Art. XXXIV.—Notes on the Habits of Some of the Birds of New Zealand.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 30th September, 1871.]
The following notes on the habits of some of our commoner birds (including a few which are only to be found at considerable altitudes), and chiefly compiled from observations made during periodical visits to my cattle station at Lake Guyon, in the Nelson province, may not be uninteresting to those who are engaged in investigating the ornithology of this country. Lake Guyon, as I have on other occasions mentioned, occupies a depression in a mountain ridge lying between the valleys of the Waiau-ua, and of its tributary the Stanley, and has been formed by the deposit of a large moraine at the end of the depression furthest from the valley of the Waiau, which dams in the waters flowing through this depression. These waters, which formerly ran into the Stanley, now flow out of the lake over a rocky barrier on the Waiau side, considerably lower than the moraine at the other end. Although situated at an altitude of 3,000 feet above sea level, this lake is never frozen over, and, even during the severest winters, its waters preserve a remarkable degree of warmth. It abounds in fish of the genus Galaxias, whilst the weeds growing below its banks swarm with Physa variabilis and the larvœ of Dragon flies, and in the sandy nooks formed by the wash of the waves are found considerable numbers of a small Cyclas. This abundance of life, and the warmth of the water, attract a great variety of aquatic birds at all seasons of the year, amongst which the principal are the Casarca variegata or Paradise Duck, the Anas superciliosa or Grey Duck, the Hymenolaimus malacorhynchus or Blue Duck (the Whio of the natives), the Fuligula Novœ Zelandiœ or Black Teal, the Podiceps cristatus or Crested Grebe, the Podiceps rufipectus or Lesser Grebe, two species of Cormorant, Graculus carbo and Graculus brevirostris, and the Larus melanorhynchus or Black-billed Gull. On the northern side of the lake patches of level land occur, formed by the deposition of the detritus brought down by its feeders, and covered with Fagus forest. In this forest a number of our ordinary land birds are found, including the Nestor meridionalis or Kaka, the Ocydromus Australis or Weka, the Platycercus auriceps or Yellow-headed Parroquet, the Prosthemadera Novœ Zelandiœ or Tui, the Anthornis melanura or Mako-mako, the Petroica albifrons or Robin, the Athene Novœ Zelandiœ or More-pork, and the rarer Glaucopis cinerea or Kokako, commonly called the New Zealand Crow. Amongst the rocky glens in the vicinity of the lake, the Falco Novœ Zelandiœ or Sparrow-hawk of the settlers is not uncommon, whilst on the shingle-beds of the larger rivers the Hœmatopus
longirostris or Oyster-catcher, the Himantopus Novœ Zelandiœ or Pied Stilt, the Black Stilt and the Black-billed Gulls occur, though not in large numbers. This list by no means exhausts the birds of the district in question, but comprises all upon which I intend to offer any remarks in this paper.
The Paradise Duck is usually found in the valleys, feeding more upon the tender shoots of young grass and upon herbs of various kinds, than upon fish or other forms of animal life. Indeed, this bird is especially destructive to young pasture, and I have been compelled to wage war against it on that account. It breeds from October to January, and not unfrequently rears two broods during the season. I have, in fact, more than once seen two broods of different ages running with the same pair of parent birds. The single broods vary in number, the largest I ever saw being ten. Both parents are anxious and watchful about their young, resorting to the ruse of pretending lameness and inability to rise from the ground, in order to draw off any animal which they think likely to be mischievous. It is excessively amusing to see an old duck waddling away as if with the greatest difficulty, her wings drooping and flapped occasionally, in order to assist her apparently struggling efforts to escape, whilst all the time she manages to keep in advance of even a fleet dog until at last, having drawn him to what she deems a safe distance from her nest, she at once rises from the ground, screaming out her harsh danger signal, to the complete discomfiture of the panting dog. Upon the danger signal being uttered by the parent birds, the young ones usually make at once for the nearest flowing water, down which they float close to the bank, seeking cover and availing themselves with great sagacity of every opportunity of shelter or concealment, in which they are assisted by their similarity in general colour to the soil and vegetation. During the moulting season large numbers of the old birds frequent the lake, associating together in a fleet, and usually occupying a gravelly bank at its upper end, from whence they take to the water upon the least symptom of danger, and invariably make for the middle of the lake, which is far out of gunshot from any part of its banks. In diving they use their wings for propulsion, and can travel a considerable distance under water. These birds are easily tamed, and I believe that if they could be kept within bounds for two or three seasons, they would breed freely in a quasi-domesticated state. In the young birds the sexes are undistinguishable by their colour, the distinctive feathering of the sexes only appearing in the beginning of the winter succeeding their birth.
