Art. XXIII.—On some rare Species of New Zealand Birds.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 31st October, 1883.]
Mr. W. W. Smith, formerly residing on the Albury estate near Timaru, and now settled at the Ashburton, has sent me from time to time very interesting notes on this rare owl. He has not only been exceptionally fortunate in getting specimens, but he has likewise been successful in his endeavours to make them breed in captivity. The following extract from one of his earliest communications on the subject will show what a good
observer Mr. Smith is, and how keen his love of natural history. I have received many letters from him since, all replete with interesting facts, chiefly relating to this species; and I am also indebted to him for several fine specimens of the bird, together with eggs and a newly-hatched chick:—
“February 8, 1882. In compliance with your request I have much pleasure in writing a short account of my experience in trying to breed the Laughing Owl. The drawing of the bird made a great impression on me when I saw it for the first time in the “Birds of New Zealand,” and since then I had been searching for over five years, trying to procure a specimen; but I was never successful until April of last year I succeeded in finding a very handsome one; in June I found another pair, and again in September I found two more. They have been a great source of pleasure and instruction to me. I found the birds in fissures of the limestone rock on this place (Albury), but they are certainly very difficult to find. I first discovered that they were about the rocks by finding several fresh pellets, and being anxious to secure a specimen, I procured long wires and felt in the crevices, but with no good results. I, however, discovered a plan which proved successful. I collected a quantity of dry tussock grass and burned it in the crevices, filling them with smoke. After trying a few places, I found the hiding-place of one, and, after starting the grass, I soon heard him sniffling. I withdrew the burning grass, and when the smoke had partly cleared away, he walked quietly out, and I secured him. I obtained four birds by this means. I explained in a former letter how very tame they became in a short while after being captured. I also mentioned their call which varies considerably during the year. When I captured the second pair (male and female) their call for a long time, in waking up in the evening, was, as formerly stated, precisely the same as two men cooeying to each other from a distance. The voice of the male is much harsher and stronger than the female, and he is also a much larger and stronger bird. During the period of hatching he is very attentive in supplying her with food, as no sooner had the food been put into the large apartment of their house, than he would regularly carry every morsel into the dark recess; when feeding her she would utter a low peevish twitter and rise off her eggs. I may here correct a mistake which I made in writing to you on a former occasion. I stated that ‘The male sits by day, the female by night.’ I only saw the male twice on the eggs, and it was at this time I wrote the letter, but I certainly was mistaken, as the female performs most of the duty of hatching. I also ascertained the difference of the sexes by separating them at night until the second egg was laid. The females are much shyer and more timid than the males, as they hide themselves on hearing the least noise. After sitting nine days on her first eggs, the female forsook them, and all
efforts to induce her to sit again were unavailing. She laid two more eggs a month afterwards, and had sat seven days, when, I regret to say, I had to leave home for medical treatment at Timaru. When I returned, eight days afterwards, she was still sitting and continued to sit until the 17th November, when she left the eggs without bringing out the young. The eggs must have been allowed to get cold, when eight or nine days sat-on, as when I tried to blow them I found they contained embryo chicks. I am glad, however, that I succeeded in getting the eggs; another season I may succeed in getting young birds. I supplied them with many different articles of food, such as beetles, lizards, mice, rats, rabbits, and mutton, of all of which they partook freely; but they have the greatest preference for young or half-grown rats. They are a little slow and clumsy in capturing living prey, but their want of proper exercise and freedom may account for this; it may be otherwise in their wild state. After what I have pointed out, there can be no doubt that the Sceloglaux inhabits the dry warm crevices of rocks. All the birds I captured I found in such places, generally five or six yards from the entrance, perfectly dry, and where no wet could possibly enter. One thing surprised me much—the very narrowness of the entrance to their cranny. In some instances the birds must have forced themselves in. I noticed, however, that the crevices widened as they extended into the rock. The bottoms are covered with soft sand crumbled down from the sides, and affording comfortable resting places.
“Regarding the nidification of this bird, I am no longer surprised that so little is known, and likewise of its natural habits. Considering that it conceals itself in such inaccessible places, and where few would think of searching to find it, as a rule they could lay their eggs and hatch their young unseen and unmolested.
