A History of the Birds of New Zealand.
Ocydromus Greyi. — (North-Island Woodhen.)
Ad. ♂ rufescenti-fulvus: plumis corporis superioris medialiter nigricantibus, rufescenti-fulvo marginatis: pileo summo et collo postico saturatè rufescenti-fulvis indistincté nigro variis: supercilio distincto sordidè cinereo, parte anticâ fulvescente: facie laterali rufescente, regione paroticâ fulvo variâ: genis cum collo laterali imo et gutture toto sordidè cinereis: pectore superiore et laterali rufescente: corpore reliquo subtùs lætiùs cinereo, hypochondriis rufescenti-brunneis: rostro brunneo, versus apicem cinerascenti-corneo, culmine saturatiore: pedibus pallidè brunneis: iride rufescenti-brunneâ.
Ad. ♀ mari similis, sed valdè minor et obscurior.
Adult male. Upper parts rufous fulvous, darkest on the crown and nape, each feather shaded with black in the centre; throat, fore neck, a superciliary streak widening outwards and extending to the nape, lower part of breast and the abdomen dull cinereous, tinged more or less with rufous; lores, sides of the head and neck, upper part of breast and surface of wings bright rufous fulvous; lower part of back, rump, sides of the body, and thighs obscure rufous brown; wing-feathers fuscous black, with rufous-brown edges, the primaries banded on their inner vane with bright rufous; tail-feathers fuscous black, with paler edges; under tailcoverts fuscous, banded with bright rufous. The feathers of the body are plumbeous at the base, with pure white shafts. Irides bright reddish brown; bill reddish brown, darker on the ridge, and changing to horn-grey at the tip; tarsi and toes pale brown, claws darker. Total length 21 inches; extent of wings 22·5; wing, from flexure, 7·75; tail 4·75; bill, along the ridge 2, along the edge of lower mandible 2·25; tarsus 2·5; middle toe and claw 3; hind toe and claw 1.
* On the synonymy of this species Professor Hutton has sent me the following note:—
“I am sure that you are right about the identification of Ocydromus earli. I always agreed with you, and I do not understand how Finsch thinks otherwise. I think the following is about right:—
“I. O. earli, Gray; ‘Ibis,’ 1862, p. 26; also, O. australis, Gray, ibid. in part; Buller, ‘Birds of New Zealand.’ Whether or not it is the Rallus rufus of Ellman I have no means of judging.
“2. O. fuscus, Dubus, R. troglodytes, Forster, ‘Descr. An.’ p. 110; R. fuscus, Ellman?; Buller, ‘Birds of New Zealand.’
“3. O. australis, Sparrm.; Gray, in ‘Voyage of the Erebus and Terror’ (young only); Buller, ‘Birds of New Zealand,’ in part (not the figure).
“4. O. troglodytes, Gmel.; O. australis, Gray, ‘Voyage of the Erebus and Terror’ (adult); and Buller, ‘Birds of New Zealand,’ in part, with figure.
“I doubt O. brachypterus, Lafr., being a synonym of either of these. Finsch thinks it is the same as O. hectori, mihi, which is very probable. I have had two specimens of O. fuscus sent to me from the Waiau district, on the eastern side of the Alps—the region of O. finschi, mihi; so I now think that O. finschi is probably only the young of O. fuscus.”
I do not admit O. troglodytes as a species; my plate in the former edition therefore represents a highly coloured example of O. australis.
Young. The colours of the underparts duller and more blended than in the adult; upper parts darker and more uniform in colour. Throat, breast, and under surface generally dull brownish grey, paler on the throat, washed with ferruginous on the lower part of fore neck and on the sides of the body; no rufous band on the sides of the face.
Fledgling. The whole of the plumage of a dingy rufous brown, the feathers of the upper parts shaded in the centre with fuscous black; paler on the underparts; tinged on the sides of the head and breast with cinereous; feet pale brown. In the specimen above described there is no appearance yet of quills, and there is much fluffy down still adhering to the plumage, especially on the head, lower part of back, and flanks.
Chick. Covered with soft down of a brownish-black colour; bill dark brown, with a small white speck near the tip of the upper mandible.
Obs. Individuals vary considerably in the general tone of their plumage, as well as in the details of their colouring, seldom two specimens being found exactly alike. The ground-colour of the upper parts varies from a dingy rufous brown to a bright reddish fulvous. In some specimens the soft overlapping plumage of the wings is banded on both webs with light fulvous brown. The extent of the rufous colouring on the breast likewise varies very much, and in some specimens is entirely wanting, while in others in which this feature is conspicuous the rufous bands on the under tail-coverts are absent. This individual variability of colour, although due in some measure to conditions of age and sex, is characteristic of the genus.
