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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Porphyrio Melanonotus* — (Swamp-Hen.)

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Porphyrio Melanonotus*

* The description of Porphyrio cyanocephalus, Vieill. N. Dict. d’Hist. Nat. xxviii. p. 28 (1819), appears to agree with the above, but no locality is assigned; and in the absence of more positive proof that it relates to the same bird, I am unwilling to sink so well-established a name as P. melanonotus.

  • Porphyrio melanotus, Temm. Man. d’Orn. ii. p. 701 (1820).

  • Black-backed Gallinule, Lath. Gen. Hist. ix. p. 427 (1824).

  • Porphyrio melanotus, Buller, Birds of N. Z. 1st ed. p. 185 (1873).

Native names.—Pukeko and Pakura.

Ad. suprà nigricans, scapularibus et rectricibus vix brunneo externè lavatis: collo postico et laterali, tectricibus alarum, genis et corpore subtùs sordidè cæruleis: remigibus nigris, primariis extùs obscurè cæruleo lavatis: mento cum abdomine imo et cruribus nigris: subcaudalibus albis: rostro et pedibus pallidè coccineis: iride lætè coccineâ.

Adult male. Head and nape sooty black; back and upper surface of wings and tail shining black, glossed in some specimens with green; neck, breast, sides of the body, outer edges and lining of wings bright indigo-blue; abdomen and feathered portion of tibia sooty black, tinged more or less with indigo-blue; under tail-coverts pure white. Irides cherry-red; frontal plate and bill bright cherry-red, paler on the edges, yellowish towards the tips of both mandibles; legs and feet pale lake-red, brownish at the joints. Total length 21 inches; extent of wings 36·5; wing, from flexure, 11·5; tail 4·5; frontal plate, across the top, 1; from posterior edge of frontal plate to the tip of upper mandible 2·75; bill, along the edge of lower mandible, 1·75; bare portion of tibia 1·5; tarsus 4; middle toe and claw 4·75; hind toe and claw 2.

Female. Somewhat smaller in all its proportions, with the colours of the plumage duller and the bill and legs of a paler red.

Young. Has duller plumage, with the chin pale brown, the fore neck and breast more or less tipped, and the abdomen and flanks strongly suffused, with pale brown.

Younger states. The following descriptive notes on a series of specimens will exhibit at a glance the changes that take place in the young in their progress towards maturity:—

No. 1 (newly hatched). Covered with dense black down, the head, neck, wings, and back thickly sprinkled with white points; bill greyish white, black at the tip; legs purplish grey.

No. 2 (a few days older). Presents fewer of the white points, which are in reality terminal sheaths and are rapidly cast off.

No. 3 (about ten days old). Covered with sooty down; on the back and sides of the head, also on the wing, numerous stiff hair-like filaments with white apices; bill dusky black, greyish in the centre and white near the tip; frontal plate soft and of a reddish flesh-colour; crown of the head without any down, but covered with black thick-set bristles, which are continued over the eyes to the beak, and are long and

* The description of Porphyrio cyanocephalus, Vieill. N. Dict. d’Hist. Nat. xxviii. p. 28 (1819), appears to agree with the above, but no locality is assigned; and in the absence of more positive proof that it relates to the same bird, I am unwilling to sink so well-established a name as P. melanonotus.

So called by the Ngatipukeko tribe of Whakatane; just as the Ngatikahungunu called the hapuku “Kauaeroa” (long-jaw), in deference to the old chief to whom the name of that fish had been applied, and as the Ngapuhi changed the name of the Wood-Pigeon from Kukupa to Kuku, out of respect to Te Tirarau’s father, who had taken the former name.

page 80 recumbent along the frontal plate, evidently for the protection of its tender edges; cubitus perfectly bare and flesh-coloured; legs dusky cinereous.

No. 4 (more advanced stage). Body covered with sooty down; a line of soft pale blue feathers on each side of the fore neck and breast; stiff white filaments on the crown and sides of the head; bill black, with a whitish spot in its median portion and also at the tip of the upper mandible.

