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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Ardea Egretta. — (White Heron.)

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Ardea Egretta.
(White Heron.)

  • Ardea egretta, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 629 (1788, ex Lath.).

  • Ardea flavirostris, Wagl. Syst. Av. p. 177 (1827).

  • Herodias flavirostris, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terror, Birds, p. 12 (1843).

  • Herodias syrmatophorus, Gould, B. of Austr. vi. pl. 56 (1848).

  • Ardea alba, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7469.

  • Ardea flavirostris, Gray, Ibis, 1862, p. 235.

  • Herodias alba, Gould, Handb. B. of Austr. ii. p. 301 (1865).

  • Ardea intermedia, Finsch, J. f. O. 1867, p. 832.

  • Ardea syrmatophora, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 226 (1873).

  • Ardea egretta, Finsch, J. f. O. 1874, p. 194.

Native name.—Kotuku; “White Crane” of the colonists.

Ad. ubique alba: scapularibus plumis elongatis filamentosis ornatis: rostro lætè flavo: pedibus nigris: iride flavâ.

Adult male. The whole of the plumage snowy white. Irides yellow; loral skin greenish yellow; bill bright yellow, with a polished surface, sometimes inclining to brown towards the point of the upper mandible; legs black, tinged on the tibia and tarsal joints with yellow. Length 40 inches; extent of wings 51·5; wing, from flexure, 17; tail 7; bill, along the ridge 5, along the edge of lower mandible 6·5; bare tibia 4; tarsus 6·25; middle toe and claw 4·75; hind toe and claw 2·6.

Female. Similar to the male, but smaller in all its dimensions.

Nestling. Covered with thick yellowish-white down, which is lengthened on the crown, and being stiff and erectile gives the young chick a very striking appearance. Bill dull yellow with black tip; legs black, more or less tinged with yellow. In the Colonial Museum there are two chicks (apparently from the same nest), one, however, being nearly double the size of the other. The smaller of the two seems a mere mite in comparison with the parent bird; but with the members of this family the development of the young is always very rapid.

Varieties. I have already mentioned that in our bird the bill is yellow all the year round. I have now, however, to record an example with a black bill. I was first informed of it by Mr. W. Sparkes of the Canterbury Museum, who wrote to me in November 1884, saying:—” In your remarks upon the White Heron (Birds N. Z. 1st ed. p. 226) you state that you have never seen one with a black bill. A very fine bird was sent me last Sunday, in the flesh, for mounting, of which the bill is quite black, slightly olive-tinted at the points of both mandibles. The legs are of a dark purple colour on the lower portion, changing to a light plum above the tarsal joint.” I afterwards had an opportunity of examining this specimen, which was an exceptionally fine male, in full breeding-plumage, with about seventy beautiful dorsal plumes, the longest of which measured 18 inches, extending fully seven inches beyond the tail. It differs from all other examples I have seen in having a perfectly black bill, becoming yellowish towards the extreme tips of both mandibles. The loral skin is greenish, changing to yellow around the eyes; and the irides are bright yellow. I observed that in this specimen the filamentous dorsal plumes, which are usually snowy white, were tinged with yellow at the tips.

There is a peculiar specimen in the Colonial Museum; the bill is tinged with brown in its apical page break


page break page 125 portion; across the shoulders and covering the flexure of the wings is a broad band of slaty brown, having the appearance of a yoke; there is a large smudge of the same colour on the fore neck, halfway down, also a shade on the crown of the head, pectoral plumes, and under tail-coverts; the legs are tinged with yellow on the tibia and upper part of tarsus.

Another specimen, which was afterwards submitted to me, and said to have been killed in winter, had the bill of a beautiful orange-yellow, with a narrow mark of black at the extremity of the upper mandible. This bird measured 46 inches in extreme length; bare tibia 4; tarsus 6·5. The legs and feet were perfectly black.

I examined three specimens in the Canterbury Museum. One of these (killed on the West Coast) was an unusually large one, with abundant dorsal plumes, and having the apical portion of the mandibles blackish brown, shading off downwards, and deepening to black at the tip; the tibiæ and tarsi brown, tinged with yellow. Bill, along the ridge 5 inches, along edge of lower mandible 6; bare tibia 3·75; tarsus 6; middle toe and claw 4·1. The second bird is of smaller size, but with ample plumes, the upper mandible exhibiting a line of black along the ridge; and the third, which is entirely destitute of the dorsal adornment, has the bill perfectly yellow, with a tinge of the same colour at the base of the tibia.

