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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Stercorarius Antarcticus. — (Southern Skua.)

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Stercorarius Antarcticus.
(Southern Skua.)

Lestris catarractes, Quoy et Gaim. Voy. de l’Uranie, Zool. p. 137 (1824).

Lestris antarcticus, Less. Traité d’Orn. p. 616 (1831).

Stercorarius antarcticus, Gray. Gen. of B. iii. p. 653 (1845).

Cataracta antarctica, Bonap. C. R. xlii. p. 770 (1856).

Megalestris antarcticus, Bonap. Consp. Gen. Av. ii. p. 206 (1857).

ad. suprà sordidè cinerascenti-brunnea: subtus pallidior: scapularibus et tectricibus alarum paulló cinerascentialbido variis: pileo colloque longitudinaliter pallidé brunneo maculatis: collo postico flavicanti-brunneo terminato: remigibus et rectricibus obscurè nigris versùs basin albicantibus: rostro nigricanti-brunneo: pedibus nigris: iride nigrâ.

Adult, General colour dull cinereous brown, darker on the upper parts, but relieved by touches of grey and light brown, especially on the upper wing-coverts and scapulars; head and neck largely marked with pale brown; the feathers of the hind neck lanceolate in form, and with their terminal portion yellowish brown; quills and tail-feathers dusky black, white in their basal portion; in the closed wing the white is apparent on the primaries to the extent of an inch, but in the secondaries and tail-feathers it is concealed by the upper coverts. Irides and feet black; bill blackish brown. Total length 25 inches; wing, from flexure, 17; tail 7; bill, along the ridge 2·25, along the edge of lower mandible 2·5; bare tibia 1; tarsus 3; middle toe and claw 3·1; hind toe and claw ·5.

Young. A bird of the year captured by Mr. Drew at the Wanganui heads differs in having the general plumage slaty brown, the scapulars only having terminal patches of light yellowish brown and whitish grey. There are no lanceolate feathers on the neck, and the basal white spot on the primaries is concealed by the overlapping coverts. Bill uniform, bluish black.

Obs. The sexes are alike, but the amount of white on the primaries is variable, and some examples are more suffused with brown on the neck and upper surface than others. A specimen from Dusky Bay has the white alular spots very conspicuous even in the closed wing, and one from Stewart’s Island is much lighter than ordinary examples, having the entire plumage tinged with brown, and the feathers of the nape and mantle broadly margined with yellowish brown.

Mr. original description of this fine Skua was taken from a specimen procured by Sir James Hector, who furnished me with the following note respecting it:—“Female bird shot in Woodhen Cove, on the south side of Breaksea Sound. There was only one pair; both were shot, but one skin was destroyed. Several others were seen at sea in company with the Albatros.”

Numerous examples have since been obtained in both Islands.

I had a live one in my possession for several years, and as this bird afforded me an opportunity of observing the habits of the species, under new conditions of life, I will venture to reproduce here, with a few additions, an account of it which I communicated to the Wellington Philosophical Society in September 1878*:—

“The living example of this fine Skua-Gull, referred to in last year’s volume, is still an inhabitant

* Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. xi. pp. 373, 374.

page 64 of my garden, where, after much preliminary persecution, it now tolerates the companionship of a young Sea-Gull (Larus dominicanus). The history of this bird is somewhat remarkable. About a year and a half ago it was captured somewhere in the vicinity of Kapiti, and came into the possession of the Hon. Wi Parata, who kept it in his marae till it became quite tame. Being injured in the wing it was unable to fly, but having made its escape, it travelled some ten miles up the coast, and was recaptured by some natives at Otaki. It remained there some three months, and then made a fresh start northwards. Its next stage was Horowhenua, where it was caught and taken inland to Hector McDonald’s homestead. Here it became an inmate of the farm-yard, and appeared to get quite reconciled to its changed mode of life. It fraternized with the dogs and poultry, sharing their food and occasionally devouring a chicken. But one day, after a fight with a rival turkey, in which it appeared to come off second-best, it travelled to the coast, a distance of some four miles, and then turned its head northwards again. A week or two later it was found near the mouth of the Manawatu river, and carried inland to Foxton. It commemorated its arrival by swallowing some ducklings and chickens. It was then passed on to a settler ‘up in the bush,’ where it killed and devoured a well-grown pullet. I arrived just in time to prevent its being sacrificed to the anger of the good housewife. Thence it was deported by coach to Wellington, making its escape on the Manawatu sands, en route, and detaining Her Majesty’s mails while being recaptured. After keeping the bird caged for a few days I turned it loose in the garden, where it has remained for upwards of six months without any attempt to get away. Christened ‘Peter’ by the children, he has become quite tame and familiar, answering to his name and taking food from the hand. He has selected a sunny spot on high ground, as an outlook station by day and as a sleeping-place by night. He wanders over the place freely, looking for worms and grubs, and during the heat of the day seeks the shade of some bushy shrub. He is almost omnivorous, but gives the preference to fish and meat. On a dead bird being offered him he runs off with it in his beak, then holding it down with his feet, plucks the feathers off and devours the flesh. On throwing him a Blight-bird (Zosterops lateralis) he bolted it, feathers and all. On another occasion I gave him the body of a Dove Petrel (Prion turtur). He carried it off in his bill, tore off the feathers in an incredibly short space of time, crunched the wing-bones in his powerful bill, and then swallowed the whole, the extremities of the wings protruding from his mouth till the bird had fairly settled down in the Skua’s crop. His capacity for swallowing fish is something astonishing, his crop becoming greatly distended. He has the power of regurgitating his food, and will sometimes reproduce from his throat a bone of marvellous size, the wonder being how he ever managed to swallow it. Although not habitually a nocturnal bird, he sometimes gets very excited after dark, hurrying about the garden with outstretched wings and uttering a peculiar cry as if being suffocated. At other times he emits at intervals a note like the crowing of a Pheasant. During the day Peter is noiseless, except when quarrelling with the Sea-Gull or disputing possession of a bone with the dog, when he has a short peevish note, quickly repeated. His first encounter with a tame Cockatoo in the garden was quite ludicrous. He first played the rôle of assailant, but the moment his opponent erected his crest, Peter quailed and ran away. After this they established friendly relations with each other, often basking together in the sun, and drinking from the same fountain *.
“I have mentioned before that this capture is the first known instance of the occurrence of the Southern Skua in the North Island. I have lately, however, met with another on the West Coast. Travelling by coach we found one, apparently a male in full plumage, on the sandy beach, not far from the Otaki river. He was evidently worn out with fatigue, and would not rise till the coach was within a few yards of him; then rising with a slow and laboured flight, he proceeded a few hundred