Partial albino. The following is the description of a very singular specimen obtained in the Manawatu district, and presented to me by Mr. J. T. Stewart, the Provincial Engineer:—Ground-colours as in the ordinary bird, but the whole body covered with straggling pure white feathers, especially on the crown, back, wings, breast, and sides; primaries black, with numerous regular bars of chestnut-brown on both webs; under tail-coverts obscurely barred with pale brown; bill pale yellow, greyish at the tip of upper mandible; legs pale yellowish brown.
There is another somewhat similar specimen in the Colonial Museum, but more largely marked with white on the back, breast, and flanks.
The Weka Rail or Woodhen is one of the few New-Zealand birds that already possess a literature. Cook mentions it in his ‘Voyages;’ the naturalists who accompanied him figured and described it, but without being able to discriminate the different species *; and nearly every general writer on New Zealand since that time has honoured it with, at any rate, a passing notice; while by some of them, as well as in the columns of various periodicals, its habits have been more or less fully narrated. No connected history of this bird, however, has yet been attempted; and lest the present one should appear of unnecessary length, it must be borne in mind that this is one of those doomed species whose habits and economy I am bound, as a faithful historian, to describe in detail—not so much on account of their intrinsic importance as for the benefit of naturalists of a future day, who will seek in vain for the birds themselves, and to whom, as we may readily imagine, every recorded particular of this sort will possess the same interest that now attaches to Leguat’s rude account of the Didine bird of Rodriguez.
In my former edition, I treated the North-Island Woodhen (as every one else had done before) as the Ocydromus earli of Mr. G. R. Gray’s ‘List’ of 1862, and under that name I both described and figured it.
* Forster’s description of Ocydromus australis, in his MS. account of the Voyage, was published by Sparrman in 1786.
In 1878 I published † a revision of the group (see infrà, p. 120), in which I adhered to the nomenclature I had adopted, and added a fourth species (O. brachypterus) to the list.
In the autumn of 1885 I had an opportunity of examining at Auckland a large collection of birds brought by Mr. Reischek from the South Island. Among the most interesting of these was a species of Woodhen, closely resembling the North-Island bird, but distinguishable by its more cinnamon-coloured plumage and its brighter legs and feet. Of this Woodhen, Mr. Reischek had obtained five specimens, two of which (male and female) I was fortunate enough to secure.
On coming to England I hunted up the type of Mr. G. R. Gray’s Ocydromus earli at the British Museum, and then discovered to my surprise that this was identical with the new bird brought by Reischek from the South Island, which must therefore stand as Ocydromus earli. This specimen was brought from New Zealand by Mr. Percy Earl, in 1845, but there is no locality assigned to it in the British-Museum register; and its general similarity in plumage to the present species has led to a very natural mistake.
It thus follows that the common Woodhen of the North Island is still without a distinctive name.
I find, on looking over the old type-collection of birds in the British Museum, that Sir George Grey, K.C.B., was one of the earliest and most liberal contributors of specimens from New Zealand. I have therefore decided to distinguish this form as Ocydromus greyi. In thus dedicating the species to that veteran statesman and scientist, I feel sure that I shall have the approval of my ornithological brethren, both in this country and abroad. I do this the more readily because I have been compelled (as stated in Vol. I. p. 178) to destroy the only other connecting-link of the kind by expunging Stringops greyi from our list of species‡
* Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. vii. p. 231.
† Ibid. vol. x. pp. 213–2216.
‡ To myself personally it is very gratifying to be in a position to pay this compliment to Sir George Grey. He was the valued friend of my late honoured father and, in the early days of the colony, encouraged and aided him in his laborious missionary work. Moreover, I have a grateful recollection of many personal acts of kindness to myself in my younger days. But his real claim to special mention here is that, while holding high office, he has always taken an active interest in the furtherance of Ornithological science. In illustration of this I may mention that, as far back as 1863, when Governor of New Zealand, he urged upon me the preparation of a handbook on the subject for the use of colonial students. When, some ten years later, I published my ‘History of the Birds of New Zealand,’ he was the first of my many colonial friends to send me a cordial letter of congratulation. And when, at a subsequent date, at the request of the Colonial Government, I produced an illustrated ‘Manual of the Birds of New Zealand,’ he sent me the following appreciative note:—
“Kawau, Jan. 28, 1885.
