Art. XI.—On a Specimen of the Brown Gannet (Sula fusca) shot in Napier Harbour, with Notes on other New Zealand Birds.
[Read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute, 9th July, 1888.]
It is my good fortune to be able to record the occurrence of a bird which to the best of my belief has not yet been observed in New Zealand, although the remarkable part of the
matter is not the stranger's visit, but that it has not been recorded before this, for the Brown Gannet, or Booby (Sula fusca) has been obtained in nearly all the temperate regions of the globe, in many cases doubtless as a straggler; but now a specimen has been shot here in the bay, and is before you this evening very nicely preserved by Mr. Yuille. Mr. Smith, of the Masonic Hotel, has added the specimen to his collection, which is becoming extremely interesting and valuable. I have had considerable trouble in looking up any description of this species, which is common in the Atlantic, but at last found a good account in a work by Lathom, published in 1785, rather more than a hundred years ago. This I have transcribed, and have added a few particulars from other sources respecting the habits of the bird.
Lathom's “General Synopsis of Birds” (1785), Vol. iii., Pt. 2, p. 612. Common Booby:—
Pelecanus Sula. Lin. Syst., 1, p. 218, 7.
Le Fou. Briss. Orn., vi., p. 495, 1; Buf. Ois., viii., p. 368, pl. 29. Anseri Bassano congener fusca avis. Raü. Syn., p. 191, 6; Sloan, Jam., p. 322., t. 271, fig. 2.
Booby. Brown, Jam., p. 481; Catesby, Car. 1, pl. 87.
Description.—Size of the lesser gannet: length, 2ft. 6in. The bill nearly 4½in. long, toothed on the edges, and of a grey colour; base of it pale-brown; space round the eyes, and the chin, bare of feathers, and covered with a yellowish skin; irides pale-grey; the head, neck, upper parts of the body, wings and tail, cinereous-brown; the greater quills much the darkest; the tail brownish at the end, and in shape greatly cuneiform; the breast, belly, thighs, and vent white; legs pale-yellow; claws grey.
Catesby observes that these vary—some have white bellies, and others not—and that there is no perceivable difference between male and female. The young birds have the head and neck white, with a slight tinge of brown; but may be distinguished from having the feathers of those parts downy and soft, and not the usual texture.
Place.—Inhabits the Bahama Islands; and we believe likewise very common in many other parts of the world. One specimen came from Cayenne. It probably may be the sort mentioned by Dampier as being so plentiful in the Island of Aves, eight or nine leagues east of Buenos Ayres, which is described as a very simple creature, that will hardly go out of a man's way. These are said to build their nests on the ground in places where no trees grow, but make them on the last whenever they can be found. The flesh is black and fishy, yet is often eaten by the privateers. Is also met with in New Guinea.* This has been seen at Kamtschatka;† is found in the Faeroe Isles; and has also been met with on our own coasts [England] a few years since.‡
The term “booby” is applied by navigators more particularly to the Brown Gannet (Sula fusca), which inhabits the desolate islands and coasts where the climate is warm, or even temperate, throughout the greater part of the globe. The apparent
[Footnote] * Bosman. “A New Description of the Coast of Guinea.” 1721.
[Footnote] † Ellis., Nar., ii., p. 189.
[Footnote] ‡ “Arctic Zoology,” by Thos. Pennant. 1784.
parent stupidity of the boobies is proverbial: calmly waiting to be knocked on the head as they sit on shore, or perching on the yard of a ship till the sailor climbs to their resting-place and takes them off with his hand, they fall a prey to the most artless birdcatcher. Even Byron's shipwrecked wretches, though—
Stagnant on the sea,
They lay like carcasses,
“caught two boobies and a noddy;” and the incident actually did occur in Bligh's celebrated voyage consequent on the mutiny on board the “Bounty,” when he and his boat's crew were in a most deplorable state. “Monday, the 25th,” says Bligh, “at noon, some noddies came so near to us that one of them was caught by hand… In the evening, several boobies flying very near to us, we had the good fortune to catch one of them… I directed the bird to be killed for supper, and the blood to be given to three of the people who were most distressed for food; the body, beak, and feet I divided into eighteen shares… Tuesday, 26th, we caught another booby; so that Providence appeared to be relieving our wants in a most extraordinary manner. The people were overjoyed at this addition to their dinner, which was distributed in the same manner as on the preceding evening, giving the blood to those who were the most in want of food.”
