Art. XV.—Takahe versus Kakapo.
[Read before the Auckland Institute, 4th August, 1890]
During various explorations among the mountains and sounds of Otago in the years 1881 and 1888 I collected what I considered evidences of the existence of the takahe (Notornis mantelli) at Dusky Sound and the Upper Matukituki Valley, and in a paper which I read before the Wellington Philosophical Society * in October, 1888, I narrated the circumstances which led me to that conclusion.
Mr. E. Melland, in a paper read before the Otago Institute† in August, 1889, dissents from may conclusion, and states in the most positive manner that the mysterious note, which I ascribed to the takahe, was not caused by that bird, but by the male kakapo during the breeding-season. While willing to admit that I may be wrong in my identification, I must state at once that I am not satisfied with Mr. Melland's theory, which is not supported by the experiences of explorers or naturalists who have had ample opportunities of becoming familiar with the habits of New Zealand's “owl-parrot.”
Without stopping to discuss the manifestly unfair and unusual tone of Mr. Melland's paper which is probably due to inexperience in scientific discussion, I will briefly narrate, for the better understanding of my paper, the circumstances which led to my original article on the Notornis.
During the summer of 1880-81 I was engaged under Mr. A. McKay, F.G.S. Assistant Geologist, who was making a geological exploration of the Wanaka country. Mr. John Buchanan, F.L.S., also accompanied the party as botanist. On the 20th January, 1881, we proceeded up the south branch of the Matukituki River, and camped at Cascade Creek, behind Mount Aspiring. That evening we were startled by the loud booming note of a strange bird, uttered at short intervals throughout the greater part of the night. Next evening a decoy-fire was lit in the bush near the camp to attract the bird, in the hope of being able to effect its capture; but in this we were unsuccessful, although on several occasions it approached quite close to the fire. We learnt, however, that it was of a curious nature, like many of our New Zealand birds; that its height was certainly less than 20in., judging from the free manner in which it moved below the dense matted scrub; and that its note was so deep and intense as to make the
[Footnote] * Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xxi., p. 226.
[Footnote] † Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xxii., p. 295.
ground vibrate distinctly for a distance of several yards around.
On the 29th January we shifted camp to the forks of Matukituki, opposite Mount Aspiring, and while camped there we again heard the same strange booming note; but, as before, all efforts to capture its mysterious author were futile. How-ever on one occasion I caught a passing glimpse of it and on examining the same place next day I found that it had been scratching in the sand. I also examined its footprints in the soft mud near the bank of the river, and at the time made a sketch of them on a loose slip of paper. I did not mention this latter circumstance in my paper on the takahe because I was unable to lay my hand on the sketch, but I remember quite distinctly that the footprints had a general resemblance to those of the weika. They certainly had no resemblance to the shuffling track of the kakapo.
After a lapse of seven years I again met our booming visitant of the Matukituki Valley. In the beginning of January, 1888, I visited Dusky Sound, and the day after my arrival, while accompanying Mr. Docherty to his pyrrhotine lode on the slopes of Mount Hodge, I heard the old, familiar, but almost forgotten, booming note of 1881. On returning to the hut in the evening my field-hand informed me that while fishing off the point he had heard the boom of the takahe in the direction of Mount Hodge. He said he had been rabbiting on the Mararoa Flat, and had seen and heard the takahe. killed there in 1881. Previous to this occasion I had never heard the Notornis referred to as the takahe. I considered this circumstantial evidence, and my own previous experience, sufficient to justify me in arriving at the conclusion that the takahe was the author of this mysterious note.
Mr. Melland's case is, I understand, as follows: He has heard, he says, the booming note described by me. He admits its unusual and startling character, and speaks of it as a “powerful and alarming sound,” which, he says, he has “heard across the still waters of Lake Te Anau, a distance of five or six miles.”* As to the author of this unusual note he professes to have no doubt whatever, the mystery having been solved some years ago by Mr. R. Henry, of Lake Te Anau. It is strange that a “powerful and alarming sound” like this should remain unsolved until the arrival of Mr. Henry, a few years ago, and stranger still that, when solved, it was not thought worth recording.
