Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 6, 1873
This text is also available in PDF
(579 KB) Opens in new window
– 112 –

Art. XXV.—Notes on the Ornithology of New Zealand.

[Read before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, 4th December, 1873.]

The last volume of the Transactions contains an interesting paper by Dr. Otto Finsch, of Bremen, under the title of “Remarks on some Birds of New Zealand,” which was read before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury on the 5th June, 1872., *

In this paper Dr. Finsch, after mentioning an exhaustive article on the subject which he had prepared for the “Journal für Ornithologie,” proceeds to state, for the information of his ornithological friends in New Zealand, “the most important facts” discovered by him before communicating them to the German periodical.

As, however, the critical remarks which Dr. Finsch has embodied in his paper appear to me to deal in many cases rather with assumptions than with “facts,” and as the further discussion of debateable points may benefit science, I beg to lay before the Society the following brief notes in reply.

[Footnote] * Trans. N.Z. Inst., Vol. V., pp. 206–212.

– 113 –

Hieracidea novŒ-zealandiŒ, Gml.

The discussion as to the alleged distinctness of Hieracidea novŒ-zealandiŒ and H. brunnea has been carried a step further since the date of Dr. Finsch's paper. In the introduction to my “Birds of New Zealand” (p. 15) I have adduced further evidence in support of the view adopted in the body of the work, and it appears to me that what is now wanted to clear up the question is an extensive series of fresh specimens from different localities, carefully sexed and measured, together with further observations on their habits.

It may be mentioned that Mr. Sharpe, who contributes to the argument in a capital letter to “The Ibis” (1873, pp. 327–330), has pointed out that the name of Falco brunneus, of Gould, has been pre-occupied by Bechstein, who thus called the Common Kestrel of Europe, and that consequently our small bird, if allowed to be distinct from H. novŒ-zealandiŒ, must bear another title. Mr. Sharpe considers that this should be Hieracidea australis (Homb. et Jacq.), but it seems to me that this is only a synonym of the older species, and that the right name to fall back upon is Falco ferox, of Peale (U.S. Expl. Exped., 1848, p. 67).

Circus gouldi, Bonap.

I observe that Dr. Finsch adheres to the title Circus assimilis. This is certainly untenable, for, as first pointed out by Mr. Gurney (“Ibis,” 1870, p. 536), the true Circus assimilis of Jardine and Selby (Ill. Orn., II., p. 51) has proved to be the young of Circus jardinii, figured in Gould's “Birds of Australia” (pl. 27), and the name of C. gouldi, proposed by Bonaparte (Consp. Gen. Av., I., p. 34), therefore stands.

Dr. Finsch says he “should like to see an old specimen, in order to prove whether this species ever assumes the dress of the old Australian bird.” He will find every condition of plumage fully described at pages 11 and 12 of my “Birds of New Zealand,” a perusal of which cannot fail, I think, to convince him of the identity of our bird with that inhabiting Australia and Tasmania.

Halcyon vagans, Less.

Dr. Finsch says that “having examined a large series of this Kingfisher, he considers it a good species.” But it was this author himself who originally disputed its validity. He referred out bird to Halcyon sanctus, and was followed by Captain Hutton (Cat. Birds of N.Z., p. 3). I have always contended for its being a distinct species, and Mr. R. B. Sharpe, in his beautiful monograph on the family (published in 1870), felt no hesitation in according it that rank.

I have great respect for Dr. Finsch's judgment as a critical ornithologist, but I fear he is sometimes in danger (from the very paucity of materials at his command) of generalizing on insufficient data. In the present case, for

– 114 –

example, his decision against the recognition of Halcyon vayons was based “on two specimens only.” His subsequent “examination of a large series” has satisfied him that his conclusions in this instance were erroneous.

Nestor esslingii, Souance.

This “most magnificent of parrots,” as Mr. Gould termed it, has finally dropped out of our list, although it held its place there as a recognized species for many years. It is one of the numerous “varieties” of Nestor meridionalis, of which full descriptions are given at pp. 40–45 of my book, and a very beautiful life-size drawing of it is to be found in the supplement to Gould's “Birds of Australia.” I do not think it is quite fair, however, to fix upon Dr. Haast the responsibility of its retention on Dr. Finsch's previous lists. As pointed out by myself, in a paper written several years ago (Trans. N.Z. Inst., III., p. 49), the published descriptions of Nestor esslingii were so much at variance in their details that it was impossible to know the bird without seeing it; but I then ventured to express a belief that it would prove to be a mere variety of our highly variable Nestor meridionalis. This conclusion was fully verified by my examination afterwards of the type specimen in the British Museum, and I published the result in Part I. of my “Birds.”

