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Birds of the Water Wood & Waste

The Pukeko

The Pukeko.

In one or other of the years immediately prior to my last visit Home, that is during 1912 or 1913, I had counted as many as page 18 seventy of these handsome waterhen in one lot. Then, I believe, there must have been three or four hundred pair on Tutira. At that date too, judging by the alacrity with which after any accident pairs rebuilt and laid fresh clutches feed must have been more than ample. Then came the war, during which period the place was managed by my brother; no shooting, therefore, can have occurred; there was no change in station policy, covert was untouched, as great a space as formerly of rich alluvial land lay open to the birds. Whilst thus at home news reached me that the Pukeko were gone, nobody knowing why or where.

Upon my arrival in New Zealand after the Armistice, my enquiries as to their disappearance elicited but little further information. I did find out, however, that about that date Pukeko had become “very plentiful” on certain swamps thirty miles distant from Tutira as the crow flies, also that not every Pukeko had gone but that two or three brace had remained near a certain cottage on the lake side. Why had these birds deserted their feeding grounds in a body? Since the irruption of weasels that passed up the East Coast and through Tutira in the early page 19 nineties, locally these small beasts have been almost unknown—one or two seen in twenty years. They were as scarce on my return, I, myself, having noticed but one in three or four years. That the Pukeko were not driven out by vermin I am confident, the more so because of the enormous increase in Thrush and Blackbird, the wonderful multiplication of a small native species—the Pied Tit—and lastly, the fully maintained numbers of the New Zealand Ground Lark. It will be remembered that Pukeko were in 1913 estimated to be three or four hundred pair. During the 1914 breeding season I was living on an islet south of New Zealand. Unnoted by me there must have been during that year a great increase, during the seasons of 1915 and 1916 a still further expansion. By that date the birds had probably found their breeding quarters becoming overcrowded, their feeding grounds fouled. As to the half-dozen birds remaining, they may have grown, in a sense, semi-domesticated, their self-reliance may have been sapped, their bond of union with their wild companions weakened. Nor is there difficulty in accounting for the suddenness of the Pukeko's disappearance from Tutira. It is a species page 20 that once well on the wing flies high. I imagine an uneasy dissatisfaction, a blind discomfort permeating the mass of birds, one of whom at last leads off the host. I may add in regard to the weasel, that a migratory movement is at this date—1926—passing through Tutira; the movement of Pied Tit already alluded to has passed its maximum and is now on the wane. In fact, the more I become acquainted with the wilds of New Zealand the more sure I become that migratory movements, great or small, are ever occurring. The whole subject, however, has been treated in certain chapters of “Tutira,” and need not be repeated.