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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Phalacrocorax Novæ Hollandiæ — (Black Shag.)

Phalacrocorax Novæ Hollandiæ
(Black Shag.)

  • New-Holland Shag, Lath. Gen. Hist. B. x. p. 431 (1824).

  • Phalacrocorax novæ hollandiæ, Steph. Gen. Zool. xiii. p. 93 (1826).

  • Phalacrocorax carboides, Gould, P. Z. S. 1837, p. 156.

  • Graucalus carboides, Gray, in Dieff. Trav. ii., App. p. 201 (1843).

  • Gracalus carboides, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terror, Birds, p. 20 (1844).

  • Graculus carboides, Gray, Ibis, 1862, p. 251.

  • Graculus carbo, Finsch, J. f. O. 1870, p. 375.

  • Graculus novæ hollandiæ, Gray, Hand-1. of B. iii. p. 127 (1871).

Native name.—Kawau.

Ad. sordidè indigotico-niger, nuchâ cristatâ, pileo summo et colli lateribus fasciis filamentosis parvis ornstis: scapularibus cum tectricibus alarum et secundariis interioribus clarè bronzino-brunneis, viridi-nigro marginatis: primariis nigricanti-brunneis: caudâ nigrâ, suprà vix cinerascente lavatâ: plagâ latâ ab oculo postico et subter gulam conjunctâ albidâ: corpore reliquo subtùs indigotico-nigro, viridi nitente, plagâ hypochondriacâ maximâ albâ: rostro albido, culmine et apice brunnescentibus: plagâ ophthalmicâ gulâque nudis lætè flavis; pedibus nigris: iride thalassino-viridi.

Adult male. Upper part of the head, neck all round, back, rump, and all the under surface of the body shining greenish black; shoulders, scapulars, and wing-coverts bronzy or coppery brown, broadly margined with shining greenish black; a broad patch crossing the throat and connecting the eyes buffy white, sometimes tinged with yellow; on each thigh a large rounded spot of white, more or less conspicuous in different examples; quills and tail-feathers black. Irides sea-green; skin round the eyes and on the gular pouch rich yellow, and studded with short scattered feathers; bill whitish horn-colour, shading into brown on the culmen and towards the tips; legs and feet jet-black. Total length 34·5 inches; wing, from flexure, 13·5; tail 7; bill, along the ridge 2·75, along the edge of lower mandible 3·5; tarsus 2; longest toe and claw 3·75.

Obs. In summer the male is adorned with numerous white linear feathers, scattered over the throat and neck, and extending about half an inch beyond the permanent feathers; but these white plumes never assume the dense character exhibited in the summer plumage of P. carbo, in which these parts, as well as the crown, appear almost entirely white. The thigh-spot is present in summer and winter alike, but owing to the presence of long white filaments it is more conspicuous in the breeding-season. I have seen males without the thigh-spot, from which I conclude that it is not acquired till after the first moult. The occipital feathers are somewhat produced, forming a very slight crest.

In the middle of autumn I observed a party of five at the mouth of the Waikanae river, and in another locality seven, not one of them exhibiting the white thigh-spot, from which it may be inferred that the sexes separate themselves at this season.

Female. Has the plumage generally duller and without the white thigh-spot; crown of the head and neck all round blackish brown, minutely stippled or speckled with pale brown, particularly on the fore neck; breast fulvous white mixed with brown, having an indeterminate appearance; rest of the underparts and under surface of wings greenish black slightly glossed; quills and tail-feathers black with greyish shafts. Irides dull grey. Total length 32 inches; extent of wings 48.

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Obs. In some examples (apparently very old birds) the white spreads over the abdomen.

Young. Upper parts brown with a greenish gloss, deepening into greenish black on the lower part of back and rump; mantle and wing-coverts dingy coppery brown with darker margins, the longer coverts tipped with creamy white; throat pale buff; sides of the head, front and sides of the neck dark brown mottled with pale buff; centre of the breast and the abdomen yellowish white; the sides of the body largely mottled with brówn, varied more or less with greenish black; quills and tail-feathers black.

