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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Rallus Philippensis. — (Banded Rail.)

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Rallus Philippensis.
(Banded Rail.)

  • Rallus philippensis, Linn. Syst. Nat. i. p. 263 (1766).

  • Râle rayé des Philippines, Buff. Pl. Enl. 774 (1784).

  • Philippine Rail, Lath. Gen. Syn. iii. pt. 1, p. 231 (1785).

  • Rallus assimilis, Gray, App. Dieff. Trav. ii., App. p. 197 (1843).

  • Rallus pectoralis, Gould, B. of Austr. vi. pl. 76 (1848, nec Less.).

  • Rallus forsteri, Hartl. Arch. f. Naturg. 1852, p. 136.

  • Hypotænidia philippensis, Bonap. C. R. xliii. p. 599 (1856).

  • Rallus hypotænidia, Verr. Rev. et Mag. de Zool. xii. p. 437 (1860).

  • Rallina philippensis, Wall. P. Z. S. 1863, p. 36.

  • Rallus (Eulabeornis) philippensis, Martens, J. f. O. 1866, p. 28.

  • Rallus pictus, Potts, Trans. N.-Z. Inst. iv. p. 202 (1871).

  • ? Rallus macquariensis, Hutton, Ibis, 1879, p. 454*.

Native names.

Patatai, Popotai, Mohotatai, Moho-patatai, Moho-pereru, and Puohotata; “Land-Rail” of the colonists.

Ad. suprà brunneus, interscapulio saturatiore, plumis omnibus latè olivaceo-fulvo lavatis et marginatis, plerisque albo maculatis aut interruptè transfasciatis, uropygio tantüm unicolore, supracaudalibus minùs albo notatis:

* Note on Rallus macquariensis, Hutton, This, 1879, p. 454 (♀, obtained at Macquarie Island).—Is this form specifically distinct, or is it a mere variety of the widely-spread R. philippensis? Compared with some New-Zealand examples of the latter it might perhaps pass for a distinct species; but on being judged along with a series exhibiting much variation in the plumage, its claims to separate recognition are seriously damaged. The nuchal colour is indicated by a wash of rufous among the plumage, and I observe, on moving the feathers, that this colour is more pronounced on one side than on the other, indicating, it would seem, a transitional state, or at any rate an indeterminate condition of plumage. The rufous colouring shades into brown on the bar which crosses the eyes and fills the lores, exhibiting only a tinge of rufous on the ear-coverts; but the shape of that bar, spreading as it does below the eye, is the same as we find it in Australian examples of Rallus philippensis. The grey superciliary stripe is certainly indistinct, but it is nevertheless present, forming a mere line immediately over the eyes, but spreading out beyond. The banded markings on the sides and flanks are far less pronounced than in the bird of which I have given a figure; but I have in my possession younger specimens with even less of this character than the Macquarie Island bird. At first glance the upper surface of the body would seem to be entirely without spots, but on moving the plumage it will be seen that there are very distinct round white spots on some of the feathers composing the mantle, while on the primary-coverts they are of a tawny colour, and blend with the surrounding plumage. The quills are barred with chestnut, exactly as in R. philippensis, and the plumage on the crown of the head, throat, fore neck, and abdomen is the same; there are slight indications of white spots on the lower sides of the neck, and there is a wash of rufous chestnut forming a broad band across the breast. There are no structural characters by which to differentiate the species. Slight differences in the plumage are observable, but these are less than are to be found on a comparison of the New-Zealand bird with that inhabiting Fiji, and certainly not more than those existing between our bird and that from the Pelew group. Judging by the indistinct character of the markings on the sides and flanks, and the general softness of the plumage, I should conclude that Prof. Hutton’s type is a somewhat immature bird; and, for the reasons I have stated, I doubt very much its being more than a local variety of Rallus philippensis.

