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Yesterdays in Maoriland

Chapter XIV Bush Types

page 218

Chapter XIV Bush Types

'I feel sorry that in this Colony there is not more interest taken in Nature and its resources; I do not mean that people should follow it as a pursuit, but more as a recreation, in leisure time. Through the extermination of forests, birds are forced to disappear; and it is a waste of timber, where the soil is too poor for agriculture and pasture, to burn and destroy the young trees for the purpose of getting a few large ones, or kauri-gum, all of which might be secured without this wanton destruction, and thus save the bush and its useful inhabitants, of which we could learn a great deal by observation.' — Andreas Reischek (Address to Auckland Institute).

The most profound of all my New Zealand experiences was my stay in the King Country. There I not only won an insight into a disappearing race culture, but was also able to study the indigenous animal world still living undisturbed in an extensive world of bush. Perhaps few naturalists have had this good fortune either before or since my time, and so I bring together lovingly a few of my observations of some of the most noteworthy types.

One of the oddest birds peculiar to New Zealand is certainly the kiwi, of which four species are known to me. An ostrich-like bird the size of a large domestic fowl, it is compact of body, and possesses powerful claw-armed feet and a long sabre-shaped bill, at the page 219end of which are well-developed organs of smell. It has stunted and scarce visible rudiments of wings, and is covered with hairlike brown or grey-brown feathers.

When I arrived in New Zealand it was not known with any certainty how the sex of this rare bird could be distinguished, and still less was known of its habits and mode of life. My several years' observation of this animal, on which I spent much time and money, made me at last thoroughly acquainted with all its idiosyncrasies. For one thing; I found that the call of the female differs from that of the male, the former resembling the croak of a frog, whereas the latter utters a shrill pipe, something like 'Kiwi-i-i!'

A solitary unsociable hermit, the kiwi roams nearly the whole year through the bush. By day he sleeps in holes or burrows mostly under tree-trunks, and after sunset he stalks out in search of food. He carefully strides out into the dusk along well-trodden paths, head bent low, so that his line smell-organs just graze the ground.

These tracks, some 11 inches wide, are laid out with such care as to give those parts of the woods in which the kiwi lives the appearance of a miniature town-planning system. During the rainy season, and also when the miro berries (Podocarpus ferruginea) are ripe, the kiwi wanders long distances.

This strange bird only becomes comparatively sociable for a short time during the mating season. From a well-hidden spot, one cold moonlight night page 220I watched the combat and the love-play of this night wanderer.

After a three-hour wait I heard the shrill pipe of a male. The croaking voice of the female replied from close by. Soon the male bird stepped into the open space before me. From not far off the pipe of a second male now broke the stillness. Excitedly, with head erect, the one I was watching drew up and answered the call, and now followed pipe upon pipe, until the rival stepped into the arena. Heads bent, they prepared for the fray, uttering clacking noises the while; and then they sprang at one another. The fight was a combination of sabre duel and boxing match. They attacked each other ferociously with their bills, so that the feathers flew from their breasts; then they rose up on one leg, letting fly at one another with their sharp-clawed feet. In their excitement they pawed the ground and uttered grunting noises. The first arrival proved the stronger, and soon the other took advantage of a favourable moment and made off.

The victor' let out a cry of triumph, and the female kiwi, who had been watching the fight, now showed her admiration of his prowess by surrendering herself to him. Thereupon endearments began, the loving female patting the feathers of her mate in order with her beak. Then alternately they appeared to bore into the moss for food, and to scratch up the ground with their feet.

The honeymoon is spent in a hole, and night after night the pair will go out together looking for food. page 221I noticed that the older females always sought their mates among the younger males, and the older males among the younger females.

After the female has laid her egg, the male bird takes over the business of hatching, while the female sleeps alone in a neighbouring hole. The young are soon able to take care of themselves, and the old ones trouble little about them. Indeed I never saw kiwi protecting or looking after their young.

I kept three kinds in captivity; all became quite tame, and the males would even eat out of my hand. If I did not give him his food at the proper time, one of these birds was in the habit of chattering with his bill, and jumping and striking at me with his feet. He would frequently fight with Cæsar.

The Maoris held the kiwi in high estimation as an object of the chase. The feathers were twined into the chiefs' mats, which were valued as highly as those of the Maori dog. This rare and unfortunate bird, which can neither run fast nor defend itself successfully against the ravages of man, and is indeed at home only in the sacred loneliness of the bush, is fast dying out. The European and his attendant dogs and cats destroy him and take from him his magnificent forest.

