Art. XX.—A few stray Notes on the New Zealand Owl, Athene novæ-zealandiæ, Gml.—Ruru and Koukou of the Maoris, and Morepork of the Settlers.
[Read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute, 8th October, 1888.]
When he heard the owls at midnight
Hooting, laughing in the forest,
“What is that?” he cried in terror;
“What is that,” he said, “Nokomis?”
And the good Nokomis answered:
“That is but the owl and owlet,
Talking in their native language,
Talking, scolding at each other.”
—Hiawatha, Canto III.
Sevebal years ago—from 1844 to 1853—it was my lot to be often travelling on duty in the Wairarapa district. On one of those occasions I wished to reach the Maori village at the mouth of the Pahawa River on the east coast from the upper part of the Wairarapa Valley. In travelling thither we brought up for the night at the edge of a thicket, where my tent was pitched under a tree. My travelling companions and baggage-bearers, being weary with a long day's journey, were soon asleep, while I sat up reading, enjoying the stillness of the night, for it was a beautiful calm and moonlight one. Presently I heard a strange noise, or rather a succession of strange and peculiar unusual noises, such as I had never heard before. These were repeated over and over, in different and strange keys and semi-discordant tones, mixed with shrill hissing, and seemed as if coming from some creatures over my head; and at last, as I could not stand it any longer, I unlaced the door of my tent and got out. Keeping quiet, and concealing myself and looking up, I saw two owls on a rather bare extended horizontal branch of the tree only a few feet above me, and these were a pair, male and female, carrying on their courtship in the most strange manner imaginable. Such a grotesque sight I never saw before or since. The manner in which they acted; their pantomimic movements—half sedate and half funny—the gentleman owl advancing from his end of the branch with his head-feathers trimmed and set up cap-à-pie, and his wings let down, making with them a jarring noise as if he were a little turkey-cock, and at the same time uttering all manner of strange wooing sounds, high and low, short and long; and then the lady owl, on her part, retreating to the further end of the branch with measured step and slow, turning round, bridling herself up, hissing, and scornfully resenting the behaviour of the other; also, at times, uttering
strange noises, and adjusting her feathers to suit her scornful affected prude demeanour. Then the disappointed beau would slowly retire, making other peculiar sounds, to his end of the branch; when the lady would again come forward, very slowly and coquettingly, to her old position, and in a short time the gentleman owl would re-enact the solemn fun as before, only to be again served in the same kind of way. Such a mixture of strange sounds and grimaces, of pure bird persiflage, was unique and unusual. Words fail me fully to describe them; it was most ludicrous to behold them. The usual solemn gravity of the bird seems to have been abandoned or burlesqued. I watched them for about half an hour, when, as their play was still being carried on without alteration, I returned to my tent. I could not help thinking, from observing the extreme suitableness of that long horizontal half-denuded branch, with its bunch of leafy sprays at both ends, for their wooing and serenading,—and bearing in mind how confined the owl naturally is in its short flights, and prone to return to its haunts and perches,—that that branch was used as an old trysting-place by owls. I did laugh most heartily, though quietly, at this serio-comic performance; and whenever I have thought thereon, during these many subsequent years, it has always caused me to laugh outright.
I dare say some of my audience are acquainted with that charming book of Natural History, Gilbert White's “History of Selborne,” so highly prized at home by our fathers. To those who know it, I need not say anything about it; but to those who do not, I would say—it is a most interesting book, written by an accomplished and loving naturalist, a keen and attentive observer of Nature in her manifold forms, but especially at home in his many and diverse observations on birds, as well as other animals: it is not a “dry” book. Mr. White was born at Selborne, in Hampshire, England, where, after his return from the University of Oxford, he quietly resided all his days, so spending an amiable, unambitious, and useful life, and died at an advanced age, much regretted. He steadily refused all church preferment, and during the last few years of his life officiated as curate of Selborne. His standard work has gone through several editions, and has always been highly esteemed by all lovers of Nature. Here I may be allowed to give a short sentence from its preface, written by himself exactly a hundred years ago (1788): “If the writer should at all appear to have induced any of his readers to pay a more ready attention to the wonders of the creation, too frequently overlooked as common occurrences, his purpose will be fully answered. But if he should not have been successful in any of these his intentions, yet there remains this consolation behind—that these his pursuits, by keeping
the body and mind employed, have, under Providence, contributed to much health and cheerfulness of spirits, even to old age.”