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pileo summo olivascenti-brunneo, unicolore: strigâ superciliari angustâ, anticè albidâ, posticè cinereâ: strigâ alterâ a basi maxillæ per oculum ductâ ad collum laterale conjunctâ, sordidè castaneâ, torquem collarem distinctam vix formante: tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus et eodem modo albo notatis, majoribus extùs fulvo, intùs castaneo conspicuè maculatis: alâ spuriâ remigibusque brunneis castaneo transfasciatis, primariis extùs fulvescente notatis et albo angustè transversim lineatis: caudâ brunneâ olivascente lavatâ: mento albo: genis et gutture toto cinereis, parte inferiore paullò olivascente lavatâ: corpore reliquo subtùs cinerascenti-brunneo, fulvo aut albido crebrè transfasciato: torque pectorali pallidè ferrugineâ, plus minusve distinctâ hypochondriis et subcaudalibus nigricantibus albo distinctè fasciatis et fulvescente terminatis: abdomine imo fulvescenti-albo: rostro flavicanti-brunneo, ad basin rufescente: pedibus pallidè brunneis: iride rufescenti-brunneâ.

Adult. Crown of the head and all the upper surface brownish olive; the feathers of the back and the inner scapulars broadly centred with brownish black; the feathers of the hind neck and upper part of the back, as well as the upper wing-coverts, marked on both webs with two spots of white, surrounded more or less distinctly with blackish brown; streak over the eyes, chin, and throat greyish white, deepening into dark grey on the sides of the head and on the fore neck; a band of chestnut-red, commencing at the base of the upper mandible, passes through the eyes and down the-neck, uniting on the nape in a broad patch of the same colour varied with brown; breast and sides of the body brownish black, crossed by numerous narrow well-defined bars of white, tinged more or less with fulvous, and tipped with olive-grey; on the sides and flanks the ground-colour is darker, and the bars are further apart; across the breast a broad zone of reddish buff; abdomen, thighs, and vent buffy white; under tail-coverts black, barred with white and largely tipped with buff; primaries dark brown, the two outer ones crossed by narrow interrupted bars of fulvous white, and the rest broadly barred on both webs with dull chestnut-red, varied more or less on the third quill with white; secondaries barred in a similar manner, but with a whitish spot near the extremity of both webs; outer scapulars brownish black, with numerous elliptical spots of white on both webs, and edged with pale-olive-brown; tail-feathers olive-brown, with darker shafts. Irides reddish hazel; bill reddish brown at the base, fading into yellowish brown at the tip; tarsi and toes light brown. Total length 12 inches; extent of wings 17·5; wing, from flexure, 5·5; tail 2·5; bill, along the ridge 1·6, along the edge of lower mandible 1·75; tarsus 1·5; middle toe and claw 2; hind toe and claw ·65.

Female. The colours generally are duller, the nuchal collar is indistinct, the pectoral band is reduced to a narrow indeterminate zone of yellowish brown, and the bars on the underparts of the body are far less conspicuous than in the male, being much interrupted or broken.

Young. Differs from the adult in having the upper surface lighter, the feathers having broader margins of fulvous brown, with very small white spots, and these widely scattered. The facial streak and nuchal collar are dull chestnut-brown, and not well defined. On the breast there is a mere wash of pale chestnut; and the underparts and flanks, instead of being striped or banded, present only obscure broken bars, the whole plumage of the under surface being several shades lighter than in the adult, and suffused with pale fulvous. The axillary plumes, however, are perfectly black, with widely separated narrow white bars. The barred markings on the wing-feathers are even more pronounced than in the old bird, and extend higher on the coverts. Bill and legs pale brown.

Chick. Covered with sooty black down of silky texture, but without any gloss; bill greyish white; legs blackish brown, darker behind.

Var. At Napier I examined a partial albino which had been shot in the vicinity of the town:—The vertex, broad line over each eye, the cheeks and throat, also a broad irregular patch on the breast, nearly covering the place of the chestnut band, pure white; on the neck and shoulders likewise some touches of white; the rest of the plumage normal.