“The breeding season may be said to take place in September and October. I found the bird mentioned in last letter sitting on an egg on the 25th September; but it must have been laid about the beginning of the month, as it contained the chick I sent you. I discovered the bird by reaching a long stick with a lighted taper into the crevice. My captives laid on 23rd, 27th, and 29th September, and again on the 20th and 22nd October. The birds were very restless and noisy for a fortnight before nesting. They begin to moult in December, and are not yet (Feb. 8) in full plumage. When casting their feathers they have a very curious appearance, as they become almost naked. At this stage two of my birds were stung to death a month ago by a swarm of bees passing through the fine wire netting and taking up their quarters on the roof of their dark recess. I was very sorry to lose them, as I cannot now send a living pair. I have
one very fine male I will send you in April. I am going to Lyttelton at that time, and I will forward it by the first steamer bound for Wellington. I will likewise send you another owl's egg, but hardly such a fine specimen as any of the two I sent. I intend to search the rocks carefully for more birds, and, if I succeed in finding more, I will not fail in sending you a pair. You may, however, rely on getting a second specimen from me. I should mention that I have collected a quantity of pellets at different times, composed of the hair of rats and mice and the elytra of beetles. Three large species of the latter swarm among the debris beneath the main rock, and certainly constitute part of the bird's food.”
In a communication which I made to this Society in August, 1878, I quoted a letter I had received from Mr. J. R. W. Cook, of Blenheim, reporting the appearance, on the 9th June, of a swallow hawking in the air on the banks of the Opawa River. From the account which Mr. Cook gave of the bird, I felt no hesitation in identifying it with the Australian Tree Swallow, two occurrences of which in New Zealand had been previously recorded by me. I wrote accordingly to Mr. Cook and begged him to keep a sharp look-out for this rare visitant, and, if possible, to obtain a specimen.
In April last I had the pleasure of receiving from him the specimen which I now exhibit, accompanied by the following letter:—
“Since writing to you in June, 1878, reporting the occurrence here of the Australian swallow, I have not again noticed the bird until the 16th of February last, when I saw another hawking over one of my stubble paddocks. I watched it for some time, and had good opportunities of remarking plumage. The bird appeared to me either immature or weary, the flight being weak and uncertain. I found, too, that the white on the rump was dingy, and the chestnut on the breast faded-looking. There was a stiffish nor'-west breeze blowing at the time, and the bird tried in vain to get past a belt of willow and poplar so long as I was watching.
“On the 20th of last month (March) when duck shooting, I mentioned the occurrence to a party of sportsmen, when one remarked, ‘Oh! there have been some birds answering to your description flying about Grove-town for some time back.’ Grovetown, I may remark, is situated about four miles from this, and nearly in the centre of the Wairau Valley. After a little talk on the subject it struck me that possibly the birds had been bred there. I said—‘The next time you see them, shoot one and send to me.’ Yesterday morning one was handed in, but unfortunately I did not see the man who brought it. Fearing that the weather might not allow me to send it to you in the flesh, I have skinned the bird and now send it to you.”
Mr. Cook having considerately sent me also the carcase in spirits, I was able to dissect it and to make a preparation of the sternum for Professor Newton's collection at the Cambridge University. It proved to be an adult female, and the stomach contained four large blue-bottle flies almost uninjured and the remains of others in black comminuted matter.
On this point Mr. Cook further remarks in his letter: “Certainly the condition of the specimen is not that of one which has lately made a long aerial trip. In skinning it, although I freely used cotton wool and kept the pepper castor going, I could not help getting the plumage saturated with oil, owing to the excessive fatness of the body.”
My correspondent promises to obtain from Mr. Cheeseman, who procured the specimen, full particulars as to when the swallows were first seen, as to whether there seemed to be a family party, and as to when and where this one was shot. In the meantime, he offers the following pertinent remarks: “Do you think that the recent warm weather and the early and frequent nor'-westers have had anything to do with the appearance of the swallows once more? Again, what do you think becomes of the stray birds which find their way to New Zealand? I should say it is very unlikely, judging from the prevalent winds, that they could ever return to Australia or Tasmania, whence, I presume, they come. Are they known in Fiji or South Sea Islands? For, if so, we could imagine them migrating northward to escape our winter. If not, is our New Zealand winter too rigorous for this family of birds? I scarcely fancy so. Even here, there are few winter days when an occasional blink of sunshine does not fetch out dancing myriads of Ephemeridæ on the river banks. In olden days, I fancy this was not so much the case. The rapid growth of willows now overhanging the water must afford protection to delicate newborn insects such as mosquito and other gnats which the old fringe of flax and toe never could have given. The temperature of the water in which the larvæ reach their fullest development is scarcely affected by the season. Indeed, in many snow-fed rivers the temperature, far from the source, when the water is at its lowest, must often be higher in winter than in summer when the melting snows are in full swing and the river body too great to be affected materially by sun-heat. I hope you will agree with me that the natural acclimatization of the Australian swallow is not impossible. One certainly does miss the easy graceful little bird out here.”