Among his numerous scientific correspondents, one, who then stood prominently, was the celebrated working British naturalist Pennant, who was himself a correspondent of Linnæus. (Some of thé works of Pennant are on our libraryshelves: and his name is maintained and recorded among us in this country as that of a botanical genus, in our curious New Zealand forest-tree, Pennantia, so named by Forster.) And in an early letter from White to Pennant he makes a very similar complaint to that which I also drew your attention to in my “Presidential Address” four months ago. White says: “It has been my misfortune never to have had any neighbours whose studies have led them towards the pursuit of natural knowledge; so that, for want of a companion to quicken my industry and sharpen my attention, I have made but slender progress in a kind of information to which I have been attached from my childhood.”
To return. On this subject of the variations in the hooting of owls, White has some shrewd remarks, bearing, I think, on this part of owl-conduct I have just narrated; though it does not appear that White, or his correspondents, had known the reason or cause of the variations they had noticed in the owldialect. White says: “A friend remarks that most of his owls hoot in B flat; but that one went almost half a note below A. The pipe he tried their notes by was a common half-crown pitch-pipe, such as masters use for the tuning of harpsichords; it was the common London pitch.” And, again, White remarks: “A neighbour of mine, who is said to have a nice ear, remarks that the owls about this village hoot in three different keys—in G flat or F sharp, in B flat, and A flat. He heard two hooting to each other, the one in A flat and the other in B flat. Query: Do these different notes proceed from different species, or only from various individuals?” (loc. cit., pp. 234, 235.)
Other and very interesting remarks by White, on owls, are to be found in his letters. An extract from one in particular I will give you. It is contained in a letter to the Hon. Daines Barrington, whom you may remember hearing of as taking a long journey (in those days) to Mousehole, at the extreme end of Cornwall (close to my native place, and not far from the Land's End), to see and converse with the celebrated old fisherwoman, Dolly Pentreath—said to have been the last person who spoke the ancient Cornish language. White says: “We have had ever since I can remember a pair of white owls that constantly bred under the eaves of this church. As I have paid good attention to the manner of life of these
birds during their season of breeding, which lasts the summer through, the following remarks may not be unacceptable: About an hour before sunset (for then the mice begin to run) they sally forth in quest of prey, and hunt all round the hedges of meadows and small enclosures for them, which seem to be their only food. In this irregular country we can stand on an eminence and see them beat the fields over like a setting-dog, and often drop down in the grass or corn. I have minuted these birds by my watch for an hour together, and have found that they return to their nest, the one or the other of them, about once in five minutes; reflecting at the same time on the adroitness that every animal is possessed of as far as regards the well-being of itself and offspring. But a piece of address, which they show when they return loaded, should not, I think, be passed over in silence. As they take their prey with their claws, so they carry it in their claws to their nest: but, as their feet are necessary in their ascent under the tiles, they constantly perch first on the roof of the chancel, and shift the mouse from their claws to their bill, that their feet may be at liberty to take hold of the plate on the wall as they are rising under the eaves… The plumage of the remiges of the wings of every species of owl that I have yet examined is remarkably soft and pliant. Perhaps it may be necessary that the wings of these birds should not make much resistance or rushing, that they may be enabled to steal through the air unheard upon a nimble and watchful quarry… When brown owls hoot their throats swell as big as a hen's egg. I have known an owl of this species live a full year without any water. Perhaps the case may be the same with all birds of prey. When owls fly they stretch out their legs behind them as a balance to their heavy heads; for as most nocturnal birds have large eyes and ears they must have large heads to contain them. Large eyes, I presume, are necessary to collect every ray of light, and large concave ears to command the smallest degree of sound or noise” (l.c., pp. 245, 246).
And all these apt quotations naturally bring me back to the main subject of this paper—our little New Zealand owl.
