Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 3, 1870
This text is also available in PDF
(66 KB) Opens in new window
– 81 –

No. 51.—Nestor meridionalis, Gml.
Kaka.
(See also Vol. ii., p. 64.)

Our representatives of the gorgeously painted Psittacidœ possess little of the brilliancy of plumage or gracefulness of form which distinguishes so many of the family in other lands; our Kaka, in his suit of sober brown slightly flushed with red, might be passed over in a collection almost without notice by many to whom his quaint habits are unknown, and even to those who are most familiar with the bird, it conveys little if any impression in association with the parrot tribe; it is never called by that name except, perhaps, there is a desire on the part of some old settler to impress a new comer with a proper sense of having arrived in a foreign country, when our noisy Kakas are spoken of or pointed out as “our parrots.”

Arboreal in its habits, with truth it may be said that our Kaka lives but amongst trees, not merely seeking the forest for the sake of the shelter in which to rest or to rear its young, but it finds its living on and amongst trees, and in the forest it may be found throughout the whole year; nor is the economy of the bush uninfluenced by the habits of this bird, as we shall presently endeavour to show. Although noisy and restless, the Kaka at times may be, and often is, observed as quiet as any bird in the bush. Let anyone ramble into one of our timber forests, far beyond the outside shrubby zone resounding with the cries of many birds, where all is so still and silent, and he will find that there are times, about the noontide hour, when the wanderer might almost dream that he had strayed beyond the reach of sound, with all its soothing tones and harsh discordances; that he might—

—– “In this desert inaccessible,
Under the shade of melancholy boughs,
Lose and neglect the creeping hours of time;”

all too soon the spell is broken, frequently by the wail of the ubiquitous weka, the clear ringing note of the koromako from the damp moss-clad gully, and quite as often by the hard-working Kaka dropping a chip of the rough hard bark that had been silently stripped from some lofty tree. It may be thought not out of place to make brief allusion to the influence which some of the habits of the Kaka exercise on the condition of the bush; admitted amongst the Trichoglossinœ as a honey-eating bird, in its search after this portion of its food, it may cause the fertilization of the blossoms of trees, and thus assist in

– 82 –

their propagation. Its love of insect food, and the toil which it undertakes for the sake of gratifying this appetite, which Nature has implanted in this bird, materially affect the economy of the timber forests it inhabits. Although so often accused of injuring trees by stripping down the bark, from careful observation we do not believe a flourishing tree is ever damaged by its beak; it is the apparently vigorous, but really unsound tree that is attacked, already doomed by the presence of countless multitudes of insects, of many varieties of which it is at once the food and refuge, either in their perfect or larvæ state.

In the persevering and laborious pursuit of this favourite food, the Kaka doubtless lends his assistance in hastening the fall of decaying trees, the loosened strips of bark, dissevered, admit to the exposed wood, rain, moisture collected from dews and mists to be dried by evaporation, by the heat of the sun, by the desiccating winds, only to become saturated again; under this alternation the insidious fungi take root, decay rapidly sets in, the close-grained timber gives place to a soft spongy texture, branches drop off, and gradually the once noble-looking tree succumbs to its fate; but its gradual decay and fall, the work of years, has proved beneficial to the surrounding plants, the dropping of the branches admits light and air to the aspiring saplings, assists in checking the undue spread of lichens and epiphytes, and when the old stem falls, tottering down from its rottenness, its place is supplied by vigorous successors. In estimating the value of its labours as an insect-eater, it should not be forgotten that the Picidœ family is entirely absent from our bird system, and that upon this indefatigable climber devolves some share of the duty of representing that peculiar group of forest birds.

Living in trees, when disturbed it hops amongst the branches with much dexterity, beak and wings assisting its awkward-looking but rapid progress as it threads its way amongst leaves and sprays with unruffled plumage; the peculiar formation of its grasping feet enable it to execute wonderful feats of agile climbing. A sharp short note or two marks its uneasiness when a vigilant eye watches what takes place below; when really alarmed, after a few hurried movements, it flies some short distance, at first start usually gliding downwards rather than flying straight, threading the leafy maze of the close-growing trees with perfect ease and grace, at this time it warns its fellows of impending danger by uttering loud oft-repeated cries of “kaka, kaka.” In all probability it derived its native name from its alarm note. It can readily be imagined that in those times when only the rudest and least effective weapons were in use, long prior to the period at which the Maori became acquainted with the death-dealing gun, how frequently frightened or wounded birds escaped the uncertain missiles, uttering loud cries of terror; vexation or hunger would soon impress this call on the mind of the disappointed hunter. We have ever thought it a miserable sight to watch the Kaka, when severely wounded,

