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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Tachypetes Aquila. — (Great Frigate Bird.)

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Tachypetes Aquila.
(Great Frigate Bird.)

  • The Man-of-War Bird, Edwards, Gleanings, vi. p. 209, pl. 309 (1760).

  • Pelecanus aquilus, Linn. Syst. Nat. i. p. 216 (1766).

  • Frigate Pelican, Lath. Gen. Syn. iii. pt. 2, p. 587 (1785).

  • White-headed Frigate Pelican, Lath. Gen. Syn. iii. pt. 2, p. 591 (1785).

  • Palmerston Frigate Pelican, Lath. Gen. Syn. iii. pt. 2, p. 593 (1785).

  • Pelecanus leucocephalus, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 572 (1788).

  • Pelecanus palmerstoni, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 573 (1788).

  • Fregata aquila, Illiger, Prodr. p. 279 (1811).

  • Tachypetes aquila, Vieill. N. Dict. d’Hist. Nat. xii. p. 143 (1817).

  • Tachypetes aquilus, Kittl. Kupf. Vög. p. 15, taf. xx. fig. 1 (1832).

  • Tachypetes leucocephalus, Kittl. Kupf. Vög. p. 15, taf. xx. fig. 2 (1832).

  • Atagen aquila, Gray, Gen. of B. iii. p. 669 (1845).

  • Tachypetes palmerstoni, Cass. U.S. Expl. Exp. p. 359 (1858).

  • Fregata aquila, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 339 (1873).

Native names.—Hokioi and Hakuwai.

Exempl. ex N. Z. Nigricans, plumis versus apicem brunnescentibus et sub certâ luce chalybeo nitentibus: tectricibus alarum brunnescente latè terminatis, medianis albido marginatis: remigibus nigris, secundariis sordidè olivascenti-brunneis et pallidiore brunneo terminatis: rectricibus nigris brunneo marginatis, scapis albis: pileo et collo undique cum pectore anteriore albis, hôc pallidè ferrugineo lavato: pectore laterali cum tibiis, crisso, subcaudalibus et subalaribus brunnescenti-nigris: abdomine toto albo: rostro cinerascente, ungue corneo versus apicem nigro: pedibus carneo-brunneis: iride nigrâ.

New-Zealand specimen (immature). Head, greater portion of neck, and a broad continuation with its apex on the fore part of the breast white, stained with fawn-colour on the fore neck and breast; a broad triangular patch of white covering the whole of the abdomen; the rest of the body-plumage brownish black, with dull steel reflexions, and strongly tinged on the upper surface with umber-brown; the upper wing-coverts are broadly edged with pale brown, and the central ones margined with white, forming a conspicuous band from the bend of the wing to the roots of the inner secondaries, which are dark olivaceous-brown in their whole extent, tipped with paler brown; wing-feathers black, with faint steel-blue reflexions, the scapulars margined with brown; tail-feathers black, with white shafts, also margined with brown. Irides black; bill greyish, changing to horn-colour on the unguis, and black at the tip; feet flesh-brown. Total length 39 inches; extent of wings 82; wing, from flexure, 24; tail 16 (the middle feather 9 inches shorter); bill, along the ridge 5, along the edge of lower mandible 5; middle toe and claw 3·5; hind toe and claw 1.

Remarks. The form of this bird is beautifully adapted to its habits of life. As will be seen from the above description, the wings measure nearly seven feet in extent; moreover they are strongly built, the shaft of the first primary measuring a quarter of an inch in width by one eighth in thickness throughout its lower portion. The first primary is longest, and the rest are rapidly graduated; the long inner secondaries reach to within five inches of the former in the closed wing. The tail is long and deeply forked; the lateral tail-feathers are acuminate in form, with rounded tips; the median ones are broader. The feet are small and page 183 feeble; the outer toe is ·5 of an inch longer than the inner one; the claw on the middle toe measures an inch in length, and is pectinate on its inner side; the hind claw is small, rather broad, and abruptly arched; the lateral claws are equal, and slightly larger than the hind one; the interdigital web is deeply cut, and terminates at the third joint of the middle toe.

So far as I am aware there is only one recorded instance of the occurrence of this “Vulture of the sea,” as it has been appropriately termed, on the New-Zealand coast. In February 1863 a fine specimen was taken alive at Castle Point, on the east coast of the Wellington Province, and forwarded to Mr. George Moore, who very generously presented it to me; and this unique example, of which a description is given above, is now with the rest of my original collection in the Colonial Museum. I was unable at the time to get any information about it, beyond the mere fact of its having been brought in alive by a party of natives, who had been on a fishing excursion; but, several years afterwards, when travelling through another portion of the province, I happened to meet with the native who had actually caught it. He said he was fishing near Rangiwhakaoma, when he observed a strange bird sitting on the rocks apparently asleep: creeping stealthily up, he succeeded in catching it with his hands. It made no attempt to escape; but, on being captured, attacked his hands fiercely with its powerful bill. He stated further that a similar bird had been killed by the natives at Ihuraua, on the same line of coast, a short time before, and that all who had seen it pronounced this the true “Hokioi” of Maori tradition—a long-winged bird that is supposed to soar in the heavens, far above the range of human vision, and to descend to the shore at night to feed on shell-fish. Sir George Grey is of opinion that the extinct New-Zealand Eagle (Harpagornis moorei) was the bird to which the tradition relates, and he may be right in this conjecture. On the other hand, it is not improbable that the wonderful powers of flight possessed by the Frigate bird gave rise to this well-known story of the “Hokioi;” and the enormous expanse of its wings would seem almost to warrant the most extravagant belief. On this subject thus graphically writes Audubon, the American ornithologist:—