The kakapo is a comparatively common bird among the sounds and mountains of south-west Otago, and it seems to me improbable that such a remarkable note should have
[Footnote] * Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xxii., p. 298.
escaped the observation of the numerous explorers, prospectors, and naturalists who have scoured that country during the past thirty years. Mr. Melland seems to recognise a difficulty here, and attempts to get over it by assuming, first, that the male kakapo is polygamous, and, second, that it breeds only every second year, because, as he asserts, the booming note occurs only every alternate year at Lake Te Anau. The first hypothesis hardly affects the present question, and, as to the second, it will be time enough to discuss that when the author of the booming note has been found and identified.
Mr. Melland, when referring to the circumstances of our adventures with our mysterious visitant at the Upper Matukituki, agrees that it was a matter for regret that we had no dog, and states without hesitation that the dog would have surprised its master by bringing him a kakapo. In reply, I would mention that kakapos were plentiful around our upper camp at Cascade Creek, and for the first few nights made the forest resound with their discordant cries. After that they disappeared higher up the valley, being, no doubt, scared by our continued presence. On the other hand, our friend of the booming note was a nightly visitant during our nine days' stay at that camp, his solitary, unusual' note being a source of much speculation and wonder to us all.
Mr. Melland says the booming is warlike, Mr. Henry that it is amatory. On this question I am unable to express an opinion, but would in passing remark that the bird continued its deep booming note as it manœuvred around the decoy-fire.
At our camp near the forks of the river, little more than a mile from Mr. A. Cameron's homestead, we heard nothing of the familiar calls of the kakapo, but only the deep boom of the strange bird first heard at Cascade Creek.
Now, Mr. Cameron had lived at the forks of the Matukituki for a number of years. He was an enthusiastic mountaineer and explorer, and was quite familiar with Mount Fox and the high ranges between the sources of the Shotover and Matukituki Rivers. His run extended almost to Cascade Creek, and he had a hut and mustering-yards about two miles below that stream, where he spent some weeks every year, generally in the months of November, December, and January. In reply to our inquiries as to this strange sound, he said he had heard it on only one occasion, some years before, while mustering on the slopes of Mount Fox, facing Mount Aspiring; but he was puzzled as to the nature of the bird which caused it.
When it is remembered that kakapos were common in the upper valley of the Matukituki, it is certainly unaccountable that the booming should have been heard so seldom, supposing Mr. Melland's assertion to be true.
Among our own party, Mr. McKay was an old experienced bushman and explorer in kakapo country; but this unusual note; was new to him. Mr. Buchanan was a naturalist of well-known ability, and an explorer of considerable experience. He was a member of Sir. James Hector's expeditions to the West Coast sounds and mountains of Otago in 1862-64. He remembered having heard the same booming note in the Upper Matukituki Valley in 1862; but he had never been able to trace its author. As regards myself, the 1879-80 season was my first experience with the kakapo; but subsequent to that date I have had many opportunities of becoming well acquainted with its habits.
In November and December of 1887 I conducted an exploration of the Humboldt Mountains and the high snow-clad ranges at the sources of the Cascade, Gorge, and Pyke Rivers Kakapos were common, and in some cases abundant, in the grassy dales at the sources of the Rock Burn, Hidden Falls, Olivine, and Barrier Streams; in the valleys of the Cascade, Pyke, and Hollyford Rivers; and around Lakes McKerrow, Alabaster, and Wilmot. This was the breeding-season too; but in all my travels in these places—the very habitat of the kakapo—I did not hear even a solitary boom.
During this expedition I visited Thomson, the hermit of Awarua Bay, better known as “Maori Bill.” Thomson was a keen sportsman (or, rather, I should say his fine dog was), and kakapos, kiwis, and wekas were his ordinary fare. He showed me six or eight large sacks full of the feathers of these birds he had killed and eaten in two seasons. At Martin's Bay I met Mr. J. Webb, an old settler there, who spent much time every year in the open, collecting kakapo-skins; but in the course of many conversations with him he made no reference to the startling note ascribed to that bird by Mr. Melland.
