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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Ossifraga Gigantea. — (Giant Petrel.)

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Ossifraga Gigantea.
(Giant Petrel.)

  • Giant Petrel, Lath. Gen. Syn. iii. pt. 2, p. 396, pl. c (1785).

  • Procellaria gigantea, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 563 (1788).

  • Procellaria ossifraga, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 343 (1844).

  • Ossifraga gigantea, Hombr. & Jacq. Voy. Pôle Sud, Zool. iii. p. 148 (1853).

Ad. schistaceo-brunnescens, facie laterali et corpore subtùs paullò pallidioribus: dorso et tectricibus alarum pallidiore cinereo angustè marginatis: rostro flavicanti-corneo: pedibus cinerascenti-nigris, unguibus albicanticorneis: iride nigricanti-brunneâ.

Adult male. Entire plumage uniform dark slate-grey, with glossy edges to the feathers, imparting to the surface a pretty, sheeny appearance. Irides blackish brown; bill whitish horn-colour; legs and feet greyish black, the claws whitish horn-colour. Total length 37·5 inches; extent of wings 6 feet 9 inches; wing, from carpal flexure, 21·5; tail 9; bill, along the ridge 5, along the edge of lower mandible 4; height of bill, to summit of tubular nostrils, 1·6; tarsus 3·75; middle toe and claw 6; hind claw ·5.

Adult female. Entire plumage dull slaty brown, paler or changing to creamy grey on the face, throat, and underparts of the body; on the upper parts some of the feathers are strongly tinged with chocolate-brown; and all the feathers of the back, as well as the wing-coverts, have paler greyish margins. Total length 32 inches; extent of wings 66; wing, from flexure, 18·5; tail 7·5; bill, to anterior edge of tube 1·75, thence, following the curvature, to the tip 2, along the edge of lower mandible 3·75; bare tibia 1·25; tarsus 2·75; middle toe and claw 5.

Obs. On the approach of the moulting-season the plumage has a faded or washed-out appearance.

Var. Albinoes, more or less perfect, are not of unfrequent occurrence. One which I obtained near Waikanae, on the West Coast, and presented to the Colonial Museum, was of snowy whiteness without blemish of any kind; even the legs and feet were whitish, the bill being yellowish horn-colour. A more beautiful object than this snow-white Petrel could scarcely be imagined. It proved on dissection to be a ♂, and I noticed that it was almost entirely free from the strong Petrel odour. There is another albino of almost equal purity in the same collection, which was captured by Sir James Hector in Foveaux Strait. This one, however, betrays here and there a dark brown feather on the upper surface.

At Liardet’s establishment, in Wellington, there was exhibited for several years a white specimen with widely scattered slaty black feathers all over the body, particularly on the upper parts, and with the tail-feathers pale ash-grey. It was sent to the Colonial Exhibition in 1886, and is now in Mr. Silver’s collection of New-Zealand birds at Letcomb Regis. There is an almost exactly similar specimen in the Liverpool Museum.

In the Otago Museum there is another albino which shows traces of the normal colour on the mantle and scapulars, with a few scattered dark feathers on the underparts. This specimen came from Macquarie Island, whence also the Museum received a singular variety in glossy adult plumage, but differing from the normal form in having the head and neck creamy white, shading into pale bluish grey on the breast and deepening on the underparts; the upper surface is as in ordinary specimens, except that the edges of the wings are prettily variegated with creamy white and pale brown; bill dull horn-colour; legs and feet dark brown.

It is not an unusual thing to meet with individuals having the forehead, face, and throat more or less mottled with greyish white, or with a single white feather among the primaries.

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In a specimen from Campbell Island the feathers of the back and mantle are more or less tipped with light brown, and have lighter shafts.

The Giant Petrel, or “Nelly,” as it is called by sailors, is by no means uncommon in our seas. Of late years, with the increase of shipping of all kinds, it has become far more plentiful around our coasts and often ventures into the deep sounds or estuaries. I have counted as many as fourteen at one time following the steamer within four or five miles of the Wellington heads. Their power of wing is something marvellous. For hours together they keep up their rapid sailing movement without ever resting or descending to the water for a moment. It is very interesting to watch them in this tireless flight, and to observe how completely they have their wings under control. They approach the steamer at a swift rate with a low flapping movement of the wings, and then make a wide circuit, keeping them perfectly rigid, but shifting the balance of the body in such a way as to make alternately one wing and then the other incline upwards or downwards, thus altering the plane without the slightest visible alular movement. The manner in which the bird steers itself through the air, first ascending far above the masthead, then sweeping downwards, with the point of the wing at its lower inclination just skimming but never actually touching the water, even in a turbulent and broken sea, is really wonderful, and would seem to indicate very perfect organs of vision as a means of measuring distance. Now and then it alters its mode of flight and sails or glides over the surface of the sea with its wings formed into a bow shape, and with an occasional flap to give it fresh impetus.