Dampier says that on the Alcranes Islands (Alacranes), on the coast of Yucatan, the crowds of these birds were so great that he could not pass their haunts without being incommoded by their pecking. He observed that they were arranged in pairs, and conjectured that they were male and female. He succeeded in making some fly away by the blows he bestowed on them, but the greater part remained in spite of his efforts to compel them to take flight.
De Gennes, in his voyage to the Straits of Maghellan, says that in the Island of Ascension there were such quantities of boobies that the sailors killed five or six at a time with one blow of a stick.
The Vicomte de Querhoent says that the French soldiers killed an immense quantity on this same island, and that their loud cries when disturbed at night were quite overpowering.
This apparent exception to the general rule of self-preserving instinct is so remarkable that we are led to look for some cause, and perhaps this may be found in the structure of the animal; for, according to many writers whose veracity cannot be doubted, the boobies stay to be taken and killed after they have become familiar with the effect produced by the blows or shots of their persecutors.
In the case of most animals which, from not knowing his power, have suffered man to approach them to their destruction, alarm has been soon taken, the idea of danger has been speedily associated with his appearance, and safety has been sought in flight; but the wings of the booby are so long and its legs so short that, when once at rest on level ground, the bird has great difficulty in bringing the former into action, and when so surprised it has no resource but to put on a show of resistance with its beak, which is, to be sure, generally despised by its persecutor.
In the cases recorded by Bligh the birds were probably fatigued by wandering too far from the rocky shores which are their ordinary haunts. There they are generally to be seen constantly on the wing over the waves which beat at the foot of the crags, intent on fishing.
Though so well furnished with oars they are said to swim but seldom or never to dive. Their mode of taking their prey is by dashing down from on high with unerring aim upon those fishes which frequent the surface, and instantly rising again in the air. They walk with difficulty, and when at rest on land their attitude is nearly vertical, and they lean on the stiff feathers of the tail, like the cormorants, as a third point of support. The ledges of rocks or cliffs covered with herbage are the places generally selected for the nest, and there in great companies they lay their eggs, each hen bird laying from two to three. The young birds for some days after hatching are covered with a down so long and thick that they resemble powder-puffs made of swan's down.
The boobies seldom wander more than twenty leagues from land, to which they usually return every evening; and their appearance is considered by mariners as a sure token of their vicinity to some island or coast.
The colour of the Sula fusca, or Brown Booby, is blackish-brown or ashy-brown above and whitish beneath; the primaries are black, and the naked skin about the head is reddish; the orbits and base of the bill are yellow, and the point of the bill is brown; the legs are of a straw-colour. In length the brown booby is about 2ft. 5in, the bill measures 4½in. or thereabout, and the tail 10in. The young birds are spotted with white and brown.
It is almost impossible to open the pages of the old voyagers who have fallen in with these boobies without finding some accounts of the constant persecution to which the latter are subjected by the frigate or man-of-war birds.
Lesson, indeed, doubts this. He says, “The boobies have been so named because it has been supposed that the frigates compel them to disgorge the fish which they had taken; but this appears to me to be erroneous. The booby is
warlike, he lives fearlessly near the frigate, and swallows the fish which he has captured in peace.”
Cuvier, Buffon, and Temminck, on the contrary, give credence to the narratives of the frigate's persecution, and, indeed, it is difficult to believe that so many eye-witnesses should be mistaken.
Feuillée says, “I have had the pleasure of seeing the frigates give chase to the boobies. When they return in bands in the evening from their fishing the frigates are in waiting, and, dashing upon them, compel them all to cry for succour, as it were, and in crying to disgorge some of the fish they are carrying to their young ones. Thus do the frigates profit by the fishing of the boobies, which they then leave to pursue their way home.”
