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Chapter XXXV. — The Invasion from the North

page 340

Chapter XXXV.
The Invasion from the North.

The policies of the Auckland Acclimatisation Society have been the chief centre of dispersion from which northern aliens have reached Tutira. From the same quarter the Wairoa district has contributed certain species liberated by private enterprise; a single alien, lastly, has reached us from the neighbourhood of the Thames.

In October of '82, a month, that is, after our arrival at Tutira, a small flight of sparrows rested for a brief space on the wood-heap, that inevitable adjunct of every primitive homestead in New Zealand. The species had reached the station neither by mountain-top, coast, or riverbed, but by road. They had followed—surely one of the most interesting treks in natural history—the highway of man through the very heart of the North Island.

Sparrows were imported and turned out by the Auckland Acclimatisation Society in '67. Two years later the Society reports: “Sparrows have increased largely, but seem reluctant to go far from home, though stragglers are occasionally met with.” A few years later their migration must have begun, for in '76 they were suspected to be at Opepe on the Taupo road. In '77 we find the Hawke's Bay Acclimatisation Society requesting their Committee “to take any necessary steps for the destruction of sparrows said to be in the district,” a request, by the way, about as futile as that of King Canute to the flowing tide. In the “late 'seventies” sparrows were seen by Mr J. N. Williams at Te Puna. In '80 specimens were shot near Hastings; in '81 they had reached Napier; by '82 they were present at Tutira. In '84—that is, only seven years after the Hawke's Bay Acclimatisation Society was dubious about the very presence of sparrows in the province—this same Society “viewed with considerable alarm the enormous spread of small birds, but took the page 341 opportunity of reminding the public that they were not responsible for the introduction of linnets, sparrows, and larks.” In fifteen years, therefore, the sparrow had travelled nearly two hundred miles through an uninhabited waste, had invaded the settled portion of Hawke's Bay, and had even begun to follow up tracks leading away from that district.

A chief reason for the choice of man's highway as his route of migration may be found in the sparrow's relation to and reliance on man. Passer domesticus is his name, and passer domesticus is his nature. Of all wild creatures that utilise our roads in New Zealand, none take advantage of them in so great a measure as the sparrow. He knows, perhaps instinctively, certainly through the experience of the older birds, that it is by the work of man's hands his race principally thrives; that it is man who provides for him shelter plantations, building sites, and food. The man-built road by which he moves is indeed in itself a provision house. There are to be found on it horse-droppings containing undigested oats, foodstuff thrown down by travellers, wheat, barley, and grass seed fallen from sacks. On either side of its white sinuous line, so conspicuous from above, so markedly dissimilar to surrounding surfaces, extend tilled earth and land in crop. Like the bee-bird, which guides the hunter to the hive, the sparrow in striking and following up a road foreknows the benefits that will accrue to him. Maybe in the neighbourhood of townships, between village and village, the sight of travelling sparrows is too common to excite remark; they are merely specimens of the most common bird in the country. On the far inland up-country roads of New Zealand, however, where ten or fifteen miles may intervene between homestead and homestead, travelling parties cannot but excite attention. During autumn it is impossible on the roads of the interior not to observe and not to wonder over these roving bands moving in search of winter quarters. It is hardly too much to say that there is developing in the sparrow something in the nature of an annual change of residence—a summering in the country, a return during winter to a town, to a village, at least to a large farmsteading.

The accompanying section of map will serve better than any description to show the nature of the countryside traversed by the migrant sparrow and the marvellous results of half a century's human toil. The “natives” and “wandering natives” are now our exceeding page 342 good friends; the “forest” and “scrub” have been transformed into sheep and dairy farms.

Auckland, where the sparrow was liberated in '67, is built on a narrow strip of sandy land; east and west of it lies the ocean. Northwards protrudes a meagre egress leading in the 'sixties towards land poor in quality and covered with scrub. In the opposite direction ran the only road of the period, the Great South Road, as it was called. By this route viâ Mercer, along the Waikato river to Cambridge, by the armed constabulary posts to Hawke's Bay, through uninhabited belts of forest, tussock-grass, and bracken, sparrows holding to the road moved south. Finally, debouching from the ranges of the interior and striking the open lands of western Hawke's Bay, they followed coast-wards one of the bullock-tracks of that period, unmetalled, uncrowned, in winter a quagmire, in spring nor'-westers rutted deep and dry, in summer thick in powdered dust, but always distinct, always dissimilar to other surfaces, and always full of promise to the sparrow tribe.