On our return to Wellington after the Wanaka trip our exeperiences with the strange bird were narrated to Sir James Hector, the Hon. Walter Mantell, and, I believe, also Sir Walter Buller. The booming note puzzled them all, and the Aptornis, Notornis, and a small species of moa were suggested as the probable author. Sir James Hector said he also heard a mysterious booming note when exploring the Ma-tukituki Valley in 1862, and at that time he thought it was the cry of some small species of moa.
Referring to my own experiences at Dusky Sound, Mr. Melland attempts to discredit the evidence of my field-hand, who was known only as “Jimmy.” Now, Jimmy's exclamation that he had heard a takahe shows that he must have had some previous experience of that bird. Mr. Melland tries to get over this difficulty by supposing that Jimmy had often heard the boom of the bittern, which, he says, is common in
the Mararoa district. Of course this is not evidence, and I might answer in the same manner, and say that the booming note which Mr. Melland ascribed to the kakapo was really that of the bittern, which is common in his district. But, admitting for the moment that Jimmy may often have heard the bittern near Lake Te Anau, why should he suppose the call of such a common bird to be that of the takahe ? And, again, what should lead him at Dusky Sound to attribute the boom, of what Mr. Melland says was a kakapo, a second time to the mysterious takahe? Mr. Melland has no difficulty in recognising the unusual note described by me in my paper on the takahe, and yet he has no hesitation in making Jimmy's ears deceive him twice. I picked Jimmy up at Chalky Inlet, where he was prospecting. I gathered from him that he had spent many years about Riverton, Orepuki, Waiau, Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri, and the West Coast sounds; and it would certainly be strange if he had not in his travels become familiar with the calls of a comparatively common bird like the kakapo.
The third person of our party at Dusky Sound was Mr. William Docherty, the well-known prospector and explorer, who, at the time of my visit in 1888, had spent the greater part of eight years at Dusky Sound and Wet Jacket Arm. He had camped for lengthened periods on the open grass-country above the limits of forest-vegetation, where kakapos were always plentiful. Perhaps no one on the West Coast was better acquainted with the kakapo than Docherty, and yet, when, with, me, he heard the booming note on the slopes of Mount Hodge, he did not recognise it as the call of the kakapo or any other bird whatever. So sudden and startling was the sound that he maintained to the last that it was a subterranean noise in some way connected with volcanic action. In explanation of this strange theory, Docherty said that in a previous year he had often heard the same sound. His mate at the time was a Scandinavian, who informed him that noises of a subterranean character were often heard among the mountains of Norway.
Mr. Melland next appeals to the experiences of Mr. A. Reischek, F.L.S., and says, “The mere fact that the indefatigable Mr. Reischek had been industriously searching for the takahe in the very district mentioned for many months without success might have given Mr. Park some doubt as to the truth of his theory.”* Unfortunately for Mr. Melland's argument, about the first person I met on boarding the s.s. “Stella” when I was leaving Dusky Sound was Mr. Reischek himself, to whom I narrated the circumstances of the booming
[Footnote] * Loc. cit., p. 297.
note. He said he had never heard the noise I described, nor could he account for it. He was inclined to favour my theory as to the takahe, and regretted that he had no dog with him to help to clear up the mystery. Now, here was a naturalist of no common zeal, who had secluded himself for the greater part of two years among the wilds and solitudes of Dusky Sound, Chalky Inlet, and other equally inaccessible portions of the West Coast, collecting native birds and studying their habits in the open. He had made a special study of the kakapo, both in its breeding-season and at other times, but, strangely enough, he never heard the startling booming note ascribed to the male bird. Perhaps Mr. Melland would reply that if Mr. Reischek “had been at all well acquainted with the habits of the kakapo he would at once have suspected”* the author of this uncommon call.
Oddly enough, Mr. Melland does not attempt to refute my theory by calling to his aid the writings of the many authors who have described in various ways the habits of our unique owl-parrot, the kakapo. I will try and supply this omission. The quotations which follow are copied from Sir Walter Buller's new edition of the “Birds of New Zealand.”
Dr. Lyall, in his paper read before the Zoological Society of London in 1852, says, “The cry of the kakapo is a hoarse croak, varied occasionally by a discordant shriek when irritated or hungry. The Maoris say that during winter they assemble together in large numbers in caves, and that at the times of meeting, and again before dispersing to their summer haunts, the noise they make is perfectly deafening.”