No. 5 (partially fledged). Head, nape, and upper parts generally blackish brown, edged with paler brown, tinged on the scapulars and wing-coverts with blue; throat and abdomen dusky brown; fore neck and breast pale blue; all the plumage fluffy, and with downy filaments adhering to the feathers; soft tuft under the rudimentary tail pale fulvous.

No. 6 (fully fledged). Head, hind neck, and upper surface blackish brown, with numerous touches of lighter brown, and tinged on the wings with blue; chin pale brown; fore neck, breast, and sides dull mazarine-blue, some of the feathers edged with fulvous brown; abdomen pale fulvous brown; under tail-coverts yellowish white; irides brown; bill brownish black, inclining to red towards the base and on the frontal plate; legs dark brown, with a reddish tinge.

Obs. As already shown, the colours of the bill and legs are regulated by conditions of age and sex; but they likewise differ somewhat in richness in individual examples of the male. The intensity of the blue colouring in the plumage is likewise variable; and in some specimens it extends right up to the bill, being perfectly bright on the cheeks and chin.

Varieties. The bird figured as Porphyrio stanleyi in Mr. Dawson Rowley’s ‘Ornithological Miscellany’ is undoubtedly a mere albino of this species, exhibiting a few straggling feathers of a dark hue. There is a beautiful albino in the Colonial Museum, the entire plumage being snow-white, without even a tinge of colour in any part; bill and feet very pale red.

The following is the description of a partial albino obtained at Manawatu, and now preserved in the Colonial Museum:—The head, neck, and sides of the breast as in ordinary examples, except that the nape is freckled with pale brown and white; breast, sides of the body, abdomen, and flanks brownish white, clouded and obscurely banded with pale blue; under tail-coverts white; upper parts of the body brownish white, clouded and blotched with dark brown, excepting on the rump, where the brownish white is uniform; the primaries are dingy white, crossed at the base, and again in their apical portion, by a band of bluish brown, the inferior ones tipped also with brown; the coverts are white, washed with yellowish brown and obscurely banded with darker brown; outer edges of wings bright blue; tail-feathers brownish white, their coverts dark brown; bill and frontal plate as in ordinary examples; legs pale yellowish red.—Another, not unlike the last mentioned (also preserved in the Colonial Museum), has the plumage of the back, wings, breast, and abdomen entirely creamy white and brown, the former preponderating; tail-feathers and the under coverts pure white; bill and feet yellowish red. There is a similar sport of nature in the Canterbury Museum, differing, however, from the bird just described in the larger amount of white on the back and in the darker colour of its wings. In this specimen the head and neck are spotted with white, and the under-parts are handsomely variegated with pale blue on a whitish ground.—Another, in the Otago Museum, has merely a few white feathers in the wings and tail; whilst a specimen in my own collection has the head and upper half of neck bluish black, with numerous scattered white feathers, which are thickest on the crown; the whole of the upper surface dull yellowish brown, clouded and barred on the mantle, wings, and tail with darker brown, and shading into blackish brown on the back and rump; the quills tawny white with broad transverse bars of brownish black flushed with blue; fore neck, breast, and sides dark brown, with obscure crescentic markings of lighter brown, and flushed all over with pale blue; abdomen and femorals dull tawny brown, with numerous rayed markings of darker brown; under tail-coverts white. Bill and legs pale red.

Another remarkable specimen, which I presented to the Colonial Museum, is somewhat similar to the above, but is several shades darker, except on the head and upper part of neck, the plumage of the breast and underparts being suffused with blue; the back and mantle blackish brown, with dull crescents of yellowish brown; the quills and their coverts more clouded with brown, and the wings at their flexure, as well as the bastard quills, washed with blue.

In both the last-mentioned specimens there is what may be termed a break in the plumage halfway down the neck, the head being appreciably darker than the body-plumage in one and as much lighter in the other.

page 81

Another abnormal example in my collection (represented by the distant figure in my Plate) has the wings pure white, with an occasional touch of colour, and the rest of the plumage as in the ordinary bird with here and there a single white feather.