A live example in the possession of Mr. J. W. Hall (who sent me a coloured drawing of the head) exhibits a pale blue tint about the orbits of the eyes; the bill is bright yellow at the base, pale lake in its entire length, but black towards the tip of the upper mandible.

Obs. This species exhibits considerable variation in size. A specimen obtained by Mr. Travers in the South Island has the bill longer and more robust than in ordinary examples, while the legs are remarkably short as compared with others, the tarsus measuring only 5 inches in length.

Both sexes are adorned with the dorsal plumes during the breeding-season; but in the female they are not so fine as in the other sex.

Remarks. The fully adult bird of both sexes has the back adorned by a number of long filamentous plumes, which have their origin near the roots of the scapulars, extending from four to six inches beyond the tail and forming a beautiful train; but this is peculiar to the breeding-season. The plumes are about 15 inches in length, extending fully three inches beyond the tail; and they consist of a rigid tapering shaft, with lateral filaments of extreme fineness, placed about half an inch apart, being, for the most part, five inches in length, but becoming shorter towards the extremity of the shaft. The whole of this ornamental plumage is, like the body, pure white. In some examples (either females or immature birds) these dorsal plumes are very much reduced, a few of the feathers forming the mantle having their shafts produced as far as the end of the tail and furnished with loose filamentous barbs.

As already stated, the bill is of a rich yellow colour. With the rare exceptions mentioned above, I have never seen any with a black bill or in a transitional state, although I have examined scores obtained at all seasons of the year; and I do not believe that any regular seasonal change of colour takes place, in which respect our bird appears to differ from the other closely allied species. My friend Dr. Finsch first of all referred it to. Ardea intermedia, then to A. alba, and lastly to A. egretta; and, although I kept it distinct in my former edition, I feel bound now to adopt the last of these names. Mr. Gould, in surrendering his own application of syrmatophorus, quotes Blyth’s remarks on the subject (Ibis, 1865, p. 36); but I was informed by Mr. Blyth himself that in the Indian bird the change in the colour of the bill, from yellow to black, and vice versâ, always takes place with the change of season.

The White Heron occurs so sparingly in most parts of New Zealand, that “rare as the Kotuku” has passed into a proverb among the Maoris; while in the North Island it is said to occur only once in a lifetime (He Kotuku rerenga tahi).

The first North-Island example I heard of was at Whaingaroa (Raglan) about the year 1853. In 1856 I examined a fine specimen which had been shot at Hurley’s mill-reservoir near Wellington. A year or two later I saw another from the Wairarapa district. In the summer of 1865 a pair visited the mangrove swamp at Whangarei, and remained there several weeks. The year before a pair was seen at Whangape Lake in the Lower Waikato; in 1867 another pair frequented, for some time, the marshy ground at the mouth of the Maketu river, and again in 1867 a pair visited the page 126 banks of the Waihi in the same district. The natives made every possible effort to obtain these birds for the sake of the white plumes. In both of the last-mentioned cases they succeeded in killing one of them, the survivor remaining in the locality for several months, leaving only on the approach of winter. In former years it was always to be met with singly or in pairs in certain districts in the South Island, but with the extension of settlement it has disappeared. In the summer of 1859 (after stalking him for two hours), I shot a beautiful adult male at the sea-shore lagoon near Timaru, and saw another pair feeding among the sedges of Lake Ellesmere.

Mr. Cheeseman writes to me from the Auckland Museum:—“I have in the Museum a small specimen of this Heron shot by Mr. Lewis Rye in the Otamatea district, Kaipara. About two years ago one was killed in the swamps by the Thames river and exhibited for a few days at the Thames. Quite recently (1881) Mr. James Stewart, C.E., has informed me that one had been shot by his survey party employed on the Rotorua railway.”

Subsisting almost entirely on eels and small freshwater fish, it frequents the sedgy shores of lagoons and the banks of tidal streams; but it sometimes resorts also to the open sea-beach, where I have myself shot it.

It is very interesting to watch this stately bird stalking about in its haunts, or fishing in the shallow water, its snow-white plumage rendering it a very conspicuous object. I have always found it very shy and difficult to approach, the slightest sound exciting its suspicion and making it take wing. It flies high and in wide circles, the wings performing slow and regular flappings, the head being drawn in upon the shoulders, and the legs trailing behind.

