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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Fam. PHAETHONIDÆ — Phaethon Rubricauda. — (Red-Tailed Tropic Bird.)

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Phaethon Rubricauda.
(Red-Tailed Tropic Bird.)

  • Phaeton rubricauda, Bodd. Tabl. Pl. Enl. p. 57 (1783).

  • Red-tailed Tropic Bird, Lath. Gen. Syn. vol. iii. pt. 2, p. 618 (1785).

  • Phaeton phœnicuros, Gmel. Syst. Nat. vol. ii. p. 583 (1788).

  • Phaeton aethereus, Bloxh. Voy. Blonde, App. p. 251 (1826).

  • Phœnicuros rubricauda, Bonap. Consp. vol. ii. p. 183 (1857).

  • Phaeton phœnnicurus, Gould, Handb. B. of Austr. ii. p. 501 (1865).

  • Phaethon rubricauda, Salvin, Cat. Strickl. Coll. p. 511 (1882).

Exempl. ex N. Z. Omninò sericeo-albus, rosaceo-tinctus: remigibus concoloribus fuscis: regione oculari nigrâ, anticè semilunatâ, posticé longitudinaliter productâ: rectricibus duabus intermediis longissimis intensè rubris, scapis nigris: rostro rubro: pedibus flavis, membranis interdigitalibus nigris.

New-Zealand specimen. General plumage silky or satiny white, with a delicate roseate or salmon tint over the entire surface; a lunate spot of velvety black in front of the eyes, and a broken streak of the same above and beyond them; on the flanks and under tail-coverts some of the feathers largely centred with slaty black, leaving on the sides an even, narrow margin of white, which broadens at the tip. The scapulars have their shafts black in their basal portion; so have the outer secondaries; on the long inner secondaries the black spreads into a broad irregular stripe down the centre of each feather, running off to a fine point about half an inch from the tip. The two middle tail-feathers are white at the base, with a black central streak, but at a distance of two inches from the root the webs suddenly contract, and these feathers are then produced, to a length of thirteen inches beyond the cuneiform tail, as rigid bright red plumes with black shafts, and becoming somewhat paler at the tips; the lateral tail-feathers also have black shafts, changing to white an inch from the tips. Bill bright coral-red, shaded with brown in the nasal groove; legs and feet black, as is also the entire skin of the bird under the feathers. Total length (without the elongated tail-plumes) 21 inches; wing, from flexure, 13; tail 4 (to end of central plumes, 17); bill, along the ridge 2·5, along the edge of lower mandible 3·3; tarsus 1; middle toe and claw 2·25.

Young. Silky white, without any of the roseate blush mentioned above; the whole of the upper surface broadly barred with black; the primaries having the black of their shafts expanded into a spatulate form at the tips.

In the list of the Birds of New Zealand compiled by Mr. G. R. Gray and published in ‘The Ibis’ for July 1862, the Red-tailed Tropic bird was included among the species of Pelecanidæ, the habitat assigned being Norfolk and Nepean Islands. On the publication of my ‘Essay on the Ornithology of New Zealand’ (1865), in the absence of any positive evidence of its occurrence in our seas, I decided to omit this bird from our list of species, and it was struck out accordingly.

It was re-introduced by myself in 1878*, on the authority of a specimen received from the late Mr. Henry Mair, and now in my collection. This bird (apparently a male in full plumage) is the one described at the head of this article. It was shot by Mr. Mair from the deck of a schooner during a calm, off the Three Kings, a group of islets a few miles north of New Zealand, the furthermost

* Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. x. pp. 219, 220.

page 187 southern limit yet recorded for this eminently tropical species. A boat was lowered and the prize picked up and successfully skinned.

I never handle this specimen without being reminded of Charles Waterton’s touching story, as related in his ‘Essays on Natural History,’ 1st series, p. 291:—

“The burning zone, in which the ancients have placed the zodiac, is the favourite resort of this solitary wanderer of the deep… . Far, far away from land, where the Atlantic waves roll beneath the northern tropic, our mariners are often favoured with a view of the bird which I am about to describe. The total absence of all other winged inhabitants of the air, save now and then a Mother Carey’s Chicken, renders the appearance of Phaeton very interesting in this sequestered region of the deep; and every soul on board hastens to get a glance at him, as he wings his lonely way through the liquid void … . In my passage home across the Atlantic, on board the ‘Dee,’ West Indiaman, commanded by Captain Gray, we saw Phaeton sitting on the wave, within gunshot of the ship—a rare occurrence. I fired at him with effect, and as he lay lifeless on the water, I said (without any expectation of recovering the bird), ‘A guinea for him who will fetch the bird to me.’ The vessel was then going smartly through the water. A Danish sailor, who was standing on the forecastle, instantly plunged into the sea with all his clothes on, and swam towards the bird. Our people ran aft, to lower down the jolly-boat, but it was filled with lumber, and had been well secured with lashings for the passage home. Our poor Dane was now far astern; and in our attempt to tack ship, she missed stays, and we were obliged to wear her. In the meantime, we all expected that the Dane had gone down into Davy’s locker. But, at last, we fortunately came up with him; and we found him buffeting the waves, with the dead bird in his mouth. I dissected it, and prepared it, and have kept it ever since, nor do I intend that it shall leave my house, as the sight often brings to my remembrance an occurrence of uncommon interest, now long gone by; for it is twenty years and more since I received the Tropic Bird from the cold and trembling hand of our adventurous Dane.”