Sir George Grey describes the kakapo as a greedy bird, and says, “When feeding, if pleased with its food, it makes a continued grunting noise.” And, again, “It cries repeatedly during the night with a noise not very unlike that of the kaka (Nestor meridionalis), but not so loud.”
Mr. G. S. Sale, speaking of a captive kakapo which he possessed for some time, says, “I observe that it rarely makes any noise by day; but about dusk it usually begins to screech, its object being apparently to attract attention; for, if let loose from its cage and allowed to have its usual play, it ceases to make any noise. It also makes a grunting noise when eating, especially if pleased, and I have myself attracted it to me by imitating the same sound. It also screeches sometimes when handled—not, apparently, from anger, but more from timidity.” In a note he adds, “The sound of the bird is not a shrill scream, but a muffled screech, more like a mingled grunt and screech.”
Among the early explorers of Otago perhaps none can
[Footnote] * Loc. cit., p. 300.
speak with the same authority on the habits of the kakapo as Sir James Hector. His writings on this subject are the result of actual observations made by himself during many arduous and protracted explorations among the sounds, mountains, lakes, and valleys of Otago in the years 1862-64. At that time these places were practically inaccessible, and the native birds consequently undisturbed in their native habitat. This alone must give his observations an unusual interest and value. After referring to the gregarious habits of the kakapo. and the din made at their gatherings, he says, “As they feed their harsh screams can be heard at intervals until they return at daybreak to the depths of the forest.”
Baron von Hugel, who studied the habits of the kakapo on the shores of Lake Te Anau, says, “The note of the Stringops is very peculiar—quite unlike that of a bird. I think it is when feeding that they indulge in a series of the most perfect porcine squeals and grunts. It is really as like a young pig as anything can be. Then, their other note, which I think answers more to a call or warning, is a very loud aspirated scream, with a sort of guttural sound mixed in with it, almost impossible to describe. Then, when pursued and caught by the dog, it emits a low harsh sort of croak, but some were perfectly silent to the last.”
Sir Julius von Haast, who also had many opportunities of studying the habits of the kakapo, says—still quoting from Buller's “Birds of New Zealand”—it has “an irregular shrill call.” In his report on his explorations in Nelson Provincial District in 1860-61, the same author, describing the kakapo, says, “The call of the kakapo, heard during the night, very much resembles the gobble of the turkey.”*
The evidence supplied by the above quotations, which might be supplemented by many others, is of course of a negative kind, but none the less valuable, as showing that the remarkable note ascribed to the kakapo was not known to the writers.
In the second edition of the “Birds of New Zealand,” issued as late as 1888, Sir Walter Buller, in his article on the kakapo, makes no reference to this singular note, and I may remark that Mr. Melland does not point out this important omission. Sir Walter, however, quotes the Maori proverb, “Ka puru a putaihinu,” which he says refers to the noise made by the kakapos when congregated in their winter quarters. Mr. Melland quotes this, as he thinks it supports his theory, but in doing this he is guilty of an inconsistency which does not strengthen his position, and tends to throw doubt upon his other evidence. The sound, which seemed to denote “the
[Footnote] * Report of Topo. and Geol, Explorations, Nelson District, 1861, p. 139.
rumbling of distant, thunder,” was said by the Maoris to be the noise caused by a great number of kakapos, “congregated at night;” and the time of the year when the kakapos do congregate is agreed by all the best authorities to be during the winter. On the other hand, Mr. R. Henry's statement, which appears to be Mr. Melland's only evidence, was that the booming was in every case caused by “an adult male kakapo,” and that too during the summer or breeding-season. Mr. Melland more than once refers to the solitary boom heard in the Te Anau district from November to March: how then can he compare it to the confused din of a number of kakapos in the winter time ?
When it is remembered that the district around Lake Te Anau, and Dusky Sound, are the only places in New Zealand where living specimens of the takahe have been secured, and that these places are two of the three localities where the booming note has been heard, I think it probable that Mr. Melland is wrong in ascribing this note to the kakapos of Lake Te Anau, and shall continue to believe that it is the call of the takahe until better evidence is produced