The Grey Duck in the wild state, is, in some respects, less shy than the Paradise Duck, at all events in localities in which it is not persecuted or much shot at. Several young birds have been brought up by the children of my manager, which, although frequently absent for considerable intervals from the lake, continue so tame as always to resort to the house for food when upon it.
Nor do these tame birds appear to distinguish between those to whose presence they are most accustomed and casual visitors, indicating that their sense of security is due to the circumstance that they have never been molested by anyone. When rearing young of their own, however, they are usually more shy, one of the parent birds at a time then only coming to the house, the other keeping at a respectful distance in charge of the brood. We lately took up some tame ducks and placed them upon the lake. The wild ones had not mixed with them when I left the station last March, the tame ducks evidently being masters of the position from their greater size and strength. The brood of the Grey Duck rarely exceeds five in number. I have found its nest in the large tussocks of snow grass on the moraine at the upper end of the lake, close to the ordinary horse-track, and at a considerable distance from any shelter.
The Black Teal are usually associated in small flocks, and those which occupy the lake are generally to be found sitting on half-submerged logs close to the bank, from which they appear to watch the small fish, etc., upon which they chiefly feed. Like the other birds upon the lake they are by no means shy, quietly dropping into the water and swimming away if approached too closely. I have no knowledge of their mode of nidification or breeding.
The Whio, or Blue Duck, is rarely found upon the lake, except during heavy freshes in the feeders, when they occasionally come down to the mouths of the streams in search of food. They ordinarily occupy the deeper pools of the rivers, close to a rapid, their peculiar shrill and sibilant note being distinctly heard over the noise of the loudest cataract. Indeed, they appear specially to have been endowed with this note, in consequence of their frequenting such localities. These birds are very tame, looking with an appearance of wonder and surprise, mixed with a dash of stupidity, at intruders upon their privacy, and rarely taking to the wing unless closely pursued, and and then only flying to a short distance. They breed in November and December, and, like the Paradise Duck, sometimes bring up two broods in the year. The largest number of young birds I have seen of a single brood was six. In seeking for food they usually stand upon a stone in the middle of some rapid, from which they pick up any stray article of diet which is being carried by, whilst they are also constantly seen busily engaged in searching for food below the water in the rapids, in doing which they use their wings like hands, to cling to the stones in order to assist them in overcoming the rush of the water. They appear to be much attached to their young, but, unlike the Paradise Duck, use no stratagem to draw off an enemy, whilst the young ones merely move from spot to spot to escape danger, rarely diving.
I have seen nothing peculiar in the habits of the Cormorants which frequent the lake. They leave the district in the breeding season, resorting,
as I believe, to the sea coast for that purpose. During their sojourn at the lake, they roost on some large dead tree on its margin.
I have fully noted the habits of the Crested Grebe (so far as I have been able to observe them) in the third volume of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute.
The Black-billed Gull breeds on the main river-bed, and one or more pairs usually frequent the lake after the breeding season is over. On one occasion a pair of these birds, having by some means or other lost their own brood, returned to the lake earlier than usual. I brought up a young bird belonging to another brood, and placed it on the lake, and the bereaved parents at once took to it, tending it with the greatest care and solicitude. It is extremely interesting to watch these birds in their ordinary search for food during windy weather. The prevalent winds blow either up or down the lake, and when seeking food the birds soar against the wind along the margin of the lake on one side, until they reach its extremity, when they at once turn and run down before the wind to the other end, from whence they again recommence their soaring flight. But the most singular circumstance is, that in the main valley they pursue various species of moths, which occur in large numbers amongst the tussock grasses, and especially in sedgy patches occupied by standing water. I could not for some time make out the object of their peculiar flight, but a friend of mine (Mr. R. W. Fereday, of Christchurch), who was lately on on a visit with with me for the purpose of collecting the Lepidoptera of the district, whilst pursuing a large moth, observed one of these gulls swoop at and capture it. We then noticed that some five or six of the birds were busily engaged in feeding on the moths, pursuing them very much as other insectivorous birds would do. The birds which frequent the lake become very tame, one pair in particular readily taking a worm from my outstretched hand, and constantly coming close to the house for food. Nothing can exceed the pureness and delicacy of their plumage when in full feather. It is doubtful whether this kind ever visits the sea-coast.