The Swamp-hen is widely distributed over Tasmania, the greater part of the continent of Australia, New Zealand, and the Chatham Islands. It occurs also in New Caledonia; and the Maoris have a tradition that tame ones were brought by their ancestors, in their migration from the historic “Hawaiki.” It is abundant in our country in all localities suited to its habits, such as marshes, flax-swamps, and lagoons covered with beds of raupo and rushes. It also frequents the banks of freshwater streams; and in places contiguous to these haunts it is accustomed to resort, in the early morning, to the open fields and cultivated grounds in quest of food. It subsists principally on soft vegetable substances, but it also feeds on insects and grain. By the aid of its powerful bill it pulls up the inner succulent stems of the raupo, or swamp-reed, and nips off the soft parts near the root, holding the object in the toes of one foot while feeding, something after the manner of a Parrot. It is a noticeable fact that in many of the settled districts its numbers have perceptibly increased within the last few years, owing, no doubt, to the greater abundance of food afforded by the farms and plantations of the colonists *. Large flocks of them may often be seen spread over the stubble-fields, or diligently at work in the potato-grounds or among the standing corn. On being disturbed, they generally run to the nearest cover, only taking wing when pressed or when suddenly surprised. They rise from the ground rather awkwardly, the legs dangling and the wings being hurriedly flapped; by degrees the trailing legs are raised to the level of the body; and the flight then becomes more steady, but is nevertheless laboured and heavy. As a rule, they fly only a short distance, dropping into the nearest shelter that offers itself, and trusting for escape to their swiftness of foot; when fairly mounted in the air, however, they are capable of a rather prolonged flight, as I have sometimes had an opportunity of witnessing. They swim well, and dive when driven to it. Wounded birds invariably dive, and by this means conceal themselves till all danger has passed.

The late Mr. Henry Mair, in 1877, met with numbers of these birds in the kumara plantations, on Savage Island (Nieue), where there was no marshy ground for them to frequent. Indeed there was no water even on the island except what cozed from the sand between the tide-mark and that which could be found at the bottom of deep clefts or fissures, hardly accessible to these birds .

The Swamp-hen may fairly be considered one of the best of our native birds. The brightness of its plumage and the extreme elegance of its movements at once arrest and please the eye, while, on the other hand, it is in very good repute as a game bird. It is interesting to watch it as it strides proudly about, balancing its body with ease on its long slender legs, jerking its head gracefully, and flirting its tail with every movement. Along the sedgy margins of the lagoons and swamps it affords good shooting, although it is impossible to flush it without a retriever; and, if hung sufficiently long and properly dressed, it makes an excellent dish. When stewed the flesh is hardly to be distinguished from that of the Capercailzie.

It is naturally shy and timid; and although I have on several occasions obtained very young ones from the swamps, and reared them with every care, I have never succeeded in completely subduing their wild nature. Some years ago, however, I had the pleasure of seeing, in the Government Domain

* Captain Mair informs me that at Whangarei (north of Auckland), during a period of fifteen years—from 1850 to 1865—he never saw one in that district. After that date they began to make their appearance, and now they are comparatively plentiful, being met with in flocks of twenty or thirty together.

“We landed on Booby Island, a curious mass of coral rock with no other vegetation than a few stunted bushes and some coarse grass, where we nevertheless found some Quail and two or three kinds of Land-Rail, one of them identical with the Pukeko of New Zealand.”—Sir Tyrone Power.

page 82 at Auckland, three or four of these birds so thoroughly domesticated that they would readily come at the call of the keeper and take food from his hand.

Its usual note is a short harsh cry, but when disturbed or frightened it utters a long, peevish scream; and as the bird is seminocturnal in its habits, this rather melancholy sound may sometimes be heard, at intervals, all through the night.

At Tokanu (at the southern extremity of Lake Taupo) the natives snare thousands of them in June and July, at which time they are very fat. They are caught by a very simple artifice. The natives, having marked their principal haunts, drive rows of stakes into the swampy soil at distances of a few feet. These are connected by means of flax-strings, from which are suspended hair-like nooses (made of the fibrous leaf of Cordyline) arranged in close succession, with the edges overlapping, and placed just high enough from the ground to catch the bird’s head as it moves along the surface in search of food. As the Swamp-hen is crepuscular in its habits, being most active after dusk, it has less opportunity of avoiding the treacherous loops. It frequents the Maori plantations in considerable numbers and proves very destructive to the young crops, and later in the season it plunders the potato-fields and kumara-beds *. The snaring of these birds, therefore, on this large scale, answers a double purpose, inasmuch as the Maoris find them excellent eating when roasted in their own fat.