Like the Albatros, it descends into the water in a very ungainly, straddling way, and, if in a hurry, with an awkward splash; keeps its wings uplifted till the body is steady, then deliberately folds them up and settles down to dinner or floats lazily on the surface, with upstretched neck and eyes ever on the alert. When garbage or food of any kind is thrown overboard, they all descend together and congregate around it, uttering low guttural notes as if disputing for its possession; but they never seem to quarrel or fight over it, and when disposed of, they generally break up into pairs and float about in friendly company, till, actuated by some common impulse, they mount again in the air and come sweeping up astern. On the wing, the tail is usually spread and has a broad cuneiform appearance.

It is capable, too, of very rapid movements. On one occasion I was attentively watching six or seven of them, sailing about in circuits that ever crossed but never clashed, and had turned to my note-book for a few seconds to refer to something. On looking up again they had all disappeared as if by magic; and then I descried them in the water more than a mile astern, with their heads together, discussing some object that had been thrown overboard and had excited their notice. They are untiring, too, in their pursuit; for I have noticed that at sundown, when the Albatroses have drawn off from the steamer and disappeared one by one, the Giant Petrel (or “Stink-pot,” as the sailors sometimes call it) has remained, still crossing and recrossing the wake of the ship, in undiminished numbers and unaffected by the deepening gloom.

It is universally dispersed over the temperate and high southern latitudes; and Mr. Gould has expressed his belief that it frequently performs the circuit of the globe, a conclusion inferred from the circumstance that an albino variety followed the vessel in which he made his passage to Australia for a period of three weeks, the ship often making two hundred miles during the twenty-four hours. He adds:—“It must not be understood that the bird was merely following the vessel’s speed, nor deemed incredible when I state that during the twenty-four hours it must have performed a much greater distance, since it was only at intervals of perhaps half an hour that it was seen hunting up the wake of the vessel to secure any offal that had been thrown overboard, the interim being employed in scanning the ocean in immense circles.” He informs us further that on visiting Recherche Bay in page 227 D’Entrecasteaux’s Channel, Tasmania, he found thousands of these birds sitting together on the water, and feeding on the blubber and other refuse of the whaling-station.

Some years ago a number of them actually followed the floating carcase of a whale into the harbour of Akaroa, and when discovered were engaged in tearing off the blubber*.

It is easily caught with a hook and line, the former baited with meat. The bird nibbles at the bait and is caught by the hook entering the upper mandible and is forthwith drawn in. Like the Albatros it is unable to rise from a level surface; and although more active on its feet, habitually falls forward, resting on its breast.

The following account of this Petrel (called Quebranta-huesos, or Break-bones, by the Spaniards) is given in Darwin’s ‘Voyage of a Naturalist’ (p. 287):—” In its habits and manner of flight there is a very close resemblance with the Albatros; and, as with the Albatros, a person may watch it for hours together without seeing on what it feeds. The ‘Break-bones’ is, however, a rapacious bird; for it was observed by some of the officers at Port St. Antonio chasing a Diver, which tried to escape by diving and flying, but was continually struck down, and at last killed by a blow on its head. At Port St. Julian these great Petrels were seen killing and devouring young Gulls.”

I may add that on one occasion, when steaming up Cook’s Strait, I observed at a distance one of these Giant Petrels pursue and capture a small bird (apparently Prion turtur), and then, holding it by the wing, batter it against the water till it was killed.

This bird is habitually silent, except when fighting or when voiding its natural excrement, on which occasions it utters a grunting note. It is more pugnacious than other members of its class, and rival males when in conflict make a clashing noise with their bills, and drag each other about in a most unmerciful manner.

Sometimes, when impelled by extreme hunger, they will swim up alongside of the little coastal steamers and take the food that is thrown to them. A pair captured under these circumstances, at the mouth of the Wanganui river, by the crew of the “Huia,” came into Mr. Drew’s possession, and when I afterwards saw one of them in his garden it had become quite tame and docile, following him about with open bill and outstretched wings asking to be fed. It allowed me to handle it with impunity, making no attempt to bite, although, as a rule, these birds are very vicious. Its capacity for swallowing was surprising, and it gorged its crop with fresh meat till it could hold no more; then it stretched its neck on the ground and worked it violently in its efforts to accommodate another piece. Curiously enough, it would not touch fish of any kind. Although, by way of experiment, starved for several days, it still obstinately declined the fish offered to it. When, however, its mate died and had been skinned, the survivor regaled itself freely on the carcase till it became decomposed.

Professor Hutton states that this species breeds in the cliffs of the Prince-Edward Islands and Kerguelen’s Land, and adds:—” When a person approaches the nest the old birds keep a short distance away, while the young ones squirt a horridly smelling oil out of their mouths to a distance of six or eight feet.” Layard describes the eggs as being white, and measuring 4·2 inches in length by 2·5 in breadth.

There is an egg in the Otago Museum from Macquarie Island, ovoido-conical in form, measuring 3·75 inches in length by 2·25 in breadth; the shell has a very rough surface and, originally creamy white, is much stained and discoloured. Another specimen (from the Falkland Islands) in Mr. Philip Crowley’s collection is more elliptical in form, measuring 3·6 inches in length by 2·5 in breadth.

* Writing from Portland Island, Mr. Robson says:— “We have had numbers of the Giant Petrel here, for some weeks past, feeding on the remains of a dead whale. Amongst them, till very recently, there was a splendid albino—as white as snow —which I tried hard to shoot for your collection, but unfortunately without success.”