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Birds of the Water Wood & Waste

The Weka

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The Weka

In the wet, undrained lands round about the lake are to be found, the Swamp Rail and the Marsh Rail, both species quite rare, but noticed now and again, especially after heavy floods, when the birds are drowned out of their seclusion. The Banded Railis also a rare bird with us, and manuka and fern growth of drier situations. Our fourth member of the Rail family, the is only very occasionally flushed among the Weka, is common, and as he, too, is protected, many pair stop about the homestead. In our garden during the winter months often there are two or more couples, and page 78 last year one particular bird would come up for worms thrown to him, and take quite a lively interest in gardening operations. Sometimes a pair will breed very near the homestead, but it is exceptional, and nearly all these semi - domesticated woodhens draw off about the end of July to their wilds.

Then, also, the birds on the run begin to leave the flats where, during winter, an easier food supply has been obtainable, and to think of building about the heads of gullies and glades and open valleys.

About April we begin to see them again in the garden and orchard, and the approach of spring is once more the signal of retreat to higher ground and denser covert.

Wekas breed very early—or very late— it is hard to say which, when the birds are sitting in mid-June. One such nest was built near a bushmans' camp and not long after the pitching of the tent a Weka appeared.

The premises having been reconnoitred, and the scraps of potato and cold meat thrown out having been sampled, the bird disappeared for three days, returning then with two others—no doubt hens. A nest page break
Plate XV. Weka's Nest, with three eggs, in Whip Manuka.

Plate XV. Weka's Nest, with three eggs, in Whip Manuka.

page break page 79 was made in a clump of hill fern and eight eggs laid.

These, my friend declared, were all laid by one bird. Probably, however, he failed to distinguish the females, and the eggs were really a joint contribution to the treble partnership. This is the more likely, as the Weka's relative, the Pukeko, often acts thus; moreover, eight is an improbable number of eggs for a single hen to lay, even though stimulated by scraps of meat, potato, and the refuse of a camp.

On August 22nd another Weka's nest was dropped on by a contractor felling manuka. This nest, though substantially built, was unprotected above, save for the poor shade of spindly manuka.

On October 7th I had the luck to find two nests, neither of them, however, showing any character in their construction; one was on the edge of a patch of low white manuka, and from it one or two photographs were got. They show the three eggs, with their ground colour of dirty white, blotched with large, faint, washedout, brown-purple markings.

The other nest found on October 7th was sheltered and hidden by old dead bracken, page 80 above which there was a growth of tall manuka. It also contained three eggs.

Believing that we should get more interesting nests later in the year, I did not attempt to photograph the birds, but “he that will “not when he may, when he will he shall “have ‘nay,’” and this we experienced with the Weka, obtaining no late nests in use.

Certainly, five very characteristic nests were got afterwards, but only egg chips remained in them. One was on a dry limestone shelf, sheltered by a huge projecting peak of the same rock. On this inner ledge the nest lay dry and warm, the egg chips half filtered through the soft, dry grasses. There the Weka must have sat secure, and in partial gloom, caused by the veil of pendent ferns on the outer rock. Three other nests were built beneath ancient clumps of bill rush and sheltered with a natural thatch of many inches depth, and of many years' accumulation. The fifth also was impervious to all weather, hollowed out against the very stem of a fern tree, whose dead, drooping fronds, slightly projecting and overlapping one another, hung to the very ground. By them the page 81 bird was protected from every drop of rain, and as effectually as by a shingle roof the rooms beneath.

The hill-rush nests had three exists to each; the nest built on the limestone shelf was less well off for escape, but was so perfectly hidden that perhaps the birds deemed a back door superfluous. They could, moreover, if pressed, have leapt over the low edge.

The whereabouts of the Weka's nest is largely determined by the food supply of the vicinity, and in springtime, if a beast has been bogged or a fat sheep got trapped in an “under runner,” it is quite worth searching for a nest in the neighbourhood.

Even after the flesh is no longer fit to eat, a great supply of maggots, beetles and grubs, attracted by the carrion, provide for Wekas an ample food supply.

Weka chicks are very attractive little creatures, and in early life quite black. Like young Pukeko, they reach maturity very slowly, and probably it is only the earlier nesting birds that rear a second brood.

In his Birds of New Zealand Buller treats of the Weka at considerable length for the page 82 benefit of naturalists of a future day, who will, he says, “seek in vain for the birds themselves, and to whom, as we can readily imagine, every recorded particular will possess the same interest that now attaches to Leguat's rude account of the Didine bird of Rodriquez.”

This lament, however, was certainly premature, if not altogether uncalled for, and a species so remarkable in the possession of ample wings which yet are incapable of flight from long disuse, is likely long to gratify the moralist.*

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On Tutira the numbers of the Weka fluctuate very considerably, and I have, elsewhere, described the two irruptions that have occurred on the run during my occupation. The species has, however, more than held its own during the last quarter century.

* Note.—The New Zealand Year Book of 1909 supplies the following figures in regard to the members of the many religious bodies in the Dominion: Church of England, 368,065; Presbyterians, 203,597; Roman Catholics, 126,995; etc., etc. The pride of place in the first-mentioned Church may well be in part ascribed to the Weka. In theory, at any rate, he is the best-known bird of the Dominion; everybody has at least read of him, and the Anglican Church has peculiarly taken him to her bosom. None of her many imported curates can withstand him. He never fails to draw and to awaken, and no newly-arrived young Church of England divine's sermon can be considered quite complete without him. As surely as texts of a certain character are given out, we listen eagerly for the coming allusion. The bird is never, of course, named, but allowed to steal upon us perhaps as “a small brown bird, my brethren, whom all of us know,” or, “my friends, one of our deeply interesting flightless species.” The poor bird is then made to fulfil one, no doubt, of his purposes in the scheme of Nature, and is castigated as a decadent, and held up as an awful warning to the congregation. It is pleasant to believe that while Tutira, and no doubt other runs preserve, the honourable, numerical position of the Church of England is assured.