Nestling. The nestling attains to a considerable size before the downy covering makes its appearance. This is of a uniform sooty brown, and as the bird advances becomes thick and woolly.

Albino. Among birds of this class it is a rare thing to find any conspicuous departure from the ordinary plumage. The following is the description of a fine albino obtained at Sumner, near Christchurch:—General upper surface dark cream-colour; the crown, hind neck, lower part of back, and flanks stained and shaded with brown; the scapulars and wing-coverts broadly margined with yellowish brown; sides of the head, throat, fore neck, and all the underparts pure white; the wing-feathers are yellowish white, more or less clouded and freckled with brown; the old tail-feathers are yellowish white, the new ones ashy; and interspersed with the plumage of the upper parts there are numerous new feathers of a brownish ash-colour with darker edges, thus indicating a transition to a darker state of plumage. The bare facial membrane is flesh-coloured, with an obsolete yellow spot in front of the eye; bill black; legs and feet dark brown.

Note. In my “Further Notes on the Ornithology of New Zealand,” read before the Wellington Philosophical Society on the 12th of November, 1870, and published in the ‘Transactions of the New-Zealand Institute’ (vol. iii. pp. 36–56), I stated my reasons for adopting the generic title of Phalacrocorax (Brisson) in preference to Graculus; and a further consideration of the question has only tended to confirm me in that decision. I have thought it right to make this statement, inasmuch as I find the latter name adhered to both in Dr. Finsch’s latest revision of the nomenclature in the ‘Journal für Ornithologie’ (July 1872) and in Professor Hutton’s ‘Catalogue.’ Not only is Phalacrocorax the older title, and therefore entitled to recognition; but, as I have already pointed out (l. c.), there seems to be no finality about the other name. In Mr. G. R. Gray’s first list (App. to Dieff. N. Z. vol. ii. p. 201) it was written Graucalus, in his “Birds of New Zealand” (Voy. Ereb. and Terr. p. 20) it was changed to Gracalus; and in his later list (Ibis, 1862) it became Graculus, a term originally applied specifically by Linnæus to the Green Cormorant of Europe, Pelecanus graculus (Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 217).

I Stated in my former edition of this work that, after comparing a large number of specimens, I felt no hesitation in keeping this form distinct from the well-known Phalacrocorax carbo of Europe, although the two species were closely related and had doubtless sprung from a common ancestor. In thus separating it, I was supported by the late Mr. Gould, who had enjoyed frequent opportunities of investigating the subject in Australia and Tasmania, where this bird is very generally dispersed. The same view was taken by the late Mr. G. R. Gray in his latest arrangement of the group (Hand-list of Birds, 1871); and Mr. R. B. Sharpe afterwards adopted it in his classification of the specimens in the British Museum*. Dr. Finsch, on the other hand, adhered at that time to his opinion that the New-Zealand bird was not separable from the European form; and I am not aware that he has since changed his views. Professor Hutton has declared himself of the same opinion.

The Black Shag is very common on our coasts and within the mouths of our tidal rivers. Along the ocean-beach it is generally dispersed singly or in pairs, but on the sand-banks it often congregates

* Captain Mair states that this species is rarely seen in the Bay of Plenty. But he distinguishes from this what he terms the “Large Brown River Shag,” the Mapo or Matapo of the Maoris. He describes this bird as “brown all over with a yellow tinge on the throat,” and says that it frequents lakes and the upper courses of rivers and is never met with on the sea-coast. A colony of them, numbering about a dozen individuals (exclusively of this kind), breed every year in a kahikatea forest near the shores of Lake Rotorua.

page 147 to the number of twenty or thirty. It walks with an awkward waddling gait, supporting itself in part with its tail, which is moved alternately to the right and left at every step. It has a very fetid odour; and a person approaching a flock of these birds on the leeward side is made sensible of this at a hundred yards or more. Its usual attitude on the beach is one of repose, with the body inclined forward, the tail resting at full length on the ground, and the head drawn in upon the shoulders. When disturbed, it instantly stretches up its neck, listens, and watches attentively for a short time, and then, after a few ungainly steps, shoots its white ordure along the sands, then rises into the air with a laboured flapping of its wings, and flies off in the direction of the sea, into which it speedily plunges. For some yards’ length after rising it almost strikes the ground with the tips of its quill-feathers, and I am assured that it may easily be captured by a kangaroo-dog or greyhound before it fairly takes wing. When associated in pairs, they rise simultaneously and fly off in company. Sometimes a large flight of them may be observed high in the air, performing apparently a migratory passage, and deployed in the form of a wedge, like a flight of Swans.