The Pied and Black Oyster-catchers, and Pied and Black Stilts, all occur on the main river beds; but it seems to be doubtful whether the entirely black birds in each case belong to different species, or merely represent different conditions of plumage. Upon this point I am at present unable to offer any opinion. Their habits are precisely similar to those of cognate species in Europe and elsewhere.
The habits of the Kaka are in many respects remarkable. In its absolutely wild state it is fearless and inquisitive. I have often, whilst resting on the banks of a stream which falls into the lake and runs through forest frequented by these birds, seen several of them gravely take post upon some tree close to me, eying me with the utmost apparent curiosity, and chattering to themselves,
as if discussing the character and intentions of the intruder. After the lapse of a few minutes they have darted away, uttering loud cries, as if proclaiming to the rest of the forest the presence of a stranger, who was either to be avoided or not, as the case might be. During the winter season the wild birds often unhesitatingly enter the house for food, making themselves thoroughly at home, and even roosting on the cross-beams in the kitchen on specially inclement nights. Two of these in particular soon learnt how to open the door of the dairy, which they were fond of getting into, in order to regale themselves on cream and butter, both of which they appeared to like excessively. I have had several of these wild birds billing on the eaves of the house in the evening, waiting to be fed, and coming readily to receive from the hand pieces of bread spread thickly with butter and strewed with sugar. But they rarely eat any of the bread itself, dropping it as soon as they had cleared off the butter and sugar. If one bird happened to have finished his portion before the others, he unhesitatingly helped himself to a share of some neighbour's goods, which was always yielded without the slightest demur. They are fond of raw flesh, and I have seen them hovering in front of a sheep's pluck hung on a tree, precisely as a humming bird hovers in front of a flower, eating fragments which they tore off, giving the preference to the lungs. When anxious to get into the house, they take post on the window-sills and beat at the window with their beaks until admitted. They are very mischievous, however, invariably cutting off all the buttons from any article of clothing which may happen to be left within their reach. I regret to say, indeed, that in some instances their familiarity degenerated into such gross impudence, that my manager was obliged to kill them in order to prevent their constant mischief. In the seasons when the great mass of the Phormium tenax flowers, these birds, feeding on the honey, become very fat, and are then delicious eating. At this time too they are nocturnal in their habits, and may be heard on moonlight nights to a very late hour. They were extremely numerous before the arrival of the Europeans, the natives catching and potting down immense numbers of them. The mode of catching them was as follows:—A Kaka whare was erected in some conspicuous place in, or in the neighbourhood of, forest much frequented by the birds, and thus, by means of a decoy bird, they were attracted and snared. These whares were usually from six to eight feet square, and about five in height, and were constructed of the fronds of some tree fern, placed upright at the sides and across the top of a framework of saplings. At each corner the saplings projected about eighteen inches above the level of the roof, having a cross-piece about eight inches long fastened nearly at the top, and sloping slightly upwards. To the end of this cross-piece a noose was attached, passing through a guy at the point of junction, which, slipping readily when pulled by the watcher below, entangled the feet of any bird sitting on the cross-
piece. The Kakas, attracted by the cries of the decoy, naturally alighted on one of these cross-pieces, and were at once caught. I have known as many as two hundred caught at a single whare in a day. These being plucked were potted down in their own fat, and in that condition kept for a considerable time. The natives always eat the trail of the Kaka, as we do that of the Woodcock or Snipe. I have not tried it myself, and am unable to pronounce upon the merits of this mode of cooking the bird.