– 83 –

uttering its low smothered cries of distress and pain; how the wretched bird endeavours to save its fall from the leafy shelter by clinging to bough and spray with desperate tenacity, often seizing its wounded limb with its powerful beak, as if to tear away the burning agony from which it suffers. Truly gregarious, it is social even in distress; numbers gather round their wounded companion to fall easy victims to the gunner. Often in the bright sunshine, scores may be observed, with loud screams and chatter, flying and circling about, and, high above the outskirts of the bush, apparently bent on enjoying some short excursion; now and then an individual more hilarious than his fellows, after a somewhat slow and laboured ascent, will suddenly dart downwards, perpendicularly, with almost closed wings; this feat is doubtless performed to an appreciative and admiring circle, if one may judge from the clamour of the company.

The Kaka we think to be less gregarious when travelling than at almost any other time; when migrating from one part of the country to another, it proceeds on its journey at a considerable height, uttering at intervals a brief note that sounds something like “t-chrût, t-chrût,” then, perhaps, a whistling call of When matched, the pair may be observed constantly together; if one moves from a tree its attentive partner quickly follows. The nesting place has to be prepared; for this purpose a tree is usually selected the heart of which is completely decayed; it must have a convenient hole leading from the outside to the bottom of the hollow; the interior requires some preparation perhaps, or the entrance has to be smoothed or enlarged; the pair may be frequently observed busy for the comfort and safety of their prospective offspring, sometimes a certain degree of fastidiousness is disclosed in making these preparations. After a home is made ready, it often happens that in place of being occupied it is deserted for some more eligible locality. It lays its four white eggs on the decayed wood, without any further supply of softer material by way of nest. As an instance of devoted attachment to its young, it may be mentioned that we have found the old bird dead at the entrance of its nesting

– 84 –

hole after a bush fire, in which it had perished rather than desert its helpless offspring, yet, from the nature of the locality, escape would have been easy.

The summer time is occupied by the cares of providing for and protecting the young; after they are old enough to shift for themselves, as autumn advances, the Kaka usually becomes very fat; as it is considered savoury food, great numbers are annually destroyed. It is in winter time that it appears to the greatest disadvantage, especially during a severe winter in our Southern climate, when the bush is metamorphosed with fantastic snow- wreaths, it seems out of character with the scene; food may be scarce, for with ruffled feathers it sits moping and nearly silent, a picture of dull melancholy. Towards the close of winter (August) we have known it devour with avidity the hard seed of the kowhai (Sophora tetraptera); at this period gardens and shrubberies are visited, and blossoms of almond trees and flowering shrubs eagerly ransacked; as winter passes away with its coarse fare, returning spring restores the Kaka's sprightliness, and he begins to fare daintily. In September we have observed it poised on the slender bough of some tall Panax, luxuriating on the viscid nectar of its blossoms; happy enough it looks when thus seen through some opening in the bush, its deep red breast-feathers lit up by the slanting rays of the declining sun; sated at last, it cleanses its huge beak against a neighbouring bough, then, with grateful chatter, glides off to join its fellows.

Insects form no inconsiderable portion of its food, how diligently they are sought for may be judged from the heaps of bark chips that lie beneath decaying trees; often it may be noticed on the ground tearing away the mossy clothing of the huge gnarled roots that spread around, even the soft rotten boughs are gnawed to obtain the larvæ of some of the larger bush insects. Not only does it regale on flowers and insect food; in the Fagus forests, in the bark of the black birch trees may be found a dull red fleshy- looking grub, tightly embedded in the hard bark, quite beneath the black velvety moss that wraps the Fagus like a pall; the wound made by this unsightly insect causes in spring time a sweet honey-like exudation, most frequently taking the form of a fine white filament, terminating in a small bright globule, glistening like a dewdrop; glancing upwards, the tall straight- grown stem appears spangled with multitudes of these bright threaded beads. This is a favourite feeding ground of several arboreals. The varied modes of locomotion employed form an interesting study, leading to enquiry and reflection upon their structure, their muscular and osseous systems, thus opening out a wide field for physiological observation. Of these hungry climbers the robust-framed Kaka occupies the foremost rank for size, its hold on the bole of the tree is secure, its movements deliberate, whilst its thick tongue is actively employed in gathering the honey-sweet meal.