* To the above full record of his life, I have nothing to add but a notice of his death, a year later, which appeared to be the result of sheer old age. His obituary was communicated to me by my wife in the following terms:—“Like a sensible bird he first had a hearty breakfast, then a bath, and then laid himself down in a comfortable place on the lawn and quietly died.”

page 65 yards and alighted again on the beach, repeating the operation again and again till the coach reached the Paikakariki, a distance of some twenty miles. Any bird of ordinary intelligence would have made a circuit and got behind the pursuing coach. But the Skua ashore was evidently out of his latitude; and this was made more apparent by the manner in which the Sea-Gulls (of both species), his hereditary victims at sea, pursued him in the air and buffeted him. As is well known, this bird usually subsists by plunder, pursuing the Gulls and compelling them to disgorge their food. Here, however, the conditions were changed, as I myself had an opportunity of observing from the box-seat. The Skua had alighted in a shallow beach-stream and was ducking its body in the water when a fine old Hawk (Circus gouldi), with hoary white plumage, suddenly appeared from the sand-hills and swooped down upon the intruder. The Skua, without making any show of resistance, instantly disgorged from its crop the entire body of a Diving Petrel (Pelecanoides urinatrix). The Hawk, balancing himself for a moment with outspread tail, dropped his long talons into the stream and clutched up his prey without wetting a feather of his plumage, and then disappeared among the sand-hills, while the terrified Skua hurried off, only to be pursued again by the clamorous Sea-Gulls. Thus we have examples of ‘retributive justice’ even among birds.”

On the range of the three allied species of this larger form of Skua, Mr. Saunders writes:—“The northern species, S. catarrhactes, whose breeding-range stretches from the coast of Norway, the Faroes, and Iceland, away through the Nearctic region/and the Pacific, appears to be nowhere numerically abundant, and is fast becoming exterminated in Europe…… It has occurred in California; but descending that coast, we find no trace of a large Skua until we enter the fish-abounding, and therefore Gull-frequented, waters of Humboldt’s Current, which cools the coasts of Chili and Peru throughout a width of about 300 miles, and sweeps outwards to diminish the natural heat of the equatorial Galapagos Islands. In these productive waters is found a large Skua, S. chilensis, separable from the northern S. catarrhactes by its brighter and more chestnut underparts and axillaries—differences which are constant, although it is true that they are merely those of colour. Its bill is perhaps a trifle more slender than that of the northern bird, a point which should be borne in mind, because on passing through the Straits of Magellan, where this species appears to stop, we come at once to another large Skua, S. antarcticus, which, although in such close geographical proximity to S. chilensis, yet differs far more from it than S. chilensis does from S. catarrhactes! The Antarctic Skua ranges from the Falkland Islands down to the edge of the pack-ice, the shores of New Zealand, and up to Norfolk Island, and thence by way of the chain of Kerguelen Island, St. Paul’s Island, the Crozets, &c., it reaches the Cape of Good Hope and, as a straggler, Madagascar. From the Cape it works round by Tristan d’Acunha and the South Atlantic islands, till the chain is completed at the Falklands again. S. antarcticus is a uniformly dusky bird, with stronger and shorter bill than either of its near relatives.” (Journ. Linn. Soc., Zool. vol. xiv. pp. 392, 393.)

The flight of this bird is heavy, and performed by slow regular flappings of the wings, with the shoulders much arched. It possesses, however, the faculty of turning quickly in the air, as I observed when the Gulls were in pursuit. On the wing the white mark across the primaries is very conspicuous, but it is not sufficiently apparent to distinguish the bird when the body is at rest.

In the Otago Museum there are two eggs of this Skua, which differ appreciably. Although of similar size, one is narrower or more elliptical than the other, measuring 3·1 inches in length by 2 in breadth; of a pale, creamy-brown colour, blotched all over the surface, and pretty equally, with blackish and purplish brown. On one side these blotches are confluent, and they are generally darker towards the middle circumference. This specimen was collected at Campbell Island. The other, which came from Macquarie Island, is more ovoid, measuring 3 inches by 2·2, and is of a dull olive-brown sparingly blotched with dark brown, the intervening spaces being marked with small, irregular spots of the same colour, more or less distinct.