair on visiting Rotokawau, a very pretty lake at the far north, between Te Awanui and Doubtless Bay, found the Dabchick comparatively plentiful there; of late years it appears to have become even more so. The following is another interesting fact in connection with its local range:—Mount Edgecumbe is a high volcanic cone on the banks of the Rangitaiki river some fifteen miles from the sea. At the bottom of the now extinct crater there is a small pool of water about thirty yards across. In this pool Captain G. Mair, in 1868, observed three of these Dabchicks disporting themselves. Some months after the same number was seen again in the same place by Dr. Nesbitt and Dr. Manley, and again by another party of visitors a considerable time afterwards. There are lagoons at the foot of the mountain frequented by these birds; but the singular fact is that those inhabiting the basin must have climbed up the cone, which is thickly covered on the outside with dense scrubby vegetation, and then into the crater, which contains a heavy forest-growth right down to the edge of the pool.

Like the other members of the group, it dives with amazing agility, and unless taken by surprise will effectually dodge the gun by disappearing under the surface at the first flash, and before the charge of shot has reached it. It is capable of remaining under water a considerable time; and when wounded, it hides by submerging the body and leaving only its bill and nostrils exposed. When hunting for its food, which consists of small mollusca, among the aquatic plants at the bottom of the page 282 lagoon, it usually remains under about 20 seconds, and then rises to the surface for an interval of 7 seconds, repeating these actions with the utmost regularity, as I have observed by timing them with my stop-watch. It flies with difficulty and only for a short distance, skimming the surface with a very laboured flapping of its little wings. On the water it usually swims low, and with a rapid jerking movement of the head. The form of its body and the laminated structure of its feet are admirably adapted to its subaqueous performances; and in clear water I have watched the bird gliding easily along the gravelly bottom, with the neck stretched forward and moved from side to side, and the wings partially open, the feet being used as a means of progression. It utters, at intervals, a peculiar sibilant note, from which it derives its native name of Weweia. Although generally found in pairs it is gregarious also, and I have counted as many as twenty consorting together on a small sheet of water at Manawatu. Its natural element is the water, which it seldom quits; but when resting, as it sometimes does, on a bank, at the water’s edge, it assumes a very upright position with the neck stretched up to its full length.

It is naturally a very curious or inquisitive bird, and if an object is kept moving within sight, or something is done to arrest attention, the Dabchicks, after swimming about for a time, will approach nearer and nearer, jerking the head forward in the manner already described as they advance. Sometimes they swim so low that the back is scarcely visible above the water; at other times the whole body seems to rise above the surface. They indulge, too, in a habit of standing bolt upright in the water and flapping their wings, apparently for the purpose of shaking the water out of them. Recently, three were shot in a deep freshwater lake not far from Hokianga Point; these had their stomachs crammed with a species of leech, about an inch in length and of a pale yellow colour.

Captain Mair states that this bird is very plentiful in the Hot Springs district, and especially in Kaiteriria and Rotorua lakes. On its habits he has furnished me with the following note:—“In 1869 I was riding along the shores of Tikitapu lake with H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh, when our attention was arrested by a pair of Dabchicks with their young. We drew up and watched them for some time. Taking alarm at our approach, the female took her five young ones on her back and made several dives with them, coming up after each submersion at distances of ten yards or more. The young birds appeared to nestle under the feathers of the parent’s back, and to hold on with their bills. In this manner they continued to dive till they were entirely out of sight, and H.R.H. appeared to be much interested in this singular performance.”

The Dabchick is very properly included in the schedule to ‘The Wild Birds Protection Act,’ and the wanton killing of the bird is punishable by fine. Notwithstanding this, however, a few find their way into the market; and it was the sight of one of these birds hanging in a poulterer’s shop at Wellington that drew from the vigorous pen of Mr. Edward Wakefield, in the ‘Evening Press,’ a very pathetic appeal concluding thus:—“Anyone who deliberately slaughters a Dabchick, must surely be of that ruthless quality which would have achieved for him a distinguished position in the service of Herod the King. But to all sportsmen, and to all colonists, whether sportsmen or not, we would say, Spare the poor little, defenceless, inoffensive Dabchicks! Have the manliness to deny yourself a moment’s selfish excitement, for the sake of helping to prolong the existence of any of those few races of God’s dear creatures which we found in possession of New Zealand when first we intruded ourselves upon its solitudes.”

The nest of this species is a large and somewhat clumsy structure, formed of the roots and leaves of various aquatic plants, but always well concealed. The eggs of the Dabchick, usually two in number, are of a perfect elliptical form, and greenish white when first laid, with a granulate surface, and often presenting round warty excrescences. Examples vary slightly as to size; but an average specimen measures 1·7 inch in length by 1 in breadth. After long incubation the surface of the shell becomes smeared and stained to a yellowish-brown colour.