The Kaka is easily snared, and very soon becomes tame if allowed liberty

– 85 –

about the premises, its ready confidence quickly transforms a pet into a plague. Let those who doubt its omnivorous propensities allow it access to a dairy, and watch the deft manner in which it manages to clear the cream from the pans.

Having entered so minutely into the habits of a bird so well known as the Kaka, it appears unnecessary to append a description, further than a few words about the tongue, etc., as some doubt has existed as to its position as one of the Trichoglossinœ, and whether its tongue is furnished with a brush- like termination or not. The tongue is thick, fining down towards the point, not unlike a finger; the superior side is flattish, the under side is rounded and furnished with a row of short stiff papillæ, black in colour; this brush-like apparatus can scarcely be said to form the termination of the tongue, it really occupies a similar position on the tongue which the margin of the nail occupies on the human finger; on the inside of the lower mandible may be observed, just within the deeply channcled lip, a row of minute yellowish dots, very slightly raised above the surface of the mandible; at the sides these specks give way to very faintly marked furrows, probably to clear the papillæ by the pressure of the tongue against the lower mandible. Those who have only seen dried skins, may not be aware that the upper and lower mandibles are connected by a thin tough skin, which allows the beak to open widely, and gives great freedom to the movements of the lower mandible; about the middle of this skin, in a line with the gape, a shallow sac or pouch exists, containing a wax- like substance.

Having only recently enjoyed the pleasure of reading Gould's Handbook to the Birds of Australia, we were not aware how little was known of the Kaka; a desire to carry out a wish therein expressed for further information about this bird must form the apology for entering so minutely into its habits. A difficult task it would be, even for an accomplished ornithologist, to give anything like a strictly accurate description of the Kaka's plumage, which should at the same time be supposed to represent satisfactorily and correctly the appearance of that of the species; so great is the variation in numerous minor points, that it offers great temptations to subdivision. As children, we used to be told that no two leaves were precisely alike of the gold and green mass that made up the foliage of the variegated sycamore; we have been reminded more than once of this piece of folklore when looking at a number of our parrots. Mr. Buller, in Essay (p. 11), alludes to several varieties in the feathers of the Kaka. Most noticeable must this variation of plumage appear to those who have enjoyed opportunities of inspecting specimens which have presented a change and difference of feather so remarkable as in those birds which, under the names of N. superbus or N. occidentalis, have been classed as separate species. Here is a change indeed; instead of the accustomed dress of sober brown, relieved from positive dulness by an olive shade, our usually demure- looking friend appears decked out in bright trappings of canary yellow with

– 86 –

scarlet facings. Is it to be wondered at that the assumption of a livery so ga and parrot-like metamorphosed our Kaka past recognition, even by old friends? In spite of his beak he was christened Superbus, and cut off by this distinction from the rest of the noisy fraternity. It is not known whether this gaudy clothing is enjoyed by a select body of individuals doomed to a life of celibacy, but it is certain that their numbers do not increase.

The following description is taken from a very fine old male, but a careful inspection of many birds of this species would convince anyone how very unsatisfactory must be the description of any one specimen as a correct representation of the species:—Upper surface olivaceous brown, often with a sombre greenish glint, each feather margined with dusky brown, feathers projecting over lower mandible, with produced hair-like tips, dark red with a stripe of grey; ear coverts rich orange; crown of the head, forehead, grey; back of the head grey, washed with pale yellowish green, margined with brown; nape rufous brown, margined with greenish yellow and black, forming an irregular collar, somewhat interrupted on the front of the neck; scapularies dark olivaceous brown, inclining to greyish green on the back; primaries brown, toothed with pale red on the inner web; tail dull brown, barred with pale red on the inner web, except the two centre feathers, the greater part of the basal portion of which are flushed across with a reddish shade on the under side, tipped with the same colour; throat, neck, and breast greyish brown, margined with dark greenish brown; abdomen and tail coverts rich blood red, barred with black; bill curved from the base.