Art. XIX.—Notes on the Habits of some New Zealand Birds.
[Read before the Otago Institute, 11th August, 1885.]
Ocydromus fuscus, Dubus.—Black Wood-hen (Weka).
I observed this bird during my stay at the West Coast Sounds, in 1884. I saw them mostly at dusk, roaming about stony river beds, seeking food; the numerous dead trees, which are swept down along the banks by floods, affording them hiding places. I have also seen them on the seashore, picking up mussels, crabs, &c., and on the mountains, as high as 3,000 feet above sea-level, but scarce. During the day, they conceal themselves under roots and in hollow trees, their hiding places having generally two or three entrances, so that in case of disturbance they can easily escape. I was amused once at seeing my dog digging vigilantly at a burrow, while the wood-hen was quietly stealing away. On the dog pursuing her, she dodged him in the coolest manner for nearly a quarter of an hour, by going under the trees, and always taking care to keep on the opposite side from that on which he was; but on my coming to the dog's assistance, she gave a shrill whistle, and ran quickly away. When undisturbed, these birds are very bold and tame.
I always make 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, a shining black wood-hen came every morning and evening to my camp in the gorge, uttering a shrill whistle of one note, and, on my throwing her a piece of biscuit, she would pick it up, throwing it on the ground till it broke, and then eat it. She became so tame that she would walk round the dog, and come into the tent; and on a second visit to this camp, I found she still haunted the place. On the 25th April, at daylight, I was awakened by a noise, and, on looking up, saw one of these birds amusing itself with my slippers, but on my moving she retired. On the 21st August, early in the morning, I shot a specimen, which never moved when picked up. I tied a string round its legs, and hung it up, intending to skin it after breakfast; but on going to do so, to my astonishment the bird had disappeared. I sent the dog to find it, but he could not. On the 24th, I let the dog loose for a run. He went into the bush, and returned with a live wood-hen, which I found on skinning so riddled with shot, that I thought it wonderful it could have survived. On the 27th, I went late in the evening along the left side of the Sound to observe nocturnal birds. About fifty yards from shore, I saw a bird swimming, which I shot at, and my dog immediately
swam after, but on his approach it dived rapidly, coming always nearer the land, the dog being so close that I could not fire again. The bird managed to get ashore, and ran swiftly into the bush, the dog following; but in a short time he returned with a black wood-hen, which, on skinning next morning, I saw had a number of shot in the neck and body. I was surprised at these birds being such expert swimmers and divers. Sometimes they followed me long distances to the camp, and carried everything they could manage, such as spoons, knives, candles, etc., away, if I forgot to secure everything well. In September, during a severe thunder and snow storm, one of the black wood-hens actually came into the hut where I was working, to take shelter, and it stayed a considerable time.
The breeding season, Mr. Docherty told me, is in January, when they lay from two to three eggs. I saw in April two females, with three young birds each, fully feathered. They were duller in plumage and smaller in size than the parents. Male and female do not differ in plumage, but there is a slight difference in size, the latter being smaller. These birds vary much in plumage, but jet-black ones are rare. They come out from their hiding places in the evening, or on dull days, when one can hear their melancholy whistle, consisting of three notes, “u, o, e,” especially before bad weather. Their movements are very quiet. They scratch with their legs, and pick with their bill in rotten wood or earth for insects, in a similar manner to the domestic fowls. They also prey on rats, young birds and their eggs, then lizards, fish, crustacea, and berries. These, with shells and small stones for digestion, I have found in their crops. I never saw these birds using their wings. When skinned they make delicious broth, also their meat is good to eat. I procured specimens.
Glaucopis cinerea, Gml.—Orange-wattled Crow (Kokako).
This species represents, in the South Island, the Glaucopis uilsoni of the North; but the plumage is a little lighter, a light slate color; and one-half of the wattle orange, the other, dark blue. The wattles of the young birds are smaller and much lighter. This bird haunts open places with low scrub. When I was on the West Coast, South Island, in 1877, I saw this bird on Arthur's Pass, about 3,000 feet above the sea-level, sitting on a stone a few feet in front of me. In January, 1878, on Mount Alexander, about 2,000 feet above the sea-level, I met it everywhere, hopping very swiftly amongst low scrub and stones. I also found it on the ranges on the left bank of the Teremakau River, but not so frequently, as they have a preference for certain localities. The shepherds have told me that these birds only come down to the lowlands during severe winters.
During my research in 1884, at the West Coast, South Island, I did not find these birds so plentiful. I saw them here near the sea shore, also up on the high ranges, especially on the outskirts of the forests, roaming about in pairs, and, or with their brood, generally three in number. They are very tame, but, when disturbed, are adepts in the art of hiding, either under a limb in the fork of a tree, or between thick leaves. On one occasion, I observed a pair of these birds at Dusky Sound. One I shot; and, not noticing the other go away, I waited, and presently saw its head peeping out from behind the limb of a tree, then drawing it back; and, repeating this action several times, it eventually hopped out on the branch, looked about, and, noticing me, went away very quickly. The movements of this bird are exceedingly quick; but, from the construction of the wings, it is not able to fly far, and that only when in extremities. Male and female are inseparable; the male utters a very sweet whistle, consisting of six notes, as “te, to, ta, tu, tu, tu”; the call of the female is composed of five, as “te, a, tu, tu, tu.” At a distance it very much resembles the sound of the flute. At Milford Sound, in October, 1884, I shot a crow, and then concealed myself until its mate appeared, which it did in a very short time; and, to my astonishment, instead of flying away when it saw me, the poor thing went to its dead companion, hopping around and calling, evidently in a great state of agitation. I felt so much for this bird, that I was very sorry I had shot its mate, and let it go. The pairing season begins in October, when the male makes extraordinary evolutions before the female, similar to the European Wood Grouse (Tetrao urogallus). He bows his head about, spreads his wings, and erects and spreads his tail, making at the same time a gurgling noise. They build their nests in thick scrub, not far from the ground, of twigs and moss. In the beginning of December the female lays from two to three eggs. Mr. Docherty and Mr. Sutherland told me that they have found their eggs in December and January. The young birds are full-grown in May, but they remain with their parents until the pairing season. The scarcity of these birds near habitations is due to their confidence, through which they often fall a prey to cats and men, which are their worst enemies. They are rather dry for eating. Their food consists of berries and young leaves, which I have found in their crops. I procured specimens.