None of our birds enjoy a wider geographic range. Major Legge, in his ‘Birds of Ceylon,’ * has traced its course with a very skilful hand, and I cannot do better than reproduce his account in a condensed form:—It is to be found in all large marshes and tanks throughout the northern half of Ceylon, and in the southern districts also wherever there are extensive tracts of wild paddy-land. In India it is a very common bird, being of course most abundant in the better-watered districts, but may be found everywhere, feeding by rivers and tanks. It is said to be very plentiful in the region between the Ganges and the Godaveri. About Calcutta it is only occasionally met with. Passing eastward, it is found generally distributed throughout the plains portion of Tenasserim. It is likewise found in the Andamans. Returning to India, it is recorded by Dr. Scully as occurring in the valley of Nepal in the winter; and evidently is found all along the base of the Himalayas, as also in the plains westward to the Punjab. In Sindh it is common and is distributed, less numerously, throughout the entire surrounding region. In Kashgharia it is plentiful in winter, migrating northward in the spring to breed. According to Severtzoff it breeds throughout Turkestan and winters in the western portions of that country. It is spread throughout the Chinese empire, breeding in large numbers near Pekin; and Swinhoe met with it in Formosa. In the Malay archipelago, through which it extends to Australia, it is found in Borneo, Celebes, Ternate, Timor, and the Aru Islands. It has been recorded from every settlement in the north of Australia, and from most parts of the East Coast down to Victoria; also from South Australia and Tasmania. In Asia Dr. Radde observed it in the Central Argunj valleys and again in Siberia. Major St. John met with it in Persia, and Mr. Blanford in Baluchistan; while Canon Tristram found it to be a spring and summer visitor to Palestine. In Asia Minor it is common, and in Greece slightly less numerous, though abundant in the marshes of Macedonia. In south-eastern Europe it is much more numerous than further west; rare in Spain,

* Writing of this bird in Ceylon, Major Legge says:—“Breeding-plumage. Iris bright pale golden yellow; bill blackish; loral skin and space round eye greenish yellow; legs and feet black; tibia paler than tarsus… . . The bill remains black a very short time, turning yellow long before the dorsal train is moulted; the tip, however, is black at this stage.”

The late Dr. Jerdon, writing of the closely allied A. modesta in India, says:—“The bill becomes black before the train is developed, and changes again to yellow before the train is shed; so that both black-billed and yellow-billed individuals may be obtained with or without the dorsal train, and others with the bill changing colour in all stages of progress.”

page 127 and absent from Portugal, although occurring in the Azores. It is likewise rare in Malta, though tolerably common during the winter season in Sicily and Sardinia; and scarce again in Northern Italy. In Transylvania it is found on migration; but it breeds in the marshes of Hungary and in the countries skirting the Danube. It is met with rarely in Southern Germany and in Poland; but is common in parts of Russia, particularly in the southern districts. Passing westward, it is rare in France and has only once been killed in the Netherlands. It strays still further north into Scandinavia and has often occurred as a straggler to Great Britain. In parts of the continent of Africa it is abundant, particularly in the north-east, being very plentiful in Lower Egypt, where it breeds in the Nile delta. In Abyssinia it winters, frequenting the Blue and White Nile, and ranging into the highlands to an altitude of 10,000 feet. Canon Tristram met with it in small flocks in various parts of Algeria, and found it wintering in the Sahara. Down the east coast it has been observed at Mozambique and Natal; Layard met with it in South Africa, and Newton at Madagascar. Westward, again, it has been recorded from Damara Land, Benguela, and the Gold Coast.

I have already mentioned that in this species the bill does not undergo any change in the breeding-season, being yellow all the year round. In confirmation of this I may quote a letter which I have received from Mr. J. W. Hall, of the Thames, who had a captive one for a considerable time. He writes:—“As regards the bill of the Kotuku, I observed no seasonal change. The colour was pale yellow, black towards the tip. A remarkable peculiarity was that the mandibles do not quite close except at the tip. This peculiarity was verified after death; indeed when seated on the branch of a tree, in exactly the right position, you could see right through the slit or opening, which was not wider than sufficient to admit a very thin sixpence. You will no doubt have observed that the eye is not set in a line, or parallel with the bill, but at an obtuse angle, perhaps about 70°.

“My Kotuku at first used to roost on a box in an outhouse; but, after a fight with a hen with chickens that was running in the same garden (or wilderness), took to sleeping about 20 feet up a karaka tree, to attain which elevation it made use of some passion-flower vines that were growing up the karaka tree, as one of its wings had been cropped to prevent escape. Its actions while ascending this natural ladder were not very graceful. During sleeping hours it was completely hidden among the boughs, but in the early morning, especially after a frost, it would come out to the extreme edge of the boughs and sun itself for hours. When the long filamentous dorsal plumes were fully or partially erected it was a really beautiful sight; for though a female it had a very fine train. During its fights with the brood hen the Kotuku would throw itself nearly on its back and dart out its long bill with such vigour that it seldom came off second best. It rarely came down to breakfast, which was put into a large crock of clean water, till the morning was well advanced, and, to my surprise, seemed to prefer beef, or sheep’s liver, to fish.”

