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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Ocydromus Fuscus. — (Black Woodhen.)

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Ocydromus Fuscus.
(Black Woodhen.)

  • Gallirallus fuscus, Du Bus, Esquisses Orn. pl. 11 (1847).

  • Ocydromus nigricans, Buller, Trans. N.-Z. Inst. i. p. 111 (1868).

  • Ocydromus fuscus, Finsch, J. f. O. 1870, p. 354.

  • Ocydromus finschi, Hutton, Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. vi. p. 111 (1873).

Native name.—Weka-pango.

Ad. brunnescenti-niger, plumis plus minusve rufescenti-brunneo marginatis: gutture et facie laterali cinereis vix brunneo tinctis: abdomine medio sordidè cinereo: remigibus brunnescenti-nigris, intùs rufescenti-brunneo maculatis: caudâ nigrâ: subcaudalibus ferrugineo transfasciatis: rostro nigricanti-brunneo: pedibus pallidé brunneis: iríde saturaté brunneâ.

Adult. General plumage brownish black, each feather margined more or less with rufous brown; throat and sides of the head cinereous, slightly tinged with brown; middle portion of abdomen dull cinereous; quills brownish black, obscurely banded or spotted on the inner webs with rufous brown; the soft feathers lining the wings faintly margined with rufous; tail-feathers black; under tail-coverts transversely barred with rufous. Irides bright reddish brown; bill dark brown, tinged with red towards the base; legs bright reddish brown; darker on the hind part of tarsi and on the under surface of toes. Total length 22 inches; extent of wings 23·25; wing, from flexure, 7·25; tail 5·25; bill, along the ridge 2, along the edge of lower mandible 2·4; tarsus 2·25; middle toe and claw 3; hind toe and claw 1.

Young. In young birds the plumage of the upper surface is more or less varied with rounded spots of rufous brown, and the primaries are obscurely banded with rufous. These quill-markings disappear after the first or second moult, the spots vanish, and the rufous streaks on the upper surface diminish as the bird gets older.

Obs. Examples vary in the amount of rufous colouring that pervades the plumage, some being almost wholly black and without any markings on the quills. A specimen in Sir James Hector’s collection of birds in the Otago Museum has no bars on the under tail-coverts; and another, in my own collection, has the fore neck and breast largely suffused with fulvous brown. The measurements given above were taken from a freshly killed male bird. Another male measured 21 inches in length and 22·5 in extent.

An apparently adult female specimen of this bird in the Canterbury Museum (obtained at Preservation Inlet) has the general plumage brownish black; throat dark grey mixed with smoky brown; the plumage of the fore neck, lower hind neck, and upper surface of wings presenting dull streaky marks of rufous, each feather being irregularly touched with this on each web; tail-feathers black; under coverts obscurely marked with rufous. On the underside of one of the primaries (an old feather which came out on being handled) there are obsolete rufous bars; and the scattered new feathers appearing on the upper surface of the body are almost entirely black; bill bright reddish brown at the base, horn-grey towards the tips of both mandibles; legs and feet reddish brown. It may be inferred from this state of plumage that the tendency of this species is to darken towards maturity.

Remarks. The type of Hutton’s Ocydromus finschi, with a label in his handwriting attached, is now in my collection. Prof. Ward, of Rochester, obtained it by exchange from the Otago Museum, and I was fortunate enough to get it back from New York six months afterwards. In this bird the primaries are very distinctly page 113 barred, the loose feathers overlapping them have series of yellowish-buff spots on both vanes, and the feathers covering the flanks are barred or fasciated in the same manner. Besides this, the feathers have paler margins, the throat and cheeks are of a purer grey, and the breast is dark chestnut-grey. In the type of O. fuscus the breast is like the rest of the plumage; but I have had specimens in which this grey feature was quite conspicuous. I have come to the conclusion, therefore, that these differences merely denote transitional states of plumage.

There is a similar specimen in the Canterbury Museum from the West Coast (South Island), and there is another from Preservation Inlet (marked ♂, Jan. 1873), in which the plumage is intermediate between the type of O. finschi and ordinary examples of O. fuscus, the general coloration being black with brown edges to the feathers. Judging by analogy I feel no hesitation in pronouncing this the immature condition of the Black Woodhen. Professor Hutton himself has already conjectured that his “O. finschi is only the young of O. fuscus”; and Dr. Finsch, to whom he had dedicated the supposed new species, has expressed a strong suspicion that one was a mere variety of the other. I think we may now take it that the matter admits of no further doubt.

This species of Woodhen, which is quite distinct from all the others, although for a long time confounded with them, inhabits the sea-shore and feeds among the kelp and seaweed. Hitherto it has only been found on the south-west coast of the South Island, where it is said to be extremely abundant. There can be no doubt that this is the bird referred to by Captain Cook in the following passage:—“Although they are numerous enough here [Dusky Bay], they are so scarce in other parts that I never saw but one … . . They inhabit the skirts of the woods, and feed on the sea-beach, and were so tame or foolish as to stand and stare at us till we knocked them down with a stick … . . They are a sort of Rail, about the size and a good deal like a common dunghill hen. Most of them are of a dirty black or dark brown colour”*. A description and figure of this species, under the name of Gallirallus fuscus, appeared (l. c.) in 1847; but, owing to a doubt as to its native habitat, it was not admitted into the accepted list of New-Zealand birds. More recently, however, it was rediscovered by Dr. (now Sir James) Hector, and described by myself (l. c.) under the name of Ocydromus nigricans. Dr. Finsch having, at my request, compared one of my specimens with the type of Gallirallus fuscus (Du Bus), there could no longer be any doubt about their identity.