I received another letter from Mr. Cook, under date June 11th, in which he says:—
“Since I wrote I have seen no further specimens, but note a local in the ‘Kaikoura Star,’ stating that two swallows had been seen at Kaikoura
about the same time as the birds appeared here. I shall try to find out the authority for the statement in the Kaikoura paper, and get, if possible, fuller information than the newspaper paragraph gives.
“I have since seen Mr. Cheeseman who shot the specimen I sent. He tells me there were some six or seven birds in all; that they had been hanging about Grovetown for some weeks before he shot the one; and that he fancied they were young birds, or, at least, that some of them were. He could not, however, say that the party consisted of a pair of old birds with their brood.
“I fear that my idea that they may have been a New Zealand tribe is untenable. The occurrence of birds at Kaikoura and of the one I saw in my paddocks simultaneously with those at Grovetown looks rather like a ‘drift’ from Australia or Tasmania, I fancy.
“The one interesting question possibly may be why the first notice of occurrence of the swallow is on our East Coast. If the ‘drift’ is to and through Cook Straits, I can understand it. Otherwise we should expect notice of arrivals on the west coasts of both islands.”
In my “Essay on the Ornithology of New Zealand, 1865,” I included the above species among our birds, on the authority of a specimen in the Auckland Museum, preserved by Mr. St. John, and said to have been obtained at Matakana, to the north of Auckland. The bird was retained on our lists for many years, but no fresh examples having been heard of, and St. John's specimen being of doubtful authenticity, its name was ultimately expunged.
After a lapse of nearly twenty years, I have once more the pleasure of recording it as a New Zealand bird.
During a visit to Marton last year, I was invited by Mr. Avery, the local bird-stuffer, to examine his novelties. Among these was a bird which he had himself collected when serving with the volunteers in Mr. Bryce's expedition against Parihaka. He met with it in some high scrub at the rear of the camp at Rahotu, when on fatigue duty, and was fortunate enough to shoot it. The bird was new to him and he skinned it, performing the operation very successfully. The skin was in a fresh condition when it came into my hands, and proved on examination to be a well-plumaged specimen of Anthochæra carunculata, the well-known wattle-bird of Australia.
Mr. Avery was generous enough to give me this fine bird, which has now an undoubted right to a place in our Avifauna, and I have much pleasure in submitting it to your inspection this evening.
Creadion cinereus, Buller.
In the “Essay,” to which I have already referred, I characterized and named what appeared to me then a new species of Creadion in the following terms:—“This species is of the size and general form of C. carunculatus to which it bears a close affinity, but the colouring of the plumage is altogether different. The common species (the ‘Saddleback’) is of a deep uniform black, relieved by a band of rufous brown which occupies the whole of the back, and, forming a sharp outline across the shoulders, sweeps over the wing coverts in a broad curve. In the present bird, however, the plumage is of a dark cinereous brown, paler on the under parts and tinted with umber on the wings and scapularies; the upper and lower tail coverts, and a few spots on the smaller wing coverts, bright rufous. The wattles are of the same colour and shape as in Creadion carunculatus but somewhat smaller.”
My new species was at once fiercely attacked by Dr. Otto Finsch and Captain Hutton, both of whom declared it to be the young of Creadion carunculatus. In his paper which appeared in volume v. of our Transactions (p. 208), Dr. Finsch expressed his satisfaction that Captain Hutton's “examination of the types” had “shown C. cinereus to be undoubtedly the young of the above-named species.”
