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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Apteryx Oweni. — (Little Grey Kiwi.)

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Apteryx Oweni.
(Little Grey Kiwi.)

  • Apteryx owenii, Gould, P. Z. S. 1847, p. 94.

  • Apteryx mollis, Potts, Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. v. p. 196 (1873).

Native name.—Kiwi-pukupuku.

Ad. griseus, brunneo et fulvescente alternè transfasciatus, dorsi plumis etiam subterminaliter nigro transfasciatis: subtùs pallidior, clariùs grisescens, plumis albido et brunneo alternè fasciatim transnotatis: pileo guttureque clarè griseis, facie laterali paullò saturatiore: rostro saturatè corneo: pedibus pallidè brunneis, unguibus corneis: iride nigrâ.

Adult. Head, throat, and fore neck dull yellowish brown, darker on the nape; general plumage of the body light yellowish brown, mottled all over and obscurely banded in a wavy manner with blackish brown; the rigid hair-like points of the feathers bright fulvous; underparts paler, the plumage of the abdomen becoming light fulvous obscurely barred with brown. Each feather examined separately has the main portion, which is concealed by the outer plumage, glossy greyish brown, becoming paler towards the root; above this, where the barbs are disunited, it is crossed by an irregular bar of fulvous or yellowish brown, beyond which again it is blackish brown tipped with shining fulvous: on the feathers of the underparts and sides of the body there are generally two of these transverse bands. It is the blending together of these markings that produces the peculiar mottled and wavy appearance described above. Irides black; bill dark horn-colour; legs and feet pale brown, the claws horn-coloured, with transparent tips.

Male. Total length, following the curvature of the back, 17·5 inches; bill, along the ridge 2·85, along the edge of lower mandible 3·4; tarsus 1·75; middle toe and claw 2·4; hallux or hind tarsal claw ·4.

Female. Total length, following the curvature of the back, 20 inches; bill, along the ridge 3·5, along the edge of lower mandible 4; tarsus 2·5; middle toe and claw 3; hallux or hind tarsal claw ·5.

Obs. Independently of the marked difference in size between the sexes, there is a considerable amount of individual variation; and adult specimens are sometimes met with of so small a size as even to suggest the existence of another species. I have remarked this more particularly with examples received from the southern portions of the South Island.

The ground-tints of the plumage vary slightly in different birds. As a rule, however, the male is of a somewhat darker shade than the female, and the plumage has a more banded or rayed character, while the tips of the feathers on the upper parts are of a brighter fulvous.

Young. Plumage very soft; dull greyish brown, obscurely mottled; vertex, sides of the head, and throat greyish white; the light tips of the feathers very conspicuous, having the appearance of small pencilled lines on a darker ground, the produced hair-like filaments being entirely black. Bill white horn-colour, measuring 1·5 inch; tarsus 1·4, and with well-developed scutes.

Very young state. A chick of this species, in the Rowley collection at Brighton, is of a uniform yellowish-brown colour, with the tips of the feathers lighter. The late Dr. J. F. Knox favoured me with the following notes on a still younger specimen, obtained at Nelson in November 1858:—“Kiwi chick: just escaped from the egg, or rather, in all probability, taken from the egg. Weighed exactly 2 ounces; bill straight, soft, and measuring 1·25 inch in length; feathers few in number; wings exceedingly small, and no claw observable.”

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Varieties. The following is the description of a specimen in the Canterbury Museum, exhibiting a tendency to albinism:—On the left side, just above the thigh, there is a broad irregular patch of the purest white; and there is a similar but more rounded patch on the inner side of each thigh, and another smaller one near the rump; on the right side there are also a few white feathers; and on the sides of the head above the eyes, as well as on the throat, there are patches of dull greyish white blending with the surrounding dark grey plumage. It has the feathers of the thighs and rump much worn by incubation, the shaft-lines being denuded for the space of half an inch. Where the plumage is of the ordinary character the shaft-lines are wholly black or with fulvous points, but where the white patches occur the shafts are, like the webs, perfectly white.

In the Sydney Museum there is a more perfect albino, the whole of the plumage being greyish white, very obscurely streaked with brown.

In the Otago Museum there is a pure albino from the west coast, presented by Mr. Allen. I have met with two other similar instances, all the plumage being either white or tinged with cream; the bill white and the legs pale brown. In the collection referred to there is also a very dark variety, approaching in colour to Apteryx haasti, but of inferior size. This was obtained at Jackson’s Bay in July 1875.

In the possession of Mr. W. Smyth, of Dunedin, there is an almost perfect albino, the entire plumage being of a creamy white, obscurely stained with grey on the back. He obtained it at Martin’s Bay, where he caught it among the short grass at the edge of a swamp. It is of small size, and apparently a male.

Remarks. In this species the bill is straighter than in Apteryx bulleri, and the facial hairs or feelers are much shorter, seldom exceeding 2·5 inches in length. In the rudimentary wing the forearm measures scarcely more than one inch; the terminal claw is about ·5 of an inch in length, horn-coloured, slightly curved, and sharp-pointed; the quills are equal and regular, the tube being ·75 of an inch in length; and the webs, which are perfectly soft, are light brown in colour, crossed by two broad bars of pale fulvous. In the young, or in birds of the first year, the wing-quills are very feebly developed. The tarsi are proportionally longer and more slender than in Apteryx bulleri; and they are covered anteriorly with closely-set scales of a rounded form. The claws are long, slender, and sharp-pointed, sometimes with the tip incurvate; the hind claw is slender, only slightly arched, and with sharp edges. The plumage is soft and yielding to the hand when passed along it; but in a reverse direction or against the grain it is slightly rigid, although it wants the stiffened shafts which give to the feathers of Apteryx bulleri their distinguishing character. On raising the plumage with the hand and viewing it laterally it has very much the appearance of the thick fur on the back of a tabby cat. The general effect on the surface bears a close resemblance to the fur of the small Australian marsupial, Lagorchestes fasciatus, both in colour and in the peculiar character of the wavy markings.