Sir J. Hector informs me that he never met with this kind of Woodhen at any distance from the sea-coast, and that it appears to subsist entirely on shell-fish and other marine productions.

Like its congeners, it may be easily snared by dangling a small bird or a mouse at the end of a stick, about a yard long, and then, by means of another stick somewhat longer, slipping a noose of green flax over the bird’s head as it attempts to seize the bait, the operator partially concealing himself by lying in the fern or grass.

The following record, in Hammett’s Journal of the West-Coast exploration in 1863, refers apparently to the same bird:—“Thursday, August 20 [after being on the verge of starvation for forty days]. Still raining in torrents! My blankets and my clothes are saturated. All that I can do is to stand in the pitiless rain, which can make me no wetter, and watch the surf as it rolls towards my feet. It is impossible to get a fire. I have caught two Woodhens; for as God sent the Ravens to feed Elijah, so these birds came to me, and my faithful dog caught them. I am thus provided with food for a day or two; but unless I can manage a fire to cook them, I must even eat them raw. I live in hope that the weather will clear, as the wind has changed. My faithful dog, how serviceable in many ways have you been to me!” Thus poor Hammett records his gratitude for the gift of Woodhens—the only inhabitants, besides rats, of this inhospitable coast. The occasional capture of one of these birds sufficed to keep him from absolute starvation, and through much suffering and privation Hammett survived to tell the melancholy fate of the rest of his party.

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My late brother, Mr. John Buller, obtained a pair of these birds from a dealer in Dunedin in 1869; and they lived in my aviary for more than a year. In captivity their habits differ in no respect from those of the species already described. I remarked, however, that one of them had a practice of mounting to a particular spot on the ledge of the aviary almost every day, and remaining in a perfectly motionless attitude for hours together. On one occasion a large brown rat effected an entrance by undermining the aviary, and was killed and partly devoured by them; and at another time a North-Island Woodhen (Ocydromus greyi), which I had introduced, met with a similar fate. In fact, when deprived of its marine bill of fare, this species is quite as omnivorous as the others. In connexion with this, the ‘Canterbury Mail’ records the following case of anthropophagism:—“A returned digger relates that he captured a Woodhen in the act of feeding on the remains of a man, and being himself almost famished he quickly devoured the bird. To use the words of a well-known banker in London, who is the gourmet par excellence of the day,—‘That man, Sir, would eat his own father; he has the stomach of an Ostrich.’”

Lady Barker, in her charming little book, ‘Station Life in New Zealand,’ gives the following amusing account of her first acquaintance with the Woodhen:—“I lay back on a bed of fern watching the numbers of little birds around us. They boldly picked up our crumbs, without a thought of possible danger. Presently I felt a tug at the shawl on which I was lying. I was too lazy and dreamy to turn my head; so the next thing was a sharp dig on my arm which hurt me dreadfully. I looked round, and there was a Weka bent on investigating the intruder into its domain. The bird looked so cool and unconcerned, that I had not the heart to follow my first impulse and throw my stick at it; but my forbearance was presently rewarded by a stab on the ankle which fairly made me jump up with a scream, when my persecutor glided gracefully away among the bushes, leaving me, like Lord Ullin, ‘lamenting.’” The same pleasing writer, in giving an account of the Island of Wekas in Lake Coleridge, observes:—“No one can imagine how these birds came here; for the island is at least two miles from the nearest point of land; they can neither swim nor fly; and as every man’s hand is against them, no one would have thought it worth while to bring them over; but here they are in spite of all the apparent improbabilities attending their arrival, more tame and impudent than ever! It was dangerous to leave your bread unwatched for an instant; and, indeed, I saw one gliding off with an empty sardine-tin in its beak; I wonder how it liked the oil and little scales! They considered a cork a great prize, and carried several off triumphantly.”

Mr. Reischek informs me that, at the West Coast sounds, long after dark, he observed a bird swimming near the shore and sent his dog into the water after it. On being pursued the bird dived; and on being captured it proved to be a Black Woodhen. It is as mischievous as its cousin of the plains. An enterprising one entered Reischek’s tent during the night and carried off his last candle; and he surprised another, in the early dawn, carrying off one of his slippers.

Although, as already mentioned, it frequents the sea-shore and feeds on the kelp, the last-named naturalist met with it also, but only on rare occasions, at an elevation of 3000 feet above the sea. From a place of concealment he once watched a Black Woodhen hunting for its food; he observed that it scratched up the ground with its feet, just as a domestic fowl would do, and then picked it over with its bill. In illustration of its hardy nature, he told me that one which he had shot and hung up for a specimen soon revived and made its escape. Three days afterwards the dog caught it, and he found the body marked all over with shot. As might have been expected, his collection contained specimens in every condition of plumage. He found it very plentiful on the shores of Dusky Sound and of the Acheron passage; those which he collected at a higher elevation appeared to be larger birds and in much finer plumage than those frequenting the sea-shore.

* Cook’s Second Voyage, edit. 4to, i. p. 97.