Dr. Finsch had previously enjoyed the opportunity of examining this specimen, and wrote as follows respecting it in his “Monograph” (Die Papageien):—“This species approaches, in its uniform colour, nearest to Nestor meridionalis, but differs from the latter satisfactorily by the broad yellowish white bands across the under part of the body, so that there can be no doubt of the specific individuality of the bird.” Dr. Haast was not in any way responsible for this decision.

Prince D'Essling's bird was of unknown locality, and the mistaken reference to the species in Haast's paper (Verhandel des Zool. Bot. Ver. zu Wien, 1863, p. 116) was, of course, apparent evidence of the existence of such a bird in New Zealand, but nothing more.

While I mention this circumstance, I must however bear testimony to the extreme care and accuracy in the determination of species which is manifest on every page of the valuable “Monograph” I have quoted.

Nestor occidentalis, Buller.

Till we know something more of this bird, the distinctness of Nestor occidentalis as a species must, I submit, be considered sub judice. No collector has since penetrated to the remote district whence Dr. Hector's specimens (now in the Colonial Museum) were obtained.

Platycercus forsteri, Finsch.

I am glad to find that Dr. Finsch has agreed to sink this species. I ventured to challenge it in 1868 (Trans. N.Z. Inst., Vol. II., p. 109); and after

– 115 –

examining the type in the British Museum, I pronounced it “nothing but Pl.novŒ-zealandiŒ with the red uropygial spots accidentally absent” (“Birds of New Zealand,” p. 59).

Certhiparus novŒ-zealandiŒ, Gml.

Captain Hutton was quite right in uniting C. maculicaudus with this species. But Dr. Finsch was mistaken in supposing that his specimens were “from both islands,” because this bird has never yet been met with in the North Island.

I examined, with the late Mr. G. R. Gray, his type of C. maculicaudus in the British Museum, but failed to see anything to distinguish it specifically from C. novŒ-zealandiŒ.

Rhipidura fuliginosa, Sparrm.

Dr. Finsch “hesitates to unite R. melanura” with the above species, because he has never met with specimens having “a white spot above the eye.” There can be no doubt, I think, that both names refer to one and the same species. The white spot (not above the eye, but on the side of the head behind it) is often wanting. I have obtained specimens both with and without this feature, at the same time and consorting together, in the Round Bush, near Kaiapoi.

The interbreeding of this species with the Pied Fantail (R. flabellifera), as described by Mr. Potts in his admirable papers on the nesting habits of New Zealand birds, is a most interesting fact. And it is very remarkable that, whereas the pied species is universally distributed over the country, the Black Fantail is not found in the North Island, only one instance being recorded of its occurrence there (“Birds of New Zealand,” p. 146).

Turnagra hectori, Buller.

I do not dispute Dr. Finsch's identification of this bird with Keropia tanagra. My reason, however, for retaining the specific appellation of T. hectori is thus stated in my “Birds of New Zealand” (p. 136):—“Under ordinary circumstances the name I have proposed would, of course, he reduced to a synonym. It will be observed, however, that Professor Schlegel has used a common generic name to distinguish the bird specifically, while he refers the form to the genus Otagon, established by Bonaparte in 1850. As I can see no valid reason for setting aside the generic title of Turnagra, proposed by Lesson as early as 1837, and as the adoption of the older specific name would, according to this view, give the confused result of Turnagra tanagra, I have deemed myself justified in retaining the distinctive appellation of T. hectori. At the same time I am anxious to give due prominence to the fact that Professor Schlegel was the first to discover the existence of this new species.”

– 116 –

Miro longipes, Garn.

Miro albifrons, Gml.

Dr. Finsch kindly wrote to me last year, pointing out that these birds were not true PetroicŒ, and proposed restoring them to Reichenbach's genus Myioscopus. Upon investigation I found that the genus Miro, of Lesson, had an older claim to recognition, and I accordingly substituted that for Petroica.

I cannot understand how Dr. Finsch could confound the two species as being “scarcely distinct.” It is true that they are closely allied, but they are nevertheless so different in appearance that one specimen of P. longipes could be readily picked out of a hundred or more of P. albifrons, and vice versâ. The former species is confined strictly to the North Island, and the latter to the South Island.

The habits of these birds, it may be remarked, approaches very nearly to those of the true Erythaci.

Myiomoira toitoi, Less.

I have adopted Dr. Finsch's example in referring this and the allied species (M. macrocephala) to the genus defined by Reichenbach, to which they clearly belong.

SphenŒacus rufescens, Buller.

I am much surprised to find Dr. Finsch confounding this very distinct species with Gray's SphenŒacus fulvus. S. fulvus closely resembles S. punctatus, so much so in fact that I was for some time in doubt whether to keep them separate or not; and the coloured figures of S. punctatus and S. rufescens, facing page 128 of my “Birds of New Zealand,” will satisfy the student, at a glance, that these are very distinct species.