This bird often leaves its home in the marshes to travel over the sand-dunes amongst the tauhinu bushes in quest of grasshoppers. The footprints with their long toe-marks may be observed every-where in the loose dry sand, testifying to the diligence of the search. At one season, when the little-Coprosma, is in berry, they come out of cover to feast upon it, the plant being a stunted one and the berries easily accessible to the Pukeko with its long neck and somewhat stilted legs.

A favourite resort of this bird is the swamp at Te Aute, in the Hawke’s Bay district, one of the best shooting-grounds in the colony. Here there is a morass over three thousand acres in extent, more or less wet according to the season of the year, with a broad lagoon or mere in the centre, and swarming with wild fowl of every kind. At the time of my last visit to this familiar ground (14th December) the growth of raupo bulrush was young and vividly green, looking like an Egyptian “paddy-field.” It was interesting to see the Pukekos come out in swarms on the adjoining meadows, accompanied by their young, some only the size of pullets, others more than half-grown, and all readily distinguishable by their dark bill and frontal shield. In this well-frequented place they have become quite accustomed to the railway traffic, and may be seen walking about in the most unconcerned manner within twenty or thirty yards of the passing train.

If pressed to take the water, they swim well, as I have often had an opportunity of seeing; and on this point Mr. Moore, of Waimarama, sends me the following note:—

“Several times when passing the Maraetotara, a deep limestone creek between rather high banks, I have seen these birds swimming across fifteen yards of water of about twelve feet deep. I told lots of people of this, but they would not believe it; but I have lately been able to convince several of my friends (Messrs. Frank Nairn and Meinertzhagen among them) by actually showing-them the Pukeko swimming in fifteen or twenty feet of water. The other day I was riding down to Napier, and when I came to the Maraetotara I saw some Pukekos swimming over to the other side, when all at once I

* The thievish propensities of this bird are traditional with the Maoris; and the following characteristic evidence in relation thereto was given in the Native Land Court at Marton during the hearing of the famous Rangatira case. The witness under examination, on behalf of the Ngatiapa claimants, was the old warrior, Matiaha Peko, who said:—“I was born at Te Ngeo and am the son of Takiau, the same man who, in company with Te Kapiti, killed Totohu at Te Karangi, on the banks of the Pourewa creek. This was long before the date of the Haowhenna fight on the coast (1826). They killed him for stealing the eels in that creek. Then they cut him up, cooked and eat him—eat the whole of him except the head, and that we preserved and dried in the old Maori fashion (moko-mokai). I helped to eat him. I saw the head. It was a huge head with crisp hair like a negro’s (poriki), and had the face completely covered with ‘tatooing.’ We took the preserved head with us to Turakina, and then used it for a long time stuck on a pole, as a ‘scare’ to keep the Pukekos away from our potato-grounds.”

page 83 heard a loud screaming, and on looking round I observed a great commotion among the birds. I then rode down to the bank, and there I saw an enormons eel fastened on to a full-grown Pukeko, which was making a strong fight for its life with beak and claws, the others helping when they got a chance. They took no notice whatever of me, although I was on horseback within ten yards of them. The contest went on for several minutes, and in the end the bird managed to free itself.”

In January 1881 the following paragraph appeared in a Hawke’s Bay paper:—“A Pukeko dashed through the window of a railway carriage the other day, between Kaikoura and Te Aute. The glass was a quarter of an inch thick, and the bird was killed by the force of the concussion.” I happened to be travelling by the evening train and saw both the broken glass and the dead Pukeko, the author of the mischief.

The spread of this species into districts where it had hitherto been comparatively unknown, and its then becoming very abundant, is a very curious fact. Mr. Shrimpton tells me that at Amuri, in 1861, and at the Hawea Lake, a few years later, they appeared first in small parties and then in considerable force, the bird having been previously quite a stranger to that part of the country. The increase was too rapid to have been the result of natural breeding, and must have been occasioned by a sudden migration from the swamps near the coast. The same thing has happened since at Whangarei, in the North Island, as already mentioned.