“The Frigate Pelican is possessed of a power of flight which I conceive superior to that of perhaps any other bird. However swiftly the Cayenne Tern, the smaller Gulls, or the Jager move on wing, it seems a matter of mere sport to it to overtake any of them. The Goshawk, the Peregrine, and the Gyr Falcon, which I conceive to be the swiftest of our Hawks, are obliged to pursue their victim, should it be a Green-winged Teal or Passenger Pigeon, at times for half a mile, at the highest pitch of their speed, before they can secure them. The bird of which I speak comes from on high with the velocity of a meteor, and on nearing the object of its pursuit, which its keen eye has spied while fishing at a distance, darts on either side to cut off all retreat, and with open bill forces it to drop or disgorge the fish which it has just caught. See him now! Yonder, over the waves, leaps the brilliant dolphin, as he pursues the flyingfishes, which he expects to seize the moment they drop into the water. The Frigate bird, who has marked them, closes his wings, dives towards them, and, now ascending, holds one of the tiny things across his bill. Already fifty yards above the sea, he spies a porpoise in full chase, launches towards the spot, and in passing seizes the mullet that has escaped from its dreaded foe. I observed a Frigate Pelican that had forced a Cayenne Tern, yet in sight, to drop a fish, which the broad-winged warrior had seized as it fell. This fish was rather large for the Tern, and might probably be about 8 inches in length. The Frigate Pelican mounted with it across his bill about a hundred yards, and then tossing it up caught it as it fell, but not in the proper manner. He therefore dropped it, but before it had fallen many yards caught it again. Still it was not in a good position, the weight of the head, it seemed, having prevented the bird from seizing it by that part. A second time the fish was thrown upwards, and now, at last, was received in a convenient manner (that is, with its head downwards), and immediately swallowed.”

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It would seem that this species frequents all the seas of the warmer parts of the globe, and especially the Tropics, assembling in large flocks during the breeding-season, and dispersing over the wide ocean again as soon as the parental obligations are discharged. Their food consists of young turtles, cuttle-fish, crabs, and fish of all kinds. Being furnished with a capacious and expansive pouch they are able to stow away in a convenient manner all they can seize by way of plunder quite irrespective of their immediate wants.

Audubon found them breeding in large numbers in the Gulf of Mexico and on the Florida Keys; and he has given us the following interesting account, which further illustrates the amazing power of wing already mentioned:—” About the middle of May (a period which to me appeared very late for birds found in so warm a climate as that of the Florida Keys), the Frigate Pelicans assemble in flocks of from fifty to five hundred pairs or more. They are seen flying at a great height over the islands on which they have bred many previous seasons, courting for hours together; after which they return towards the mangroves, alight on them, and at once begin to repair the old nests or construct new ones. They pillage each other’s nests of their materials, and make excursions for more to the nearest keys. They break the dry twigs of trees with ease, passing swiftly on wing, and snapping them off by a single grasp of their powerful bill. It is indeed a beautiful sight to see them when thus occupied, especially when several are so engaged, passing and repassing with the swiftness of thought over the trees whose tops are blasted; their purpose appears as if accomplished by magic. It sometimes happens that the bird accidentally drops a stick while travelling towards its nest, when, if this should happen over the water, it plunges after it and seizes it with its bill before it has reached the waves.”

For a long period the only knowledge we possessed of the Frigate bird was that afforded by those who had voyaged in the tropical seas and studied the bird in its distant haunts; but in the early part of 1871 a pair of live ones, the gift of Captain Dow, were received at the Zoological Society’s Gardens; and home naturalists had thus an opportunity of studying this remarkable form in a living state. But when I first looked on these captives, moping gloomily on their perch, with a mere dish of water beneath them, and their noble wings folded up in languid misery, I could not help pitying from my very heart these captives from the ocean, whose fate seemed almost harder than that of the “lord of the plains” on the opposite side of the Gardens, condemned to pass his life within an iron railing only ten feet square! From observing the Frigate bird under such circumstances it is impossible to form any adequate idea of what it is in a state of nature, where its whole individuality depends on its wonderful speed, its long powers of endurance, and the graceful aerial evolutions it is able to perform. Audubon, who was familiar with it in its native element, gave a spirited drawing of it dashing head-long through the air in pursuit of its quarry. In the ‘Field’ of September 23, 1871, there is an equally characteristic figure of the same bird as it was then to be seen in the Gardens (accompanied by an excellent description)—resting moodily on its feet, with the wings drooping, and the head drawn closely in upon the shoulders.