In my reply, which appeared in vol. vi., p. 116, I explained that an examination of a fine series of specimens in the Canterbury Museum, showing what appeared to be transitional changes of plumage, had forced me to this conclusion, and that I had communicated the result to Captain Hutton long before the appearance of his catalogue. The descriptive notes which I made at the time of this examination will be found at page 149 of my “Birds of New Zealand.” I was careful, nevertheless, to add the following qualifying passages:—
“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. Captain 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 (of the
kind) 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.”
Here again, strange to say, after a lapse of nearly twenty years, the required evidence is forthcoming, and my Creadion cinereus recovers the specific rank so long denied to it.
In 1881, Mr. A. Reischek, a very ardent collector, wrote to me as follows:—“About Creadion cinereus, I have this to state: In December, 1878, when I was on the west coast of the South Island, I shot about twenty of both kinds, and of both sexes. What were supposed to be the young of C. carunculatus (your Creadion cinereus) I found, on dissection, to be fully adult birds, both male and female. My observations on this point were perfectly reliable. In December, 1880, I stayed on the Hen (an island in the Hauraki Gulf) three weeks, and shot about thirty specimens of Creadion carunculatus, all of them being in the common saddle-back plumage. I could only determine the sex in each case by dissection, and what appeared to be the young birds differed only from the adult in having the wattles smaller and lighter in colour. I roamed over the whole island during my stay there, and never saw a bird in the plumage of your Creadion cinereus” (which is confined to the South Island, where both species commingle).
In 1882, and again in the early part of the present year, Mr. Reischek revisited the Hen, and on both occasions remained there a considerable time exploring every part of the island, and collecting its productions. On his last visit he saw probably forty examples of this bird, all in the plumage of C. carunculatus, and collected many specimens of both sexes and all ages. On the Little Barrier he found the species scarce, and obtained only two specimens; while on the Chickens and Island of Kawau he did not meet with this bird at all. In some which he dissected the testes were almost microscopic, the only external differences between these and the old birds being that the plumage was not so glossy, and the wattles not so large or bright. In the adult male these ornamental appendages, of the size of cucumber seeds, are of a beautiful orange colour, and in the adult female a little lighter. In the young birds they are still lighter and extremely minute in size.
To place the matter, however, beyond all doubt, he found, on one occasion, two adult birds feeding a young one, and was successful enough to secure all three birds, which he carefully preserved and marked. He was loath to part with these specimens, but to enable me to demonstrate the specific value of Creadion cinereus he handed all three birds over to me, and I have now the pleasure of submitting them to you, marked respectively male, female, and young.
For many years the Kea ranked amongst our rarest species, and it is not very long ago that a specimen fetched .25 in the London market. But all this is changed, and, although still of very rare occurrence in the northern parts of the South Island, and quite unknown in this island, it has become a pest in the middle and southern districts; and, owing to its extraordinary penchant for live mutton, it is now so destructive on the sheep-runs, that the aid of Parliament has lately been invoked to abate the nuisance.
Under these circumstances it is scarcely admissible into a paper treating of rare species, but I am unwilling to lose the opportunity of laying before you a very interesting letter I have received from Mr. John George Shrimpton, of Southbrook, Canterbury:—
“While residing at the Wanaka Lake, I received a letter from my brother Walter (of Matapiro) to the effect that you would like a specimen of the Kea or mountain parrot, and any notes of their habits which I might be able to afford you. My time there was so short after receipt of his letter that, although many Keas were killed, I only succeeded in getting one fair skin, which I forwarded to you by mail a few days ago, and trust has reached you safely. By this mail I forward a water-colour sketch of some young ones drawn from nature by Mr. Huddleston. In the rocky cavern, high up on the mountain, whence these were obtained, were several broods of young ones of various ages and sizes.