Remarks. Like other members of the group to which it belongs, this form is liable to considerable variation of plumage. In the numerous examples which have come under my notice, the pectoral band, although never entirely absent, has varied both in extent and colouring from a narrow interrupted line of sandy buff to a broad zone of rich chestnut. Drs. Finsch and Hartlaub, in a communication to the Zoological Society page 97 (November 26, 1869), state that “in a set of specimens from the Pelew Islands, some had the rufous pectoral band, in two others it was entirely wanting, and in one bird there was only to be seen a faint trace of it;” and they therefore conclude that their so-called Rallus forsteri is nothing but a state of plumage due to age or season. The extent and colour of the facial band is likewise variable: in some it is of a rich dark brown with well-defined edges, the grey plumage above forming a long narrow streak, while in others it is diffused, largely mixed with rufous, and spreading considerably on the hind neck. The distinctness of the white bars on the underparts varies in different individuals; but this seems to be in some measure dependent on the age of the bird. An example which died in the Zoological Society’s Gardens, and was kindly forwarded to me by Dr. Sclater for examination, had the whole of the upper surface spotted with white, largely tinged on the wings with fulvous; others, again, I have seen in which the spotted markings were almost entirely confined to the hind neck and shoulders; but as it would be easy to bring together a complete intermediate series, this is of no value as a distinguishing feature. Mr. Potts’s so-called Rallus pictus, characterized by its decidedly superior size, would certainly be entitled to recognition but for the great variation in this respect to which this species is subject. The garter, or bare tibia, mentioned by Mr. Potts in his description of Rallus pictus (l. c.), is to be found also in ordinary examples of our R. philippensis, although, of course, this feature is proportionally more conspicuous in the larger birds. No weight can be attached to the slight peculiarity in the shape of the bill, unless it should prove to be a constant character; for I can give an instance within my own experience of a very manifest modification in the bill of a Rail through purely accidental causes. On this point Dr. Finsch writes to me as follows:—“I received in Haast’s last collection a specimen of the so-called Rallus pictus from the Okarita lagoon; but I find that it differs in no way from those collected in the Pacific and elsewhere.” Mr. Gould also, in treating of this species*, regards the birds received from Southern and Western Australia, “which are rather smaller and have more attenuated bills,” as mere local varieties.

Among those in the Colonial Museum collection, one has the narrow superciliary streak perfectly white in front; another has the pectoral band of a rich buff colour, and about an inch in width, with the banded markings of the underparts very pronounced and extending up to the commencement of the fore neck.

Notwithstanding this extreme tendency to variation, I have never met with any instance of albinism except the one mentioned above.

I have examined and compared a pretty extensive series from different regions with the following result:—An example of Rallus philippensis from Fiji is more spotted than our bird, the round white spots spreading all over the mantle, wings, and upper tail-coverts; there is absolutely no pectoral band, not even an indication of it; the nuchal collar of chestnut is very much enlarged, being about an inch and a half in depth, blending with the brown colour on the nape, but giving a rufous blush to the crown and forehead, and extending in a broad bar across and somewhat under the eyes to the base of the upper mandible. In this tendency of the chestnut colouring to overrun the crown and vertex this bird shows an approach to Rallus striatus of India, in which the rufous crown and nape is a distinguishing feature. There is a further resemblance in the absence of the pectoral band; but the striated character is entirely different, the wings of the latter being adorned with transverse and wavy lines or bars of white, which at once distinguishes this bird from all the others. In a bird from Pelew Island, on the other hand, there is only the slightest indication of a nuchal collar, and the crown is faintly suffused with chestnut; whilst a bar of dull chestnut brown covers the lores, passes through and under the eyes, and then becoming narrower, passes over the ears and fades away on the nape; the spotted markings on the back and wings are less distinct, and in place of the pectoral band there is a mere wash of rufous yellow, forming a narrow zone. Moreover, the bill is decidedly more slender than in any of the preceding forms. The Australian bird is similarly marked to ours, the pectoral band and the banded markings on the underparts being very conspicuous, the former measuring more than half an inch in width, and being of a rich chestnut-brown. Owing to the absence of this interrupting pectoral band in the Fijian bird, the striped appearance of the underparts is very pronounced, especially as it reaches almost to the fore neck. In addition to this special feature, the bill, legs, and toes are appreciably stronger than in any of the other forms enumerated above.