The bird is well known to the Ngapuhi tribe at the north, under the name of Amokura, and they set a high value on the long red tail-feathers, which they exchange with the southern tribes for greenstone. Almost every year, after the prevalence of easterly gales, some specimens are washed ashore (generally dead) at the North Cape or in Spirits Bay. The natives of that district go out systematically to hunt for them at these periods. Owing to their rarity these plumes are more prized than those of the Huia or Kotuku, and in one instance a valuable slab of pounamu was given by a Hawke’s Bay chief in exchange for three feathers, one of which is now in the possession of the Manawatu natives. The allusion is to this bird in the love-song of the fairies, commencing—

Come, deck my head
With amokura plumes*.

Mr. Gould, who has figured the species with his usual skill in ‘The Birds of Australia,’ states that it “is very generally dispersed over the temperate and warmer latitudes of the Indian Ocean and the South Seas, where it often hovers round ships, and occasionally alights on their rigging. During the months of August and September it retires to various islands for the purpose of breeding; among other places selected for the performance of this duty are Norfolk Island off the east coast of Australia, and Raine’s Islet in Torres Strait, from both of which localities I possess specimens of the


* Kiatia taku rangi
Te kapu o te amokura
Tikapa o te hau
O kotuku te rangi
Kati nei ano
Aku rangi ki te noho
He pakinga ra tahi
Ka whana tu ai au, e-i.

page 188 bird and its eggs.” It is not unusual to meet with it in the Bay of Bengal and about the Andamans and Nicobars; and it is known to breed in the neighbourhood of the Mauritius. It occurs also in Aneiteum, where its tail-feathers are much prized by the natives, who call it “Intoneg”*.

I have noticed in passing through the tropical seas that, as compared with the South Pacific (the great nursery, so to speak, of the Petrel family), these placid waters are singularly destitute of bird-life; indeed for a whole day together, sometimes, there is no animate sign except the feverish movements of the little flying-fish which are perpetually rising out of the water, fluttering a few yards in a direct line, and then dropping out of sight with a tiny splash, or, during a perfect calm, the appearance of thousands of “Portuguese men-of-war” (the pretty blue Physalis) floating listlessly on the bosom of the deep. It is pleasant at such a time to descry a “Straw-tail” or “Boatswain-bird” (by which names the sailors call the Phaethon) hovering in the sky far above the masthead or flying around the ship. I saw one for a short time in the full heat of the Tropics (lat. 11° S., long. 24° 21′ W.). It hovered over our steamer with a rapid flapping of the wings, as if making an inspection, and then, ascending high in the air, made a swift sweep far over the ocean and we saw it no more.

Mr. Macgillivray, who obtained several on Raine’s Islet in the month of June, gives the following account:—“Upon one occasion three were observed performing sweeping flights over and about the island, and soon afterwards one of them alighted. Keeping my eye upon the spot, I ran up and found a male bird in a hole under the low shelving margin of the island bordering the beach, and succeeded in capturing it after a short scuffle, during which it snapped at me with its beak, and uttered a loud, harsh, and oft-repeated croak. It makes no nest, but deposits its two eggs on the bare floor of the hole, and both sexes assist in the task of incubation. It usually returns from sea about noon, soaring high in the air and wheeling round in circles before alighting. The eggs are blotched and speckled with brownish red on a pale reddish-grey ground, and are two inches three-eighths long by one inch four-eighths-and-a-half broad. The contents of the stomach consisted of beaks of cuttle-fish. The only outward sexual difference that I could detect consists in the more decided roseate blush upon the plumage of the male, especially on the back; but this varies slightly in intensity in different individuals of the same sex, and fades considerably in a preserved skin.”

Dr. Crowfoot writes (Ibis, 1885, p. 268):—“This bird breeds on Norfolk Island, Nepean Island, and Phillip Island, but the last-mentioned island is its principal resort, and here it may be counted by hundreds. It lays its single egg on ledges of rock, in cracks of the cliffs, under overhanging boulders, and in such-like situations. The bird defends its nest with its strong beak, and may be easily caught on the nest. On Norfolk Island the eggs are difficult to get, but on Phillip Island they may be readily obtained. The young Tropic-bird is a curious-looking object, being completely covered with thick snow-white down. The eggs vary in length from 2·65 inches to 2·85, and in breadth from 1·75 inches to 2·16. They have a reddish-brown ground-colour, and are covered all over with fine dark reddish and violet-brown markings. Some have the colouring-matter apparently partially washed off.”

The best account I have seen of the nesting-habits of this bird is that given by the Earl of Pembroke in his little book of adventures in the South Pacific, already cited. I have examined a large series of eggs collected on Lord Howe’s Island, and found them differing in shape from a thick ovoid to a long ovoido-conical form, and varying in colour from pale stone-grey, minutely freckled with darker grey to a splashed brown surface, as rich in colouring as a Merlin’s egg. Two specimens in my son’s collection from that locality are of equal size, measuring 2·8 inches in length by 1·8 in breadth; one of them is greyish white, marbled at the larger end and dotted and freckled all over with brown, whilst the other is splashed, dotted and marked over its entire surface with reddish brown of a uniform shade.

* “The Tropic Bird is very common in the Islands; the beautiful rose-coloured tail-feathers are largely esteemed by the natives, who pull them from the birds as they sit in their nests.”—Bloxham (l. c.).