“I believe the Kea does not come farther north than the Rakaia River, Canterbury, and is strictly confined to the central range and its spurs as a rule, but may occasionally and will probably be more seen on those hills adjacent to the main range, which attain an elevation of five thousand feet and upwards. There is no doubt that, in spite of the war waged against them, they are increasing very rapidly, probably owing to the plentiful supply of food in the shape of mutton, which they can get, and to which they help themselves most liberally. Fifteen years ago, when I first knew the Lake country, it was a rare thing to see these birds on the hills even in their chosen home among the snow; but now you meet them in flocks of fifty even, and so bold have they become that they will attack sheep under the shepherd's immediate care. Not that they were ever very wild; on the contrary, I think they are the tamest birds in New Zealand; and it is their insatiable curiosity that has probably led them to find out the taste of mutton. At first, they contented themselves with tearing up tents, blankets, and sheepskins, the usual impedimenta of a musterer's camp. They have now so improved upon that, that nothing less than the primest mutton will suit their fastidious tastes. Though so tame that
you can often knock them down with a stick, and apparently so inoffensive, a single Kea will swoop down on the strongest fat wether or hoggett, fix himself firmly on its back; generally facing the sheep's tail, and commence digging his daily meal. Sometimes the sheep runs till exhausted, sometimes contents itself by trying to dislodge its adversary by a series of contortions only, but the Kea troubles himself very little about either: he hangs on till the sheep gives in. He then digs away, carefully avoiding the backbone, till he reaches the kidney fat. This is his choicest relish. His cries soon attract others, and between them the poor sheep is soon fitted for a museum. Sometimes a sheep gets away from a timid or perhaps less experienced workman; but he carries with him an indelible scar. On some stations about 5 per cent. of the whole flock are mustered in at shearing-time more or less marked in this manner, and the death-rate is almost incredible. I have no hesitation in saying that, on the runs bordering the Wanaka and Hawea Lakes, the loss from Keas alone is nothing short of from fifteen to twenty thousand sheep annually, and these the primest of the flocks. Although Keas are seen openly enough in the day-time, there is no doubt they work their mischief mostly at night, a bright moonlight one preferred. A severe winter, with sheep snowed in, is their great opportunity; and this they avail themselves of to the uttermost. Although like other parrots, they are given to anything in the shape of fun or mischief (and, on one occasion they killed a young kaka, tethered), I have never known them to seriously attack any animal other than a sheep. But as a moiety of them have advanced so far in the course of the last eight or ten years, it is impossible to say to what lengths they may aspire in the future.
“I cannot state for certainty that there are no Keas north of the limits I have here assigned as their habitat: I can only say that I have travelled over a considerable portion of that country without either seeing or hearing of them. But as to their habits and destructiveness in the neighbourhood of the great lakes south, I can speak from a long and painful experience.”
As some of those present may not have had an opportunity of examining this carnivorous parrot, I beg to exhibit this evening the bird sent by Mr. Shrimpton, and, at the same time, for purposes of comparison, its well-known congener, the Nestor meridionalis or common kaka. Both species are by nature vegetable-feeders; and it is a most remarkable fact in natural history that, with the changed condition of its surroundings, this mountain parrot has so rapidly developed a taste for flesh that the instinct has become one of the first habits of life, and almost necessary to the existence of the species.
Platycercus alpinus, Buller.
Mr. Reischek met with this little parakeet in the scrub on the summit of Mount Alexander (above Lake Brunner on the West Coast); and he met with the species again on the Hen, where he shot two, and on the Little Barrier, where he observed another pair, and killed the male.
While on this subject I may be permitted to refer to a passage in the paper read by Mr. Travers last year, “On the Distribution of New Zealand Birds.”* He explains that, in making his analysis of genera and species, he has “assumed that Dr. Buller has seen good reasons for reaffirming Platycercus alpinus as a species in the Manual, notwithstanding the remarks on the subject in his larger work.”
It is true that I yielded to the arguments of Dr. Finsch and agreed to sink my Platycercus alpinus, as a species, and treated it in the text of my work as the young of Platycercus auriceps. In the Introduction, however, to the book, I gave my reasons for reinstating this form. I there explained that more than twenty living examples of this bird had recently been brought to England; that it was to be seen alive in the Gardens of the Zoological Society of London; and that the validity of the species had thus been established beyond all doubt.
In April, 1881, Mr. T. F. Cheeseman, the Curator of the Auckland Museum, wrote informing me that he had obtained two specimens (male and female) of the Golden Plover, both shot on the Manukau Harbour; and he afterwards made an interesting communication on the subject to the Auckland Institute (Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xiv., p. 264).
Of this rare visitant, Mr. C. H. Robson, with his usual activity in the cause of science, has obtained and forwarded to me a fine pair from Portland Island. I take this opportunity of exhibiting them, and also of communicating to the society some notes on this bird by my correspondent who was fortunate enough to discover its breeding place and to obtain its eggs.
[Footnote] * See Trans. N.Z. Inst., xv., art. xiv.