In the orchard of Waipuna, the original homestead of the Rissington run, sparrows were first seen in Hawke's Bay. The late Mr J. N. Williams has often told me of the circumstances of his find. He was taking delivery of cattle in early spring. Snow had fallen in calm weather; lying on the ground and resting on the trees, its whiteness brought into additional prominence a party of sparrows perched on a plum-tree in the station garden and feeding in its vicinity. Two years later, “about 1880,” sparrows had reached Frimley, Mr Williams' beautiful residence near Hastings. He has described to me how wild and shy the birds seemed to have become after their journey through the wilderness, and how difficult it was to obtain a proper view of them. They had, in fact, in some degree become a tree-top species and kept resolutely to the upper branches of the tall eucalypts. After considerable delay specimens were, however, shot for proof, for until they were actually handled and viewed, Mr Williams' friends, like Thomas, would not believe—“it seemed impossible to them that the sparrow could have reached Hawke's Bay in so brief a period over such a stretch of wild country.”

The history of the sparrow, as observed on Tutira, will serve to show how its multiplication, rapid enough in all conscience, was made, by certain habits acquired during its pilgrimage through the desert, to appear a marvel, a portent; it will make intelligible how in the late page 342a
This section of map, kindly lent by the Cambridge University Library, shows the North Island of New Zealand as it was when the Sparrow began his migratory movement south. It would seem almost incredible that so short a time ago any Dominion map should be scored with such grisly particulars as “Battle of 17th July,” “Scene of the murder of Mr Meredith,” “Escort attacked,” “Gordon shot,” &c., &c.

This section of map, kindly lent by the Cambridge University Library, shows the North Island of New Zealand as it was when the Sparrow began his migratory movement south. It would seem almost incredible that so short a time ago any Dominion map should be scored with such grisly particulars as “Battle of 17th July,” “Scene of the murder of Mr Meredith,” “Escort attacked,” “Gordon shot,” &c., &c.

page 343 'seventies the sparrow was still an object of interest and incredulity, whilst in the early 'eighties “its enormous increase was viewed with considerable alarm.”

Sparrows, as stated, were first seen on Tutira in '82; they were not again noticed for many years. Tutira must have been in those days a most unattractive spot to such a species. These were the winter starvation times already described, when not a fat sheep or beast was to be had; when oats and chaff, milk and butter, were unknown; when the fowls went without grain; when, in fact, Tutira was no fit place for any decent self-respecting sparrow. Not only was there no food, but there was no covert, except three weeping willows, a species useless for purposes of nidification; there was not a tree about the homestead able to support a nest. No wonder the sparrow scorned the naked, treeless, poverty-stricken station.

By '92 conditions had somewhat altered; the sparrow then for the first time bred with us; two nests were built that year in an African box-thorn hedge which had been planted round the original garden. Later again, there was a large increase in the sparrow population; pines planted in the late 'seventies by the Stuarts and Kiernan had grown into trees big enough to provide ample nesting-quarters. In their vicinity a considerable patch of oats had been reaped; there, attracted by the cropping and by auspicious nesting-sites, forty or fifty pairs established themselves, their numbers certainly larger than any increase possible from the station-bred clutches of the previous season. The day for continuous cropping on Tutira had, however, not yet come; it ceased, and with its cessation only two or three pairs of sparrows remained at the homestead, building their nests as before in the box-thorn hedge.

Up to this date sparrows had bred within sight and hearing of man. In the late 'nineties a change came about in their habits and customs. They began to establish themselves in small congregations of five and ten pairs, miles from the homestead, though still always within a few score yards of the road.

A further step towards a summer feral state is the selection of breeding-quarters, not only away from the homestead, but—another stage in the emancipation of the race—away even from his much-prized road. The small bush reserves on the lowland portions of Tutira are now, during the breeding season, overrun by multitudes of sparrows. page 344 In them the emancipated alien finds admirable accommodation for rearing his young. About such spots he thrives and multiplies, devouring during summer-time insect life, seeds and berries, formerly the exclusive property of native species. With the waning of the year, these fine-weather quarters are vacated; striking a road, sparrows follow it to the nearest homestead. There the company, or such of them as there is feeding for, remain till spring-time, when once again they move abroad.