“My Dear Buller,—
“I am very much obliged to you for the copy of your ‘Manual of the Birds of New Zealand,’ which you have been good enough to send me. I regard it as being in every respect a work of great value; and it possesses this great advantage, that from the Diagram of a Bird which you have introduced into it, to illustrate the technical terms used in describing the various species, and from the lucid language in which each bird is described, you have rendered your work a most valuable introduction to the study of the science of ornithology, with the aid of which any student may readily master that subject in so far as it relates to New Zealand, and thoroughly understand any other ornithological work that he may read. In this respect you have rendered a great benefit to the youth of New Zealand.
Among the farmers it has rather a bad reputation. There can be no doubt that it does sometimes commit depredations. A friend of mine living in a country place was continually missing eggs from his poultry-yard; and he determined to set a watch, when it was discovered that the Woodhen was the culprit. He observed the bird make straight for a nest full of eggs, tap a hole with its bill in each of them in succession, and suck up the contents.
The Woodhen is furnished with ample wings, but they are so feebly developed as to render the bird quite incapable of flight. The quill-feathers have broad webs, but are soft and flexible, while the long inner secondaries take the form of a loose overlapping mantle. The legs, on the other hand, are very strongly developed, and the bird is, in some measure, compensated for its disability of wing by being able to run almost with the swiftness of a rat. Its anterior extremities, although useless for the ordinary purposes of flight, appear to be of some assistance to the bird when running, as they are briskly fluttered, apparently for the purpose of steadying the body. Like most other Rails, its wings are armed below the carpal joint with a sharp spur, the object of which, unless as a means of defence, it is not easy to divine. Even in very young birds it is strong and sharp, and at maturity attains a length of ·25 of an inch. I have observed that when two of these birds are fighting they often buffet each other with their wings; and I have frequently myself been made aware of the existence of this spur on seizing the bird with the hand. As, however, in the case of the smaller Rails, the spur is too diminutive to be at all effective as a weapon of defence, it may serve some other useful end in the economy of the bird, which has hitherto escaped discovery.
It is a notorious fact of late that this species, notwithstanding its feebly developed wings, rendering it quite incapable of flight, is getting every year more plentiful in the settled districts of the North Island. The reason is doubtless to be found in the fact that while its natural enemies, hawks and wild cats, diminish with the progress of settlement, the cultivation of the country increases its advantages in the every-day struggle for existence. The nocturnal cry of the Woodhen is now very familiar in districts where a few years ago it was quite unknown.
* Referring thereto, Professor Newton has favoured me with the following note:—“This I pointed out at a meeting of the Zoological Society, held 12th December, 1865, when I described, for the first time in public, a portion of the scapular arch in Didus, in which the same thing occurs, and stated that, so far as I then knew (and, for the matter of that, still know), this feature was peculiar to these two genera alone among non-struthious birds. The remarks I made at this meeting were never printed; for, learning that Prof. Owen wished to describe those portions of the skeleton of Didus which Mr. George Clark had discovered, I caused my paper to be suppressed. (Cf. Phil. Trans. 1869, p. 341, note.) I cannot attempt to give any reason that would plausibly account for this singular deviation of structure from the normal Carinate form in two birds so unlike as Ocydromus and Didus: there the matter is, and one must leave it at present.”
The Woodhen is seminocturnal in its habits, and during the day usually remains concealed in the thick fern or scrub which covers its haunts, or takes refuge in a hollow log or other natural cavity. Sometimes, however, it excavates a home for itself underground, the work being performed entirely with the bill and with great rapidity, as I have frequently had an opportunity of observing. These subterranean burrows are often of considerable length, and not only serve as a diurnal retreat, but furnish also a convenient breeding-place.
This species is comparatively plentiful in the snow-country adjacent to Ruapehu and Tongariro, notwithstanding the severity of the climate at this altitude during a large portion of the year. As is well known, several berry-producing trees, such as the totara and the kahikatea, reappear on these mountain-heights in a remarkably dwarfed form, being indeed little more than scrub spreading over the ground. These diminutive representatives of forest-growths nevertheless produce berries of the full size, and these being accessible from the ground are eagerly sought after by the Woodhen, which becomes at this season excessively fat, and is in great demand among the Maoris in consequence. When proving, in the Native Land Court, the tribal title to this country, where, owing to the extreme poverty of the soil, it was difficult to discover the necessary acts of ownership in former times on the part of the claimants or their ancestors, I was always glad to fall back upon evidence of Weka-hunting within the disputed boundaries, as affording proof of ancient title.
As we descend from the mountain-slopes to the Murimotu downs—the land of the snow-grass and tussock—the Woodhen becomes less numerous, but in the widely scattered clumps of bush a few of them are always to be met with. In one of these localities, at the back of Mr. Moorhouse’s station, I found that they had been digging up and feeding upon the so-called vegetable caterpillar (Cordiceps robertsii), which was unusually abundant there.