* Handbook to the Birds of Australia, vol. ii. p. 384.

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We are standing on the banks of the Horowhenua Lake, perhaps the most picturesque sheet of water in the North Island. Shaded by a lofty forest, and its banks clothed with beautiful evergreens to the water’s edge, studded with lovely wooded islets, and along the shore fringes of raupo alternating with overhanging bush and charming little beaches, it is the perfection of a New-Zealand lake and a favourite resort for numerous waterfowl. We have just quitted our canoe, after a long day’s duck-shooting, and our Maori attendant is now securing it to a stake in the bank. The evening is advancing and all is still. A string of Black Swan, high in the air, are winging their way to some favourite feeding-ground near the coast; a pair of Papango, having just emerged from a bed of reeds, are floating on the placid waters; a small Black Shag with much awkward fluttering is settling itself for the night in a kowai bough overhanging the lake; a solitary Pekapeka is flitting silently overhead, chasing in zigzag lines the minute insect-life upon which this bat subsists; the locust has ceased his drumming, and the melancholy note of the Fern-Sparrow, calling to his fellows among the rushes, has grown languid and finally died away; now, with the deepening shade comes the doleful cry of the Morepork, and at intervals of five minutes the Koekoea, from a distant clump of bush, sends forth one long and plaintive scream, and then all is quiet again. We listen, and in the stillness of the evening there falls upon the ear, with peculiar effect, a sharp, shrill cry, like the scream of a startled sea-bird. Still we listen, and the cry is repeated over and over again before we are able with any certainty to locate the sound; at first it seems in front of us, then to the left of us, then to the right; and whilst we are still in doubt it ceases altogether. This is the cry of the Patatai, the subject of this article. It is a difficult sound to denote by syllables, but easily distinguished from all the other voices of the field and forest.

That the bird is semi-nocturnal in its habits I have no doubt, for on one occasion in the Heretaunga district I heard its unmistakable cry long after darkness had set in. It is also frequently heard in the early morning.

Allowing that the varieties enumerated above are all referable to one and the same species, we find that this Rail enjoys a very extensive territorial range. It is found all over the southern portion of the Australian continent; and, unless Mr. Gould’s specimens from the north coast and from Raine’s Islet should hereafter prove to be a distinct species, it has an almost unlimited range northwards, migrating from one part of the country to another with the changes of season. It occurs also in Polynesia proper, the Celebes, the Navigators’, the Caroline Islands, New Caledonia, and the Philippine Islands*. It is spread throughout New Zealand in all suitable localities; but owing to its extremely shy disposition, it is far oftener heard than seen. It rarely takes wing—and when it does, flies low and straight, with the legs trailing behind, and soon drops under cover again. But it is a nimble runner, and glides through the dense herbage with amazing facility. It feeds on insects, seeds, and the succulent parts of various native grasses; and its habits generally are very similar to those of the Land-Rail (Crex pratensis) of Europe.

It is also to be met with in the mangrove-swamps, in the branches of the Waitemata and Kaipara, at the Whangarei heads, and in other similar localities.

This is one of the few native birds that have perceptibly increased with the progress of settlement, the new conditions of life being favourable to their existence. Twenty years ago it was an extremely rare bird in all parts of the country; now it is to be met with in suitable localities everywhere, and especially in the settled and cultivated districts. I have even heard its unmistakable cry on quiet evenings, from my own garden on Wellington Terrace, and very recently the local newspapers recorded the capture of one in the Union Steamship Company’s Offices in the very heart of the city.