The habits of the Weka have been noticed in Mr. Potts' interesting papers published in the second and third volumes of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, but a few points which he has not mentioned may probably be acceptable. It will have been observed by those who have examined the structure of this bird, that the meţacarpal and phalangial bones are represented by a single sharp spur about half an inch in length. When irritated it extends its wings with the backs turned forward, and it then uses this spur as a weapon of offence. It delights in prowling about the low bushes at the edge of the forest, and on the banks of rivers, creeping along with a stealthy cat-like tread, and preying on any small bird which may come within its reach. It is specially destructive to eggs and young poultry. I have seen a Weka drive its beak into an egg, and then, raising its head to a nearly upright position, run away into the bush with the egg impaled upon it. This bird is easily snared in the following manner:—Tie a small bird to the end of a stick about a yard long; I generally used a stuffed specimen for the purpose in my exploring excursions. To the end of another stick, slightly longer, fix a running noose of green flax, which keeps well open and slips readily. This noose should be from three to four inches in diameter. Dangle the bird in sight of the Weka, taking some little precaution to conceal yourself, although but little is required, except in the case of a very old and knowing bird. When the Weka makes for the dangling bird, place the noose immediately in front of the latter, and as the Weka pecks at the bird through the noose it is easily caught. With a little coolness you cannot fail. When taken into the hand after being first caught, this bird at once discharges a quantity of extremely fetid fæcal matter, whether from fright, or upon the same principle on which the skunk discharges its pestilential fluid, I cannot say. I differ from Mr. Potts in one point, and believe that the Weka, so far from diminishing in numbers, is increasing all over the Middle Island. Even the cattle dogs on my station do not care to kill it. Except in the vicinity of poultry-yards and gardens this bird is very useful, destroying large numbers of noxious grubs, as well as mice and young rats. They pair for the breeding season, the male bird assisting in the work of incubation, and accompanying the female and her young ones until the latter are weaned. I have seen seven and eight young ones in a single brood. I may add that many persons, some of whom must be considered
of high authority, have stated that this bird breeds with the common domestic fowl. The statement, if correct, is so extraordinary, that all the facts in support of it ought to be made known. As the case has never come under my own observation I merely mention this statement, in the hope that those who possess any knowledge on the subject will publish the facts.
The Glaucopis cinerea, or Crow, of the Middle Island, is rarely found below an altitude of two or three thousand feet, and, indeed, is found in greatest numbers at and above the higher of these altitudes, in the glens of the Fagus forest. I am inclined to think that these birds pair for life, as they are almost invariably found in couples at all seasons of the year * They are extremely active, hopping with long strides along the ground, and from branch to branch, in their search for insects. Their chief food, however, consists of sow-thistle and other succulent herbs, and it is remarkable that, in eating such substances, they hold them with the fist precisely as a parrot holds his food, tearing off and swallowing large fragments. The young birds thrive well in confinement, feeding freely on bread and milk and greenstuff, with a few grubs now and then. Unfortunately, some birds which were being thus brought up for me, were accidently killed, and no opportunity has since occurred of repeating the experiment. The note of this bird is wonderfully sweet and plaintive, and, during the breeding season, its song is one of the most varied and beautiful of all the New Zealand birds. It appears, however, always to be pitched in a minor key. The male birds are very pugnacious, fighting, whenever they meet, with the greatest determination. They are still numerous in the forests adjoining my station, but I fear the wild cats are likely to clear them out within a few years.
The Robin (Petroica albifrons) is a very bold bird, its tameness evidently springing not merely from a sense of security, but also from an absence of fear. It is to be found in every part of the forest, and the traveller rarely rests for a few minutes before one of them is to be seen seeking for insects on the ground disturbed by his footsteps, or upon the site of some piece of decayed wood which he may have moved. I have had these birds more than once sitting
[Footnote] * Since the foregoing was written, I have found the following statement in Dieffenbach's “Report to the New Zealand Company,” dated October, 1839:—“The bird called Kokako, and Wattle Bird by the Europeans, from its two gold-coloured and indigo maxillary flaps, I found only at Ship Cove, in the middle region of the hills and upon trees. It seems to be a kind of Gracula, of the size of the Jay, has a strong black beak, with a slightly curved upper maxilla, and measures 16 inches from the tip of the beak to the end of the tail. Its feet are black like those of the former. Its plumage is soft silk-like and glossy black. It has a penetrating, not disagreeable voice, feeds upon seeds, and lives in pairs upon the trees.” The account above given is in many respect inaccurate, and is only quoted in support of my suggestion that the male and female Kokako pair for life.—W. T. L. T.
on my head as I lay on the ground, and hopping about me pecking at my watch chain, or at anything else which took their fancy. On one occasion I fed one with crumbs of bread, which it ate readily. After satisfying its hunger, it proceeded to hide what it could not eat under the edges of foliaceous lichens upon a gnarled old tree close to where I was sitting, no doubt resorting to this store when it next felt hungry. As Mr. Potts has observed, the song of this bird is sweet, but, as I think, wanting in continuity. However, it is an amusing little fellow, and its familiarity diminishes that sense of loneliness which is always more or less inspired by the stillness and monotony of the great Beech forests.