Thus, according to the season of the year, sparrows spread abroad or closely congregate; when attention has been directed to the matter the double movement can hardly be missed. It is only, indeed, obscured by the rapid increase of fledglings in early summer, by the unostentatious plumage of the breed, and by the indifference with which so common a species is viewed. What I have myself seen occur on Tutira I believe took place when the birds debouched on to the plain of Hawke's Bay. They had become accustomed during their long trek to breed far from the dwellings of man, outside his pale of protection. As winter approached, however, their instinctive dependence on their human hosts reawakened: the birds flocked from the wilds into the few far-scattered homesteads. Arriving thus in swarms where few or none had been seen before, it is not surprising that settlers viewed “their enormous numbers” with “considerable alarm,”—the birds must have seemed to be appearing as if by magic.

Nowadays I find the winter numbers of the sparrow depend on the changing necessities of station management, on the amount of oats grown, and on the number of contract plough-camps, where teams are fed, where there is always grain spilt from nose-bags or unfinished in feeding-troughs. Probably a chart would show pretty accurately the relation of the sparrow population to the price of wool in London: with prices good more ploughing is done, more horse-feed grown; with prices bad, less. Like his fellow-mortals in New Zealand, the species is affected by events taking place at the other end of the world—events which he cannot control and for which he is in no degree responsible.

The sparrow, however, by no means has everything his own way on Tutira. Although indigenous to Britain, heavy rain does not suit him; no creature, indeed, can look more woe-begone than a wet sparrow, with unpreened, unoiled, and draggled plumage. Our local birds are from time to time decimated, I may almost say annihilated, by the page 344a page 345 great storms of three or four days' duration which, at intervals, passed over the run. During one such gale, registering just under a food and a half of rain in three sequent days, nearly every sparrow on the station perished; that any at all survived was owing to the ingenuity and adaptability of the race. On the afternoon of the third day of rain, a considerable number not only took refuge in the fowl-house, but actually ensconsed themselves amongst the feathers of the great silly Buff Orpingtons, broody on their nests or occupied in laying eggs.

The blackbird (Turdus merula) was liberated by the Auckland Acclimatisation Society in '67. Its naturalisation was at once successful, its increase in numbers immediate. Then there occurs a great blank in the history of the bird, a gap I have tried in vain to bridge. Times were very difficult, wars and rumours of wars, troubles of a hundred kinds pressed heavily on country settlers in particular. As can be imagined, there was little leisure for observation, for records, or for the amenities of life generally. At any rate, nothing is known of the blackbird until after many years it reappears scores of miles distant from its original site of liberation. We can but surmise the early stages of its long journey by elimination of lines obviously not pursued, and by the locality of its reappearance.

The blackbird, like the sparrow at an earlier date, shied off the poor lands immediately north of Auckland. The Great South Road, that lane of light cut through fern and forest which had allured the highway-loving sparrow, offered no inducement. Neither, apparently, did the species travel in a southerly direction down the west coast of New Zealand. It must have proceeded in an easterly direction to have been able eventually to re-emerge at Waiapu; we can be sure of one thing only, that the line taken was the line of least resistance. The species had the choice of the three natural routes of movement already named—river-bed, hill-top, and coast. The river-bed route certainly was not followed. From start at Auckland to finish at Waiapu throughout the whole of the way every stream and river flowed at right angles to it. The hill-top route offered as little encouragement. To begin with, there was no great natural backbone range such as had guided the red-deer and the rabbit northwards. Such chains of hills as did exist were broken and separate one from another, a mere jumble of rounded tops; one and all, moreover, were densely clothed with forest or with fern or scrub. There was no scrap of open ground for alighting, for page 346 exercise, for food. There were none of the great wind-blows, oases of open ground, naked summits and rockfalls, stepping-stones each of them to further progress, which existed on the mighty Ruahine Range; a warmer, wetter climate clothed every inch of the country in dense jungle. The line of least resistance was the coastal line. Mr J. N. Williams and his brother, the late Bishop of Waiapu, have never doubted but that this was the route followed, that the blackbird after leaving Auckland skirted the coast as far as the Bay of Plenty; they furthermore believed that then striking inland the blackbird topped the range and followed in a southerly direction the course of the Waiapu river.1 As to the strike inland, it seems to me improbable that the birds should have crossed the Motu-Mangatu-Maungahamea-Arowhona-Aorangi range, with peaks reaching three, four, and five thousand feet; on the contrary, such a barrier, in my opinion, would be likely to pen them securely to a further stretch of coast. Personally I believe that the blackbird followed the coast-line from Auckland to the Bay of Plenty, continued to follow it round East Cape, ultimately reaching the Waiapu river, where specimens were first seen, that river happening to flow for part of its course parallel to and at no great distance from the coast; there at any rate blackbirds were noticed “in the late 'seventies” by Mr J. N. Williams and the Bishop of Waiapu. “About” '87 they were seen by the late Mr John Hunter Brown between Poverty Bay and Wairoa, later at Waihua by Mr MacMahon, and at Tutira in '91 by myself.