One similar in habits to the kiwi, and in his singular character a true New Zealander, is the great green earth or owl-parrot (Stringops habroptilus), the kakapo of the Maori. This bird has a more owl-than parrotlike appearance, is somewhat larger than the kiwi, and is also unable to fly, his breast-bones being flat page 222and his wings stunted.. In his habits he is even more solitary, being of all birds the most unsociable.

Should two male kakapos chance to meet, on their travels, a battle royal is sure to take place, fought but with beak and claws, the death of the weaker sometimes resulting. Even during the tenderness of the mating season the male bird can hardly restrain himself from biting his mate to death! Of real wooing or of communal life, this strange bird has no knowledge whatever. I am of opinion that the male takes no part in the hatching or rearing of the chicks, as in all cases the female was, the sole attendant I, saw from first to last. I did not see a male near a breeding burrow, nor did I, in any single instance, find two grown-ups in one burrow, though I have seen them in pairs on their nocturnal rambles.

The Maoris maintain that the kakapo breeds only once every five years, when the berries of the tafra (Ereycinetta) ripen, and perhaps there is some foundation for this. I myself, for example, in the year 1884, found eggs and young in various stages of development, whereas in the following three years. I saw no signs of breeding whatsoever in precisely the same neighbourhood.

The kakapo also lays down pathways through the woods. I hid myself many a time near such tracks, and in such a position that I could see every bird as it passed along. It was very amusing to watch the wanderer coming towards me feeding, stepping daintily, snapping off every root that crossed his path, and throwing to one side every stone or stick in his page break
Black and white photograph of two stuffed-and-mounted kakapo

Kakapo, Most Unsociable of Birds

page 223 way. They generally select the tops of spurs for the formation of these tracks, which very much resemble those of the natives themselves, except that they are rather narrower, being from 8 to 14 inches wide. In the winter I saw them systematically treading out these paths again after the snow had completely blotted them out. In many parts of the Sounds district, bush kakapo are very common, and here I found the scrub, consisting of silver pine, akeake, and other Alpine vegetation, so dense that the snow cannot penetrate it. The kakapos take advantage of this to make their habitations under the snow-covered scrub, where it is both dry and warm.

They leave their burrows after sunset, and the moon is their sun. If they cannot return to their own homes before daylight, they seek shelter in any unoccupied burrow, for they travel long distances. They are very gluttonous, consuming large quantities of grass, grass-seed, and other Alpine vegetation. In July they are in splendid condition, those found having as much as two inches of fat on them. They used frequently to plunder the vegetable garden I had established near my lonely camp, and one morning I actually came across one asleep under a cabbage. He had so gorged himself during the night that he could go no farther. I was much surprised to find in the intestines of the old birds, parasites from 6 inches to 2. feet long, some knotted together and single ones sometimes tied in three or four knots.

In the spring, when the sun begins to shed its warmth, kakapos emerge from their holes and select page 224favourable spots in the sunshine, where they crouch down and remain the whole day. One September I selected a suitable place for observing this peculiarity. The snow had disappeared from all the sunny places, and I found three birds sitting upon low silver-pine scrub. They took no notice of my approach until I had them safely in my hand, when they endeavoured to release themselves by biting and scratching.

The Alpine kakapo — so called by me, as I have never found this beautiful bird anywhere except on the high mountains — is considerably larger and much brighter than the ordinary kakapo. The young are much duller in plumage than their parents.

Another roguish type is the wood-hen (Ocydromus) the weka of the Maori. I observed six varieties that were already known, and also discovered an unknown variety on Stewart Island. In size and appearance the Ocydromus australis is similar to the kiwi, but is able to fly, and is far more cunning and able to take care of itself, and also far more sociable than either kiwi or kakapo.

I saw them mostly at dusk, roaming along stony river-beds, the dead trees swept down by floods affording them hiding-places. I have also seen them on the seashore and on the mountains as high as 3000 feet above sea-level, but scarce.

The confidingness, indeed the cool, obtrusive cheek and thieving propensities of this bird, are well known. I experienced them often, not always in ways I was able to appreciate. During my stay in the Sounds they page 225were my constant companions, for if undisturbed they are very bold and tame.

I always made it a rule not to shoot or molest birds near my camp, so as to observe them and listen to their sweet songs. At Dusky Sound one shining black weka would enter my tent morning and evening without ceremony, uttering a shrill whistle of one note, and demand biscuit, which she would throw on the ground till it broke. On a second expedition to the same gorge, to my astonishment my lady friend put in an appearance again. I remember also how, one September, during a severe thunder-and snow-storm, one of the black wood-hens took shelter in the hut in which I was working, and stayed with me for a considerable time.