As the evening shades begin to cover the land, the first note to be heard in the scrubby plains or at the edge of the darkening forest is the cry of the Weka, two of them invariably calling in concert. The female leads off with a sharp shrill whistle, followed before she has half finished by the male, the cry commencing with a peculiar growling note, like c-r-r-u, which breaks into a whistle. These cries are repeated by both several times in rapid succession, and then for a few minutes the birds are quiet; again the shrill clamour and a pause; and so on till the darkness of advancing night has silenced for a time even the vigilant Weka, and all around is still.
* The late Professor Garrod sent me the following valuable communication on the same subject:—“In its osteology and visceral anatomy, as well as in its myology, Ocydromus agrees completely with the Rails; and its close relationship to Tribonyx is undoubted. The peculiarities depend on the reduction in the development of the anterior extremities, which causes the typically ralline sternum to be much reduced in size and the coracoid bones to be separated at their lower ends. The slenderness of the furcula, which is also peculiarly large, depends on the same cause. As in the typical Rallidæ, the skull is schizognathous and holorhinal; in other words, the maxillo-palatine bones of either side do not anchylose along the middle line, and the nasal bones are not split up as in the true Waders or the Gulls. The vomer is well developed, and reaches forward, as far as the anterior border of the maxillo-palatines; it is bifid behind. The wing-bones are feebly developed, and those of the leg are unusually strong. The pollex carries a long claw; the hallux is small and raised at its base.
“There are two carotid arteries as in the Rails; and the cæca of the intestine are just three inches long, the intestine itself being a little over two feet from pylorus to anus. The gizzard is weak; the oil-gland on the coccyx carries a densely feathered tuft at its apex.
“So many features have they in common, that it would be difficult for any one to bring convincing arguments against the statement that Ocydromus is one of the nearest allies of the Apteryx. This similarity may be the simple result of similar influences acting on different natures, the diminished necessity for the use of the anterior limbs allowing them to dwindle in both. But, with the facts of geographical distribution to back it, the opinion may be fairly maintained that Apteryx and Ocydromus had the same ancestor not far back in time. It may be said that the pelvis is very different; but the same remark partly applies to Tinamus, an undoubted ally, and a bird also most probably of the same stock, though residing so far off.”
As will appear further on, the Woodhens inhabiting the South Island belong to several totally distinct species, although closely resembling the present one both in form and habits of life. Now it is a curious fact that while all the southern species are remarkably bold and fearless (so tame, indeed, as to visit the farmer’s yard, and sometimes even to enter the house), the northern bird is naturally shy and recluse—a development of character which Sir James Hector attributes to its “greater experience of the treachery of man,” the North Island having always possessed a large Maori population. So shy, indeed, is the latter species, that, notwithstanding its loud shrill cry, it is quite impossible to find it without the aid of a good dog.
I have on several occasions kept caged Woodhens for a considerable time; but, although I persevered in one instance for more than two years, I could never succeed in completely domesticating them. I was thus afforded, however, an opportunity of studying their character, which may be summed up in two words—pugnacious and gluttonous. The introduction of a piece of red cloth, or other brightly coloured object, was generally sufficient to excite the bird and make its feathers rise; but the presence of another Weka, whether male or female, would instantly provoke a display of hostility, and after some light skirmishing a fight would ensue, which generally, in the end, proved fatal to the intruder. On one occasion I introduced into the cage a small mirror, and watched the effect: ruffling its feathers and stretching out its neck, the Weka advanced slowly towards the glass, and then made a sudden dash at its supposed adversary, and continued to repeat the attack with so much passion and violence, that I thought it prudent to remove the exciting object, to save the bird from injuring itself. On the charge of gluttony I may say that not only were my captives omnivorous, devouring fish, flesh, and fowl, whether cooked or raw, boiled potato and other vegetables, green fruit, and, in short, every thing within the digestive power of the gizzard, but they also had a most inordinate and voracious appetite. As a proof of this, I may state, by reference to my note-book, that a single bird in the course of two months consumed nearly a hundredweight of cooked potatoes! In a wild state it subsists on berries of various kinds, with earthworms, grasshoppers, and other insects, while it never loses an opportunity of entombing in its capacious stomach a mouse or lizard. In the South Island Sir James Hector has observed the Woodhens attacking full-grown rats, and Sir Julius Haast has frequently seen them capture and devour small birds. That they are given to plundering the nests of other birds that build on the ground, devouring alike the eggs and young, is now a well-known fact; and on this account Sir George Grey has found good reason to regret his too successful attempt to stock his beautiful island-home at Kawau with Woodhens from the mainland! Even here this doomed species will now no longer find an asylum.