Legnat, in his Voyage, writes thus: “The boobies come to repose at night upon the Island Rodriguez, and the frigates, which are huge birds, so called from their lightness and speed in sailing through the air, wait for the boobies every evening on the tops of the trees. They rise, on the approach of the latter, very high in the air, and dash down upon them like a falcon on his prey, not to kill them, but to make them disgorge. The booby struck in this manner by the frigate gives up his fish, which the frigate catches in the air. The booby often shrieks, and shows his unwillingness to abandon his prey; but the frigate mocks at his cries, and, rising, dashes down upon him anew till he has compelled the booby to obey.”
William Dampier observes that he remarked that the man-of-war birds and the boobies always left sentinels near their young ones, especially while the old birds were gone to sea on their fishing-expeditions, and that there were a great number of sick or crippled man-of-war birds which appeared to be no longer in a state to go out for provisions. They dwelt not with the rest of their species, and, whether they were excluded from their society or had separated themselves voluntarily, they were dispersed in various places, waiting apparently for an opportunity of pillage. He adds that one day he saw more than twenty on one of the islands (the Alcranes), which from time to time made sorties to procure booty. The man-of-war bird that surprised a young booby without its guard gave it a great peck upon the back to make it disgorge—which it instantly did—a fish or two as big as one's wrist, which the old man-of-war bird quickly swallowed. He further speaks of the persecution of the parent boobies by the able-bodied frigate-bird, and says that he himself saw a frigate fly right against a booby, and with one blow of its bill make the booby give up a fish just swallowed, upon which the frigate darted with such celerity that he seized it before it reached the water.
Catesby and others mention seeing similar encounters.
Nuttall says, “The boobies have a domestic enemy more steady though less sanguine in his persecutions than man: this is the frigate pelican, who, with a keen eye descrying his humble vassal at a distance, pursues him without intermission, and obliges him by blows with his wings and bill to surrender his finny prey, which the pirate instantly seizes and swallows.”
The booby utters a loud cry, something between that of the raven and the goose; and this is heard more particularly when they are pursued or when, assembled together, they are seized with a sudden panic. Their nests, according to Dampier, are built in trees in the Isle of Aves, though they have been observed in other places to nestle on the ground. They always associate in numbers on the same spot, and lay one or two eggs. The young are covered with a very soft down. Nuttall says that they abound on the rocky islets off the coast of Cayenne and along the shores of New Spain and Carraccas, as well as in Brazil and the Bahamas, where they are said to breed almost every month in the year. In summer they are not uncommon on the coast of the Southern States of North America. The flesh he describes as black and unsavoury.
2. Ardea novæ-hollandiæ.
The White-fronted Heron.—This species is not nearly so common as the Common Blue Heron (Ardea sacra), and I have not seen a specimen for many years; but the one now before you was killed at Waipawa in May last. It is now in the collection of Mr. Smith, of the Masonic Hotel in this town.
3. Anthornis melanura.
The Bell-bird has almost disappeared from Hawke's Bay and the Seventy-mile Bush for some years. The specimen before you was procured at Takapau, and the sender informs me that they are once more appearing in that district.
Amongst a collection of New Zealand bird-skins sent to the Museum I found a skin of what appeared to be Eudynamis with the long tail-feathers imperfect, some not fully grown. On taking up the bird to ticket it, I saw that the breast, instead of the usual brown marks, was distinctly transversely barred with black metallic bars, as in the Bronze Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx). These bars extend from the beak to the vent. The bill is less robust than Eudynamis. The feet are light in colour, like those of an albino specimen. It has certainly the character of Eudynamis when seen from the back; but from the under side it suggests a cross between Eudynamis and Chrysococcyx.
5. Ocydromus (albino).
We have in the Museum a beautiful specimen of a weka, snow-white with the exception of a few feathers on the back and at the base of the tail: these are of the usual colour. The legs were of a light-pink or flesh-colour, and much thinner in proportion than in ordinary. Caught at Mohaka.
6. Carpophaga novæ-zealandiæ (albino).
A curious variety of the New Zealand Pigeon was sent to me by Mr. Harding from Castle Point. The plumage is of a dirty-white colour, many of the feathers on the neck and shoulders being tipped irregularly with a ferruginous-brown colour.