Probably none of you present have ever been in an unfrequented New Zealand forest many years ago—say, half a century, or forty years. Then those woods teemed with bird-life, so widely different to what has obtained of later years. Then our little New Zealand owl was to be often seen snugly ensconced in some sheltered umbrageous nook, and not unfrequently nestling close under the fronds of the tree-fern (Cyathea dealbata). There, for me, such would have ever remained unmolested, but not so by the smaller birds—denizens of the forest; for, as soon as his retreat
was discovered by them, the battle, or rather the mobbing, began. The incessant noise the little fellows made brought up their friends from all quarters, and I have been sometimes astonished to see the great number—the cloud—of those small birds so quickly got together; and then, too, their apparent fearlessness or carelessness of my presence, of which they seemed to take no notice, so filled with rage were they and so very intent on insulting their common enemy. But while they would often fly up quite close to him, yet they never laid hold of him or touched him with their beaks; not a feather flew. Still the owl did not like it, and tried hard to get at them without removing from his perch, by thrusting forth his head and fiercely snapping his beak; and while I could see the difference in the dilation of the pupils of his eyes, which sometimes glared on the disturbers of his sleep and peace, yet I doubted if he clearly saw them, although he must have heard them plainly enough. I have never known the owl at such times to make any sound. Occasionally I have seen the so-persecuted bird fly away to some other neighbouring tree or bush; but in so doing he would generally make a woeful mistake, sometimes by coming abruptly against a branch, or between the close-growing canes of supplejacks (Rhipogonum), and sometimes by lighting in a less secure place, where the enemy could surround him, and then another fly-away would take place, and I have watched him to fly back to his old quarters; but it always seemed as if there would be no rest, no peace, for him while day-light lasted; and then, no doubt, the tables were turned upon his persecutors with heavy interest.
There being formerly no mice in this country, and I suppose our little New Zealand owl was far too diminutive to attack the now extinct New Zealand rat, and the small birds of the woods being then so exceedingly plentiful, these no doubt formed its chief articles of food, and this the little aerial legions well knew, and so naturally united to persecute him. I have good reasons, however, for knowing that some of our larger insects, especially of the Orthopterous order, as the big grasshoppers in the plains, and the wetas (Deinacrida and Hemideina) in the forests, formed a portion of the food of our owl; and now since mice have been introduced and become so numerous, and the indigenous small birds on the other hand have become so scarce, our owl does his share in the economy of nature to keep their number down, and therefore should never be wantonly destroyed as if he were an enemy and invader of the “rights of man.”
Before I close I would briefly refer to that exquisitely conceived and highly natural legendary fable of the ancient Maoris—viz., the great fixed “battle between the land and
sea birds,”*—which has always served to remind me of Homer's battle between the frogs and mice—in which our little owl, who could not join the great united army of land birds in the long day's sanguinary conflict, owing to his being a nocturnal bird; yet, at the close of that prolonged fight, when the sea birds were utterly routed, distinguished himself by acting as a brave herald-trumpeter, and so added to their fear by joining in the pursuit with his insulting discordant note of ironical derision—toä koë! toä koë!—thou (art) brave! thou (art) victor! These words are ludicrously Maorified from the owls' common note of koū koū! koū koū! by a kind of onomatopeia—so common among the Maoris, and which a Maori, by a slight twist in the pronunciation, and more particularly when made in the mimicking tone, would cause them to pretty nearly resemble.
Having referred to that ancient Maori fable of the battle of the land and sea birds, in which nearly all our indigenous land birds are brought to the fore to repel the invaders, to fight and to perform prodigies of valour, even to the including of the piwakawaka, Rhipidura flabellifera, Gml.—the pied fantail-flycatcher—I would just call your attention to the grave fact of the total omission of the gigantic moa (Dinornis, sps.), and of all allusion to it, as a further proof of what some of you have already more than once heard from me, that the ancient Maori did not know of its living existence as a bird; for, if they did, they would have assuredly brought it prominently forward on that occasion as their great hero and redoubted champion, and the dreadful foe of the sea-birds, to whom, as giants in the battle-field, Goliath of Gath, or Og of Bashan, would have been but puny comparisons. That one plain and striking list of negative evidence, re the age in which the moa existed, has ever seemed to me to be of far greater value than all the loud and fussy statements of modern Maoris, made to suit the times and the wishes and questions of zealous European inquirers.
[Footnote] * Translated briefly—together with some other of their ancient fables—by me, in Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xi., p. 102.