Like all the other members of the group, the Black Shag is an accomplished diver, and obtains all its food in this manner. Twenty-five seconds appears to be the average duration of each dive, although the bird is capable of remaining under water for a much longer time. It is interesting to observe it facing a strong rolling surf and diving under the breakers to avoid their force. When swimming in smooth water, it sometimes amuses itself by slapping its broad wings upon the surface, producing a sound that may be heard to the distance of half a mile. It rises from the water with apparent difficulty, and till it is fairly in the air it continues to strike the surface violently with the tips of its wings; this will doubtless account for the ragged appearance often presented by the ends of the primaries. It subsists on fish of various kinds; and I have observed one capture a good-sized flounder, and after killing it by nipping with its bill, and battering on the water, swallow it whole, the throat of this bird being capable of great expansion.

There is an interesting mounted group in the Canterbury Museum, illustrating the gular capacity of this Shag. The principal figure is that of a bird holding in its bill a brown trout which had actually been taken from its throat when shot in the Avon river; the fish measured 14½ inches in length, with a girth of 7¾, and weighed 1¼ lb.

A Canterbury sportsman records another instance of the kind as follows:—“Some idea of the size of the fish a Shag can provide accommodation for will be gained when it is mentioned that a few days since one of a trio of Rangiora sportsmen out shooting at the Ashley river killed a bird of the species, which, on being picked up, dropped from its gullet an eel 21 in. long, and within an ounce or two of a pound in weight”*.

The stomach of another which I myself opened contained an eel 27 inches in length and measur ing 5 inches in circumference in its thickest part.

On the occasion of a visit which I paid to Sir George Grey in his lovely island home at Kawau, he led me to a small promontory from which you look down upon a shell-beach of exquisite beauty, fringed to its very edge with pohutukawa trees covered with a mass of crimson flower. From this beach, for some fifty yards or more, the water is so shallow that the pebbly bottom is clearly visible, and Sir George told me that from this point of observation he has often watched this Shag in its fishing-operations coursing like a greyhound under the surface, and using its wings and tail as propellers. He also told me an interesting story of one he obtained from the nest and succeeded in

* The following appeared in one of the local newspapers:—“Shags are stated to be more than usually destructive to young fish in the Wairarapa district this year, and it would be well if the local bodies offered a reward per head for each of these birds before they decimate the creeks of the valley. On Friday last, Mr. F. Liardet found a dead Shag on the beach with an eel in its beak. The fish, which was a very large one, had been partially swallowed, and the head being too large for the gullet had stuck in the Shag’s maw, through which it crawled. When found, the eel had formed a complete circle round the bird’s beak.”

page 148 rearing. Although allowed its freedom, it always remained in the neighbourhood, fishing in the little bays, resting and sunning its wings on the stone pier leading to the “great pro-consul’s” residence, or on the rocks which bound the little cove; and so tame did it become that whenever Sir George went out in his boat it followed him from place to place, and occasionally uttered a peculiar cry to attract attention. But one day it was missing, and on search being made the keeper found its dead body on the beach, but to all appearance uninjured.