The Grey Kiwi is distributed over a great portion of the South Island, and in some of the remote districts is still very abundant. Till recently it was not known to occur in any part of the North Island. We had, in consequence, been so accustomed to speak of Apteryx oweni as a strictly South-Island species, and as representing there the Brown Kiwi of the North Island (Apteryx bulleri), that the discovery of its existence, under certain conditions, in the Wellington provincial district furnished an interesting fact in geographic distribution. A fine specimen for which I am indebted to Mr. Morgan Carkeek, of the Survey Department, was obtained by that gentleman on Mount Hector, at the head of the Hutt river, in December 1875. It was caught by his dog among the snow-grass, at an elevation of about 3000 feet. At a higher altitude he found the species comparatively abundant, and he met with it occasionally below the snow-line, frequenting mossy places in the bush free from undergrowth.

This peculiarity of range, as compared with the distribution of the species in the South Island, is very suggestive, and it will be interesting to discover whether this bird inhabits the summits of mountains further north.

It frequents the woods, and, being (like its congeners) nocturnal in its habits, must be sought for in prostrate hollow trunks, natural holes or caverns among the roots of the large forest-trees, and clefts page 329 or fissures in the rocks. It breeds in these localities, and the nest has sometimes been taken from under a clump of tussock or from the shelter afforded by an overhanging stone on the slope of a wooded hill. The male, female, and young, described above, were all taken from one nest.

All the specimens of this form in the Canterbury Museum were obtained on the western slope of the Southern Alps. The late Sir Julius von Haast collected upwards of fifty of them on that side, but never saw or even heard of one on the eastern side of the Alps.

It is said to be excellent eating; and the diggers’ pot is contributing, equally with the trade in specimens, to the rapid extirpation of the bird. The effect of such a statement as this on the mind of a true-hearted naturalist may be readily inferred from the following letter addressed by the late Mr. Blyth to the Editor of ‘The Ibis,’ in 1861:—“Some time ago I met a stranger who had been travelling in New Zealand. Of course I was curious about the Apteryx oweni; and I showed him Gould’s figure of the bird, and tried to make him comprehend some notion of its value. ‘Good,’ said he, ‘I know it well: we ate four of them in one pie!’ Alas for Apteryx oweni, as well as for the last remaining specimens of Dinornis or Palapteryx (if such there yet remain), to be put into a pie! Gather your roses while you may, Mr. Editor, and collect your impennates before this pestilent civilization spoils and ruins every thing!”

The Maoris, too, have a penchant for roast Kiwi; and travelling parties, when passing through the districts which these birds frequent, as soon as they have fixed up their camp for the night, start off with their dogs to hunt for them, the Apteryx oweni, like its congeners, being strictly nocturnal in its habits. But it is in the North Island, where the Maori population is so much larger, that the Kiwis, as well as other native birds, suffer most from this uncontrolled system of hunting. This is especially the case when the members of a tribe are preparing for one of their periodical feasts*, for it then becomes necessary to place every kind of “fish, flesh, and fowl” under contribution.

The egg of this species is of a long elliptical form, measuring 4·3 inches in length by 2·4 in its widest part. It is originally white, but becomes much stained or soiled during incubation; and some examples have the shell traversed with thread-like excrescences, especially at the larger end. A specimen from Martin’s Bay is an almost perfect ellipse, with a smooth, perfectly white, and rather glossy shell, and measures 4·1 inches in length by 2·6 in breadth. Another specimen in the Canterbury Museum is much stained and discoloured, but appears to have been originally white, with a finely granulate surface. At the larger end there are numerous irregularities on the shell, formed by limy excrescences; one of these presents the appearance of a piece of twisted thread, being fully two inches in length. Another in the same collection has a great portion of its surface marked with scarcely perceptible oblique furrows or interruptions in the granulation of the shell.

* The following is a newspaper account of one of these feasts, which took place at Parihaka in July 1881:—“Monday being wet, all the natives kept close in their houses, but the weather clearing by next day, although still cold and windy, a move was made, and all collected on the meeting-square. There were then brought on Pigeons, Kakas, and Tuis to the number of 9400, besides three calabashes of Pigeons preserved in their own oil, two casks of preserved Mutton-birds from the Chatham Islands, 600 piharau or lampreys, and the usual pile of bread and boilers of tea. The birds were first distributed, one apiece to each man, woman, and child—even baby in arms; after that another, as far as they went—three Tuis being given as an equivalent to one Pigeon, or Kaka. After this the preserved birds were served round; then the lampreys were scrambled for—there not being enough for distribution; then the bread and tea was partaken of, and the feast concluded. Not many of the birds were consumed on the meeting-square, they being saved for a feast by the natives in their respective houses. Previous to the distribution, a long line of girls, gaily dressed, came in on each side of the square, each carrying a basket of taro and kumaras, or potatoes. These they placed on the heap of birds and retired. Tohu afterwards addressed the meeting, but his speech was unimportant. He referred to birds and eels being of old the food of chiefs, and greenstone their ornaments, which a ‘tutua’ dare not wear; neither dare he partake of their food; but that at the present time all might partake and adorn themselves, for all were equal in his eyes.”