The specimens in the Canterbury Museum first decided me to retain S. fulvus, at least provisionally, and Capt. Hutton, from an independent examination of the same specimens, appears to have arrived at a similar conclusion. (Cat. Birds of N.Z., p. 9.)

The type of SphenŒacus fulvus is still in the British Museum. In company with Mr. G. R. Gray, who originally distinguished the species, I made a careful comparison of it with specimens of SphenŒacus punctatus, and ultimately admitted it into my work, but without attempting to figure it. I still look upon it as a doubtful species, and had Dr. Finsch proposed uniting this form (instead of S. rufescens) to S. punctatus, there would have been some show of reason for it.

Creadion carunculatus, Gml.

It was not the “examination of the types by Capt. Hutton” that proved my C. cinereus to be the young of this species, but the examination by myself

– 117 –

of a fine series of specimens in the Canterbury Museum, showing the transitional changes of plumage.

I communicated the result to Capt. Hutton long before the appearance of his “Catalogue,” and the descriptive notes which I made at the time will be found at page 149 of my “Birds of New Zealand.”

I confess, however, that the subject is still beset with some difficulty in my own mind. Supposing the plumage of C. cinereus to be the first year's dress of C. carunculatus, it seems to me quite inexplicable that the bird has never been met with in that state in the North Island. Capt. Hutton suggests that this is due to the comparative scarcity of the species at the North. But during several years' residence in the Province of Wellington I obtained probably upwards of fifty specimens, at various times, without ever detecting any sign of this immature condition of plumage.

Admitting the comparative scarcity of the species, one would naturally suppose that the younger birds would be more likely to fall into the collector's hands than the fully adult ones. It may be suggested whether the condition of the Canterbury Museum specimens has not possibly resulted from intercrossing; for we have not heard of any further examples being obtained. At any rate, till a specimen in the supposed immature dress has actually been taken in the North Island, the point cannot, I think, be considered finally set at rest.

In. Dr. Dieffenbach's Report to the New Zealand Company, which appears in the twelfth Report of the Directors (April, 1844), I find the following mention of this species:— “Amongst the thrushes I must name, first, the Tierawaki, with two yellow appendages at the angle of its mouth, of the form and dimensions of a cucumber seed. This bird is of the size of a blackbird, with beak and feet similar to those parts in the latter. Its plumage is a glossy black; the cover-feathers of its wing and its back are of a fine red brown. I saw a variety, or perhaps another species, with plumage of variable shades of sepia.”

Aplonis obscurus, Du Bus.

Both this species and Aplonis zealandicus (Gray) were omitted in my work, as I could not find the smallest evidence of the type specimens having come from New Zealand.

Rallus philippensis, Linn.

I entirely concur with Dr. Finsch regarding the wide geographic range of this species, the plumage being too variable to admit of the recognition of several local species, as some naturalists have suggested. But I cannot think that he is justified in retaining M. Lesson's name of Rallus pectoralis.

Allowing that the varieties that have been brought from Polyńesia proper,

– 118 –

Celebes, the Navigators, the Caroline Islands, New Caledonia, the Philippine Islands, and New Zealand, are referable to one and the same species, we are bound, it seems to me, to adopt the older name of R. philippensis, Linn. (Syst. Nat., i., p. 263).

Hydrochelidon leucoptera, Temm.

I believe Capt. Hutton is right in his identification of Mr. Monro's specimen in the Colonial Museum, although Dr. Finsch thinks he has confounded it with H. hybrida, Pall. Almost immediately after my arrival in England I had an opportunity of examining a fine series of these birds in the collection of Mr. Howard Saunders, and having at that time a very distinct recollection of the New Zealand specimens, I satisfied myself that they were the same.

Eudyptes pachyrhynchus, Gray.

I have treated this in my work as a synonym of Eudyptes chrysocomus.

Apteryx mantelli, Bartl.

Dr. Finsch states that “after careful and repeated examination” of several specimens from both islands, he is unable to admit Apteryx mantelli (of the North Island) to the rank of a distinct species; but he proposes to distinguish it from the South Island form as “Apteryx australis var. mantelli, Bartl.” This opens up again the old quŒstio vexata, “what is a species?”

The amount of difference necessary to constitute a “species,” in the generally accepted sense, is not capable of definition, and must ever remain, to a certain extent, a matter of opinion with each individual naturalist.

I have already stated fully my reasons for keeping the two forms specifically distinct (“Birds of New Zealand,” pp. 366–367); and it is sufficient for my argument that Dr. Finsch recognizes constant characters in the North Island bird of a kind to distinguish it as a permanent “variety.”

I may add that I had the satisfaction of submitting good specimens of Apteryx australis and Ap. mantelli to Professor Newton, Dr. Sclater, Mr. Salvin, and Mr. Sharpe, all of whom were decidedly of opinion that the characters relied on were of sufficient importance to warrant the separation of the species.