* The Otago Museum contains a veritable example from Macquarie Island, a fact of considerable interest from a zoo-geographical point of view.

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I had a live one in my possession for several months; but it was so incessantly active in its movements that I had the utmost difficulty in making a life-sketch of it. This bird was brought to me in the early part of March, and the plumage was then old and faded; but the seasonal moult had already commenced, and about the end of May it was in beautiful feather. On being turned loose in a room it ran swiftly from one corner to another seeking concealment, and occasionally stretched its body upwards in a very grotesque attitude, as if surveying its new quarters. It partook readily of cooked potato, and drank freely from a saucer of water, after which it stalked about the room in an inquisitive manner, and several times flew upwards to the window. It was afterwards placed in a wooden cage; but it seemed very impatient of this restraint, and manifested remarkable perseverance in its efforts to escape. It could be heard night and day tapping the bars with its slender bill as it wandered up and down its little prison, and it seemed never to relinquish for a single moment the hope of delivery from its unnatural bondage. Although always timid, it became sufficiently tame to take food from the hand; and when in the act of feeding, especially if supplied with fresh meat or insects, it often expressed its satisfaction in a low chuckling note. It frequently thrust its head into the water-vessel, but never bathed itself.

Long afterwards I had another captive “Land-Rail,” for which I was indebted to Mrs. Mountfort, of Feilding. Although shy before strangers, it had become familiar with the inmates of the household, taking food from the hand, &c. I observed that after every mouthful of food thus administered the bird would run to its trough and take a sip of water. It also exhibited the restless habit, already described, of running up and down in the front of its cage, trying each bar with its bill, as if endeavouring to escape. I had this bird in my possession for about six months; but owing to its being kept in a solitary part of the conservatory, it soon relapsed into wildness, and ultimately made such vigorous and persistent attempts to get through the cage that the top of its head became completely abraded and so bruised and injured that the bird actually died. It was almost carnivorous, but seemed to prefer fresh meat minced up to any other diet.

In its wild state it loves to climb the kiekie (Freycinetia banksii), which clings to the trunks of forest trees, and feed on its ripe tawhara. Indeed this particular bird was caught in the act, and secured by the hand before it had time to escape.

Another which was kept for some time in the Colonial Museum, shut up in the same cage with a tuatara lizard, exhibited a like spirit of restlessness, in strange contrast with the sluggish movements of its reptilian companion. In the centre of its capacious cage a large Asplenim bulbiferum had been planted, and when not prancing up and down its chamber, the bird appeared to spend its time digging with its bill around the roots of this fern, thus affording an indication of its habits in the wild state, where grubs and earthworms no doubt contribute to its sustenance.

The eggs of the Banded Rail, which are placed in a rude nest on the ground, are from four to six in number, and sometimes even more; they are of a very rounded form, measuring 1·5 inch in length by 1·2 in breadth, with a polished surface, and of a creamy-white colour, marked all over, but more conspicuously at the larger end, with rounded spots of chestnut-red. There are three specimens in my son’s collection, all of similar size, being exactly of the measurement given above. They vary from pure white to a warm stone-colour with a pinkish tinge, spotted thickly at the larger end, and sparingly over the entire surface, with reddish brown. In the finest coloured of these specimens the spots are rounded and distinct, varying from dark purple to reddish umber, thickly set and sometimes confluent at the larger end, scattered in the middle circumference of the egg, and almost entirely absent at the smaller end. In the second specimen the markings are not so distinct, of paler colour, and not so thickly set at the larger end. The third, which has a white ground, presents only a few purplish-brown markings at the larger end, the rest of the egg being almost entirely clear, with the exception of a few washed-out looking specks, which are widely scattered over the surface.