In the daytime it moves about under thick cover with a stealthy gait, and continually flirts its tail upwards after the manner of the true Rails. The tail-feathers are of peculiar texture, having stiff shafts with loose disunited barbs; and in some specimens the shafts are found denuded at the tips for the space of nearly an inch. In skinning this bird, one is struck with the extraordinary development of the tibial muscles as compared with the humeral, betokening at once the habits of life already described. The skin is very tough, and adheres firmly to the body, especially on the thighs. There is another circumstance worth mentioning—namely that some Wekas have a strong inherent odour, which communicates itself to the hand if rubbed along the plumage, and does not entirely leave the dried skin, while others are wholly free from it. It is not dependent on sex, nor is it peculiar to any season of the year; but where it does exist, it differs perceptibly in degree in different examples. Possibly this may result from the long-continued occupation of a burrow rendered foul by the omnivorous habits of the bird.
It commences to breed early in September; for on the 30th of that month I saw a fine Weka chick at Archdeacon Hadfield’s house, at Otaki, and another at Wanganui some days earlier.
The sharp whistling cry of the Woodhen is a familiar sound to the benighted traveller as he page 111 toils through the high fern, or seeks a camping-place at the edge of the forest. Long after the twilight has faded away he may hear at intervals the peculiar toll-note of the Tui, chop-chop-chop, or the far-off cry of the Koheperoa; but the note that will last, at intervals, through the long watches of the night is that of the Weka, generally thrice repeated and followed by a shriller one, the two sexes, as already stated, performing in concert. In the dark Fagus-forests of the hills, where even Owls are scarce, the cry of the Woodhen is the only sound that breaks the stillness of the night; and, owing to its peculiar shrillness, it may be heard to a considerable distance. In some conditions of the atmosphere, indeed, it is almost impossible to distinguish it from the piercing call of the Apteryx.
During certain seasons of the year the Weka keeps strictly to the woods, seeking its subsistence among the fallen débris of the forest vegetation, and digging for worms and grubs in the loose vegetable mould that accumulates around the roots of the trees. It may often be seen leisurely crossing the narrow bush-path, or turning over the fallen leaves in the more open parts of the forest; but in these localities it is always difficult to procure because of the abundant cover, and the impossibility of hunting it far even with a dog. In the soft sunshine of November, when the noisy hum of insect life betokens the presence of midsummer—when the low underwood is spangled with the snow-white flowers of the wild convolvulus and the air is laden with a delicious perfume from the waxy blossoms of the small Clematis—the Weka leaves the dark shade of the forest and comes forth with her well-grown brood to feed on the ground-berries that ripen at this season, and to feast on the crickets and beetles that are brought into activity by the genial warmth of the sun. Here it may be easily hunted down and captured with the aid of a dog.
As already stated, the Woodhen often converts its burrow into a breeding-place; but the following description of a nest found on the banks of the Manawatu river will show that other situations are sometimes selected. An aged kahikatea in tumbling to the ground had fallen athwart a huge gnarled stump, and remained in that position. Under the shelter afforded by the overlying trunk and among the knotted roots of the supporting stump the Weka had placed her nest, forming it of dry flags of the puwharawhara (Astelia cunninghamii) loosely arranged. The nest was so admirably concealed by a growth of ferns that nothing but accident could have led to its discovery. It contained two eggs, which is the usual number, although I have occasionally met with a nest of three. These are slightly ovoido-conical in form, measuring 2·4 inches in length by 1·7 in breadth, and are of a creamy white colour, marked all over, but especially at the larger end, with small obscure spots of purple and brown. Examples differ slightly both in size and form; and in some the markings at the thick end assume a rounded well-defined character, similar to those which adorn the eggs of Rallus philippensis.
On the outskirts of the woods this Rail may sometimes be seen consorting with the half-wild barndoor fowls from the Maori villages, and there is a widespread popular belief that they often interbreed, producing a hybrid offspring with hairy plumage and aborted quill-feathers. One of these supposed hybrids (a fine male bird) was sent to me by Dr. Lewis, the Medical Superintendent at Rotorua, and having brought the specimen to England, preserved in spirits, I placed it in the hands of the well-known comparative anatomist, Dr. Murie, for examination. He made a careful dissection and sent me a full report, showing that, notwithstanding a certain outward or superficial resemblance to a Weka, all the characters are Galline and not Ralline. Another specimen (an adult female), which I obtained at Manawatu, was submitted to Mr. Frank Beddard, the Prosector to the Zoological Society, and with a like result. This question may therefore be regarded as finally set at rest.