The migratory current, at first a trickle, later increased to a stream. It was not, however, until 1912 that the progeny of the pairs breeding each season on the run seemed to stay. Then at once the increase was marked.

The history of the thrush (Turdus musicus) is the history of the blackbird in duplicate. It was imported by the Auckland Acclimatisation Society at the same date as the blackbird, and like the blackbird, immediately became naturalised. The history of its migration is

1 It may be that details at one time vivid had somewhat faded from Mr Williams' recollection when we first spoke of the matter, and that I may be unaware of some of the minor facts which originally led him to his conclusion. Details, after playing their part in a considered judgment, are apt to be relegated to the shade. In the case, for instance, of the sparrows' trek, I had many times, apropos of acclimatisation generally, heard of their discovery at Waipuna and of the specimens shot at Frimley without the additional item of information that birds “believed to have been sparrows” had been reported as having been seen at the old blockhouse at Opepe, at a period prior to their appearance at Waipuna. It may have happened, therefore, that I am not in possession of the minutiæ which led Mr Williams to the conclusion that the blackbird had struck inland.

page 346a page 347 likewise the history of the blackbird repeated. It was observed on approximately similar dates as the blackbird by Mr J. N. Williams and the Bishop of Waiapu in the Waiapu river-bed by Mr MacMahon between Wairoa and Mohaka, and by myself at Tutira.

In the spring of 1902 I noticed near Petane a cock chaffinch (Fringilla cœlebs). A week later on Tutira I saw a hen chaffinch on the road between the wool-shed and homestead. Four days afterwards I marked a third chaffinch, and almost at the same instant a redpole (Acanthus linaria), the first of its breed seen by me in New Zealand. Both birds were hens: the redpole had her nest in the immediate vicinity, as I could tell by her angry protestations at my presence; that of the chaffinch lay on the ground, either pulled down by some accident or blown from its moorings by the gale on the previous day. The two nests must have been built within a few yards of one another.

Each of the species has an interesting history.

In '73—four years, that is, after the liberation of the blackbird and thrush—a hundred pairs of redpole were imported by the Auckland Acclimatisation Society. The venture was successful, for next season the breed was pronounced to have become thoroughly established. After that, like not a few other aliens, redpoles seem to have vanished from the district where their naturalisation had been so speedily successful. Mr T. F. Cheeseman, for many years honorary Secretary of the Auckland Acclimatisation Society, tells me, indeed, that he has never himself seen a redpole wild in New Zealand; at any rate, after liberation and successful acclimatisation, this small species vanished, to reappear thirty years later at Tutira. Several months after observation of the first specimen, I saw another redpole, then a third, then a party of seven. A couple of years later the breed had become fairly numerous in the trough of the run, especially about belts of dry standing manuka over which fires had passed. There for several seasons considerable flocks maintained themselves. Nowadays, though still not uncommon, they are diminishing to normal numbers.

Chaffinches imported to Auckland, and freed by the Acclimatisation Society in '68, were pronounced an immediate success.

The appearance of the chaffinch at Tutira was no surprise. I had known for several years that the species was on the move towards the station. In '98, during inspection of forest - land thrown open page 348 for settlement in Poverty Bay, I had discovered chaffinches at the head-waters of the Mangatu stream—a mountain tributary of the great Waipaoa river. The birds were moving down - stream, for upon our return a few hours later they had proceeded coastwards a considerable distance. This original band of chaffinches I have always believed to have been one of many straggling across the watershed, following in a general way the course of the eastward - flowing stream.

Reasons have been given for thinking that the blackbird and thrush migratory movement followed the coast, without deviation, round East Cape. Settlement, however, had made vast strides since the 'seventies. Huge gaps had been cut out of the forest-lands of both coasts; woodlands had been fallen both east and west of the high watershed—Motu-Mangahamia-Arawhona; Opotiki on the one coast and Gisborne on the other were almost, though not quite, continuously linked by grassed lands and open country. The probabilities are that the chaffinch followed the blackbird and thrush coastal route until somewhere about the Opotiki region; there, tempted by the wealth of cultivated ground, it appears to have diverged from the sea, and, following the line of light, the open farm lands, moved inland up the Motu river, then up its tributary head-waters until the watershed was topped. Again utilising a river-bed route, the tributary streams of the Waipaoa, and later the channel of that great river itself, were followed to the opposite coast. The chaffinch, in fact, threaded one river from mouth to head-waters, another from head-waters to mouth. Reaching the east coast, the migration moved southwards—attracted, perhaps, by the greater quantity of low-growing scrub extending in that direction. Its vanguard was reported to me twice from the Wairoa and once from Waihua; it reached Tutira in the spring of 1902.