The beautiful snow-white plumes from the back of this bird have always been greatly prized by the Maoris, for the personal adornment of both the living and the dead, and their ancient poetry abounds in references to this valued taonga*

* Take, for example, the pathetic lament for Te Hiakai, as given in Sir George Grey’s ‘Poetry of the New Zealanders,’ p. 162:—

Tera te haeata, hapai ana mai,
Me he mea ko te tau,
Tenei ka ora mai;
E Hia’ rongo nui,
Ki to taha o to rangi,
Ka whati ra e,
Te tara o te marama
Taku ate hoki ra,
Taku piki Kotuku.

Tena to kakahi,
Ka tere ki te tonga,
I whiuwhiua koe,
Te hau ki a Tu,
Mei ona ahua,
Te hoki ki muri ra,
Kei whea to patu?
E hoka i te rangi,
E hoka i te rangi,
Hei patu whakatipi,
Ki mua ki te upoko.

Ki te kawe a riri.
Whakahaerca ra,
Kia rato nga iwi
Kia kite Taupo,
Kia kite Rotorua.
Kia werohia koe,
Ki te manu kai miro,
I runga a Titi,
Hoki mai e Pa,
Ki te waka ka tukoki.

Waiho ki muri nei,
Ka ru te whenua,
Ka timu nga tai,
I roto Waikato.
Taku koara,
Te uira i te rangi,
Whakahoki rua ana,
Na runga o Hakari,
Ko te tohu o te mate na, i.

page 128

Sir William Fox sent me the following very interesting note, under date of April 17, 1872:—“Do you know of the existence of a ‘Cranery’ of the White Crane at Okarita, on the West Coast? There is a regular colony of them; they build and breed in the trees (white pine, I believe) above the river or creek, a few miles (say half a dozen) from the sea. My informant, who was the discoverer, Moeller, Hokitika surveyor, counted 65 on first visit. I did not get up the river so far, but saw a dozen sitting in trees lower down the creek. Many years ago I saw numbers of them at Tokomairiro, Otago, where now they are, I believe, extinct. The Okarita ‘Cranery’ is, I suspect, nearly the last; at least no other is known…… I have been spending two months on the West Coast, Middle Island, and exploring Mount Cook and its glaciers, which are equal in beauty to those of Switzerland. It is a pity the Alpine Club does not send out some of its members to explore the grand scenery of our Southern Alps.”

Referring to the above, Mr. Leonard Reid writes to me:—“I can endorse Sir William Fox’s remarks as to the existence of a ‘Cranery’ at Okarita about the time he mentions. I visited the locality in February, 1870, on my way to the Francis Joseph Glacier. The note I have (speaking of the Okarita lagoon) is as follows:—White Cranes were abundant on the flats, but too wary to approach within gunshot. The boatman informed us that there was a ‘Cranery’ on the cliffs, and also a breeding-place for Shags, but we had no time to visit the locality.”

Another visitor to this heronry states that one of the breeding-stations is situated about three miles inland from the sea, on the banks of the Waitangituna stream. He found about twenty-five nests there, placed on trees overhanging the water, at elevations varying from eight to forty feet, and in close association with those of the White-throated Shag, the latter being five or six times as numerous, often forming complete clusters around the larger structures occupied by the White Heron; these were coarsely built of sticks, placed in such a manner as to form a strong platform, above which was a layer of smaller sticks, but without any softer lining, the whole structure measuring about seventeen inches in diameter. The eggs are usually three, but often four, in number, of a pale green colour, rather elliptical in form, and measuring 2·2 inches in length by 1·6 in breadth.

Another breeding-place of the White Heron is supposed to exist at a place about twelve miles north of the Buller River; but there is no positive evidence of this; and Sir William Fox is no doubt right in considering the Okarita heronries as very nearly, if not actually, the last of their kind.

The nest of the White Heron is a rather massive structure, with a flattened top (no appearance whatever of a cup or hollow), rounded in form, and measuring eighteen inches across. It is composed almost entirely of fern-fronds by way of foundation, with a thick rough layer of dry twigs above. It seems difficult to understand how the bird can incubate the eggs without their falling out of this rude flat nest or getting broken against the rough twigs on which they lie, without lining or protection of any kind; for on this structure are deposited the eggs, which are three in number, differing very slightly in size, the largest measuring 2·2 inches by 1·6 inch, of a regular ovoid form, of a uniform pale green colour, and without any gloss.