Sometimes they followed me long distances to camp and carried everything away they could manage such as spoons, knives, candles, etc. Once in the bush I spread out my lunch on a tree-trunk, and was getting ready to eat when I chanced to see a beautiful hawk flying overhead, which I got up and followed. On my return I found the 'table' was bare; a weka had stolen bread, butter — and knife!

Another time, when chopping wood in the bush, I took off my waistcoat and put it to one side. I heard a noise, and looked up to find a weka had pulled, my watch out of the pocket and was dragging it away. Fortunately the watch was on a good stout strap, which got entangled in a branch, so that the weka had all her trouble in vain. I watched the thief for a long time, tickled to death, and then hunted her away.

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If they knew they were being followed, they showed incredible cunning. They would fool poor Cæsar for hours through the bush, disappearing first into one hole, and then, whilst the dog dug busily to get at them, out they would steal by another. If Cæsar set off in pursuit, away they darted in a zigzag run, round and round the tree-trunks, like a game of hide-and-seek.

Another singular bird of Maoriland is the sacred huia (Heteralocha scutirostris), whose black tail-feathers edged with white are worn by the chiefs in their hair as the symbol of rank. This bird is held in such honour that a whole tribe, the Ngatihuias, is named after it.

The peculiarity about this bird is that Nature has made male and female so that they cannot live apart from one another. The male has a strong, short, wedge-shaped beak with which, like the woodpecker, it hacks holes in the trunk of a tree. The beak of the female is, on the contrary, long, thin, and curved, and its special use is to draw out the worms as with a pair of pincers from the holes the male has bored. The food thus obtained is honourably divided, both male and female being compelled to live in peaceful co-partnership if they do not wish to starve; though here again a misogynist might maintain that this is one more instance where the male does all the work, and the female gets most of the fun.

The beautiful New Zealand paradise-duck (Casarca variegata) is another bird with idiosyncrasies of its own. While the female guards her young, the male page 227takes it upon himself to entice any intruder away from the nest. He does this with great skill.

Once I found a male bird lying stretched out motionless before me as if dead. When I moved nearer, however, he jumped up and fled. After a good look round the neighbourhood, I found the nest deserted. The drake's pretence had kept me off long enough for the mother duck to carry her brood to a place of safety.

The tenderest and most wonderful of all singers of the New Zealand bush is the bell-bird (Anthornis melanura). These were then becoming rather rare, and to be found generally only on some of the smaller islands of the coast.

On Hauturu I observed some of the last of these sweet songsters. Near my nikau-palm hut, in the middle of the lonely island, from ten to twenty of these coloured birds would give me a royal concert morning and evening. By a tap with its beak the bird sitting on the highest branch gave the signal to commence. Then the chorus started in unison, to be brought to a pause again by another stroke of the choirmaster's beak.

The morning and evening song consisted of three different sounds, and the harmony is like the light notes of little silver bells. Quite different is the song of the bell-bird by day; then it is a warble, like the note of our yellowhammer.

In another place I have already given an account of my search after one of the rarest of New Zealand birds, the ti-ora (Pogonornis cincta).

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The magnificence, the stately luxury of the plant world of the Maoriland bush filled me with constant wonder and delight.

From the north, intermingled with the mighty domes of the kauri woods, it spreads itself out like a giant carpet of endless primeval forest, woven of palms and deciduous pine trees, over the whole of Maoriland.

Among others the nikau-palm (Areca sapida) is a very useful tree for the explorer. The stem provides the best material for building his hut, and the leaves form a good roof, while the pith affords nourishment. In swampy places and along creeks the wonderful tree-ferns spread out their light green veil-like cover. Red spruce, and the red-berry-bearing miro (Podo-carpus ferruginea) form a great part of the remaining forest.

On account of its extremely hard wood the manuka or tea-tree (Leptospermum scopiorum) is in great demand among the Maoris for the fashioning of weapons. Its young shoots were once used as a substitute by the early colonists for tea, on which account it gets its name.

Of the cabbage-like plants the most important is the lily-flax (Phormium tenex), the raw material of all the wonderful woven work (mats, etc.) of the Maori. It is a mighty plant with robust dark green leaves, and dark red blossoms which contain much honey, on which account it is much visited by birds and insects.