North of Gisborne, on the other hand, the chaffinch remained unknown, none having rounded the East Cape, none having diverged from the main body moving south. So small a species as the redpole—a bird, too, of the wilderness—might have been overlooked; the chaffinch, in a district where attention had been called to the matter of aliens by my inquiries, could hardly have been so passed over. During winter, moreover, the latter species draws into homesteads and farmyards; with the sparrow and yellow- page 348a page 349 hammer he claims his place in the sun, his share of the good things provided by man. It is highly improbable that the chaffinch could have escaped detection from one or another of my observers north of Gisborne.

Prominent amongst annuals fashionable in the early 'nineties were Shirley poppies. It was in a gorgeous bed of them that the first bumble - bee was noticed on Tutira in 1902. The following year I noticed a second specimen also in the flower-garden; indeed, until red clover was sown as a fodder-plant, I never remember to have seen one on the station except in the garden.

The history of the bumble-bee (Bombus terrestris) in New Zealand is as follows: After several failures they were liberated on the Matamata estate, in the Thames district of the Auckland Province, in '84—only two queens, however, surviving out of one hundred and forty-five. In '85 more successful shipments reached the South Island, and from there the North Island was again stocked. From Matamata stragglers reached Tutira five or six seasons later.

The experiment has been regarded as a success, and certainly since then large quantities of red-clover seed have been marketed. The bumble-bee has got the credit for this result; whether the alien insect altogether deserves it is, I think, more than doubtful. Red-clover blossom, to my certain knowledge, was fertilised long before the introduction of the bumble-bee. In 1880 I was a cadet on Peel Forest Station in South Canterbury. Even then I was on the watch for new plants and aliens in strange places; at any rate, I recollect scrambling up and gathering ripe clover-heads on the forest cutting between Peel Forest village and Holnicote, the beautiful homestead of the late Hon. John Barton Acland. Rubbed in my hand, these heads gave an excellent sample of plump seed; good seed was to be had on Tutira, too, long prior to the introduction of the bumble-bee. On a quarter-acre patch, ploughed and sown down in the 'seventies by the Stuart Brothers and Kiernan, it was always obtainable until the plants were eaten out. Lastly, in 1909, the Waterfall Paddock—300 acres of cow-grass—was thoroughly fertilised. There was so heavy a seeding that we thought of cutting and thrashing, and only did not do so because of difficulties in regard to the hire of machinery and traction over bad roads. The fertilisation of this clover - field was, I believe, accomplished by a small greyish moth, millions of which hid in the crop or rose in clouds if disturbed. page 350 Experts can calculate the quantity of bumble-bees required to “set” 300 acres of tall cow - grass; in any case it would be immensely greater than the district could produce. As a matter of fact, the number of bumble-bees was insignificant in 1909, nor are their numbers likely to increase. This alien, like others, cannot quite adapt itself to the peculiar climatic conditions; any large increase is checked by the deluges that from time to time pass over the run.

A second northern centre of dispersion from which aliens have reached Tutira has been Wairoa. From there have arrived the green frog, of Australian origin, and, I believe, the “opossum,” also from Australia. Frogs reached Tutira in '94, being reported almost simultaneously on the east and west of the run. They are great climbers; I have got them not only on hill-tops up which they might have been tempted by a gradual rise, but on steep cones like the “Natural Hill” and the “Dome.”1

They have never become plentiful on Tutira. About shallow lagoons and surface water-holes harrier hawks take them; in deeper waters, I believe, they are devoured by eels.

Opossum were turned out in the Waikaremoana forest reserve in 1900; we believe, though they were never actually seen on Tutira, that they passed southwards five years later—ribbon-wood saplings were peeled and succulent willow shoots barked bare, the hard cores of both showing the tooth-marks of a large rodent. Our willows and ribbon-wood have never before been thus peeled, and they have never been touched in that way again.

1 Mr J. N. Williams tells me that frogs, liberated at a dam on Edenham, “almost at once” reached the top of the highest hill on the station.