It usually breeds in swampy situations, the nest, which is composed of dry grass and flags, being in some instances entirely surrounded by water. In the Lake District they are everywhere abundant; and there they build their nests on the silica terraces, not in groups or colonies, but singly and without much attempt at concealment. In these localities Captain Mair has found as many as fourteen eggs in one nest, and eleven in another. Mr. T. H. Potts has described * a nest which he found in a swamp by Lake Ellesmere as being “firmly built of leaves of a Carex, and forming a compact mass some 8 inches in length, and not very easily to be distinguished, as the material of the nest was as green as the surrounding grasses.” Mr. Donald Potts, a son of the former gentleman, has sent me the following note:—“The structure is often raised about a foot in height; and the young, on being disturbed hide directly they are able to get out of the nest.” The late Sir Julius von Haast informed me that he had observed a pair of these birds building their nest on a little pond near Mr. Hill’s residence, in the Malvern Hills, on the 21st of September, that they brought forth their brood about the end of October, and commenced to form a new nest close to the old one about the middle of the following month; and eggs have been collected as late as the 13th of December. We may therefore assume that this species is accustomed to breed twice in the season.

Mr. Owen, of Wangaehu, informs me that he found a nest containing thirteen eggs. According to my experience the number of eggs in a nest varies from two to seven; but five may be considered the complement. They are broadly ovoido-conical in form, measuring 2·2 inches in length by 1·5 in breadth, and are usually of a pale yellowish brown, spotted and blotched with purplish and reddish brown; but while differing slightly from one another in size and form, they present also great individual diversity of colouring. The eggs from one nest, however many in number, generally preserve a common family likeness, and therefore admit of easy classification. A series of twelve specimens in the Canterbury Museum exhibits the following varieties of character:—A set of four (presumably from one nest) are of a pale greyish brown, marked over their whole surface with rounded spots of purplish brown; another set of four are of a warmer yellowish-brown tint, and more thickly studded with dark spots, especially at the larger end: a specimen showing a very narrow form has the entire surface covered with minute round spots, very equally distributed; another has the thick end blotched with dark purplish grey, as though the colours had been partially washed out; and another,

* Trans. N.-Z. Inst. 1870, vol. iii. p. 102.

page 84 which is of appreciably smaller size than ordinary examples, is delicately speckled all over, with here and there a larger spot, and with a dull irregular blotch of brown nearly an inch in extent towards the larger end. The last of the series to be noticed is an extremely handsome specimen: the ground-colour is a pale creamy brown, with widely scattered and obscure spots of darker brown; but the thicker portion of the egg presents numerous marbled veins of purplish brown, among which are fine pencilled markings and wavy lines of red, producing a very pleasing effect.

The series of eggs belonging to this species in my son’s collection comprises upwards of twenty specimens. There is a slight variation in size and form, and also in the details of the markings. They vary from the true ovoid form to a decided ovoido-conical, the average size being 2 inches in length by 1·5 in breadth. One example differs from all the rest in being more rounded in form, measuring 1·8 inch in length by 1·45 in breadth. They are of a warm cream or stone colour, varied over the entire surface, but more particularly at the larger end, with scattered spots of reddish brown: in some the spots are rounded and widely scattered with minute specks between; in others they are irregular and smudgy; in others, again, they present underlying or washed-out spots similar to those in the eggs of Ocydromus. One has the entire surface covered with pretty evenly distributed roundish spots; another has the spots more thickly aggregated at the larger end; another exhibits them entirely confluent at the pole, having a smudgy appearance and ranging in tint from dull purple to chocolate-brown; whilst another, differing from all the rest, is conspicuously washed towards the larger end, and sparingly over the rest of the surface, with dark blots and smudges of yellowish and purplish brown.

Tribonyx mortieri (see Vol. I. Instr. p. xiv, and Vol. II. p. 88).

Tribonyx mortieri (see Vol. I. Instr. p. xiv, and Vol. II. p. 88).