It is interesting to observe the readiness with which it dives under water for protection. On one occasion I was watching one of these birds floating lazily on the surface in Porirua harbour. Something in its appearance seemed to irritate a Red-billed Gull which, after coursing about overhead, made a swoop down upon the Shag. The latter bird, by an adroit movement, immediately disappeared under water and came up again some yards off*

It breeds in companies, and frequently in association with another species of Shag (P. brevirostris), resorting for this purpose to the deep swamps in the vicinity of the sea-coast, and placing its rude nest on the “negro-heads” or swamp-tussocks, just above the surface of the water: this structure is often three feet in diameter, and is composed of raupo flags, dry leaves, and twigs roughly placed together, and rendered compact by the weight of the sitting bird. A nest in the Canterbury Museum is a massive bed of flax-leaves, toetoe, and dry grasses pressed together into a thick flat layer, measuring about 20 inches by 15 inches, with a thickness of 3 to 4 inches, and with a slight depression on the top. The eggs, which are usually three in number, are of a perfectly elliptical form, measuring 2·5 inches in length by 1·6 in breadth, and are greenish white, with a thin covering of chalky matter.

* The Battle of the Birds.“—The following is a translation of the Maori fable, as related to me by a Ngatiawa chief. It is a fair specimen of this class of Maori fables, and is interesting as showing how many of the names of the birds are derived from their cries:—

“The cause was an eel. The river Shag had a swamp of its own; the ocean Shag lived on the water. The two Shags contended about the respective merits of their feeding-grounds. The river Shag lived on eels, the sea Shag on snapper. The river Shag said to the other, ‘Come along with me on shore and see what a fine feeding-ground I have.’ The sea Shag agreed, and they went together. The former, who was standing on a ‘negro-head’ in the swamp, called to his visitor ‘Now, dive!’ Down he went, and up he came again with an eel in his beak. ‘Now, then, swallow it!” Down went the slippery eel into the crop of its captor. ‘Now, then, throw it up again!’ cried the river Shag, and up came the slippery eel from the depths of his captor’s throat. ‘See,’ exclaimed the river Shag, ‘that is the beauty of my food; you can do what you like with it.’ ‘Well, let us go to the sea,’ said the ocean Shag, ‘and I will show you what we can do.’ Accordingly they went. ‘Now,’ said the ocean Shag, ‘let me see you dive.’ ‘Not so,’ replied the river Shag, ‘for I have come to see what food you can produce.’ So down the former went; up he came with a snapper in his bill. ‘Good!’ cried the river Shag; ‘now swallow it.’ Down it went, disappearing entirely in the stomach of the bird. ‘Now, then, throw it up again!’ He tried, but tried in vain. The sharp spines on the snapper’s back stuck fast in the Shag’s throat. The river Shag jeered at him, saying, ‘Death lurks in the food you gather;’ and so it was, for the ocean Shag struggled till it died. This was the cause of the battle; for the sea-birds had now discerned how superior was the food on shore, and were determined to make an invasion, so they collected all their forces for that purpose. When the land-birds heard that their ocean brethren were contemplating a descent upon their feeding-grounds, they, too, began to collect their forces to oppose the intruders. The Huia was the bird who called the tribes together with his cry, huia-huia! (assemble, assemble!). The one who kept the fighting-party on the alert during the night was the Pipi-warauroa, his watchword being koia-koia-whitiora-whitiora-whiti-whitiora. This was a warning-cry to keep the party wakeful. The Tui did all the talking, urging them to be brave and big-hearted. The Owl was selected to offer the challenge, and he did the pukana (staring defiantly), and that is how his eyes are so large. The one who threw the last challenge-spear was the Tiwaiwaka. Having thrown the stick, he came dancing backwards, exposing his rear, first on one side, then on the other (just as you see the bird gesticulating, with its tail erect and spread, now-a-days). When the forces from the sea approached it was seen that the Gannet was put forward to answer the challenge. And as the Gannet followed up the defiant Tiwaiwaka, the Oyster-catcher called out keria-keria-keria rawatia (follow him up to the end). And so he did follow him up, and made a thrust forward with his bill, and thought he had speared his enemy, when, lo! his spear went through to the other side, for it was all tail! The Pigeon then commenced to coo; the Kaka cried arara-arara; the Sea-Gull sounded his alarm of haro-haro. Then the two forces came into general conflict, and the tribes from the sea were defeated and driven back. That is why they still remain there, whilst the land-birds enjoy their forests and swamps.”