Art. XX.—Notes on Sceloglaux albifacies, the Laughing Owl of New Zealand.
[Read before the Nelson Philosophical Society, 1st September, 1890.]
The specimen of this rare New Zealand bird now exhibited is the first one, as far as I have been able to learn, that has ever been seen or captured in this neighbourhood.
It belongs to a species endemic to New Zealand, and is the sole representative of its genus; and also, unfortunately, it is amongst the number of those interesting forms of life which from a variety of causes appear to be fast approaching extinction. There is no doubt that one chief factor in their disappearance is the increasing scarcity of their natural food. This, as well as a change in the condition of their environment, the outcome of civilization, would of necessity cause their numbers to diminish.
The bird in question was captured in the Tadmor Valley, in this province, by a man who stated that he saw it walking on an unfrequented bush-road. It did not appear shy, but was easily captured alive, and brought into town to Jacobs, our local taxidermist, who, after keeping it alive a short time, during which period it freely took food from the hand, destroyed it in order to secure the skin for preserving, as there was a danger of the feathers being more or less injured in confinement. Jacobs unfortunately omitted to notice the sex: I am therefore at present unable to state whether it is male or female, although I am inclined to think it is a male.
From comparison with the description given in Buller's new book on New Zealand birds I find some slight differences, which I think it well to mention.
The whole of the forehead does not appear to be covered with the greyish-white feathers, but only the front margin; the white only extends to the upper part of the sides of the neck, and not the whole as described by Buller. The remaining portion of the forehead, upper parts, crown, nape, and lower part of sides of neck are dark-brown—the broad yellowish-brown margin being only on the sides of the feathers, the black-brown streak being continued through to the tip. The feathers on the lower part of the fore-neck and breast are not narrowly but broadly margined with light-fulvous or yellowish-brown. The claws are not black, but of a dark horn-colour.
I notice in vol. xviii. of the “Transactions” that Mr. A. Reischek states he “never saw this bird in the North Island,
and in the South it is extremely rare.” We are therefore fortunate in having secured it for our Museum. Too often in the past anything a little uncommon has, as a rule, been sent away to enrich other museums, to the disparagement of our collection; but I trust that the public generally will in future endeavour to preserve any future acquisitions for our institution.
For the benefit of those who may not have had an opportunity of reading up the subject of Sceloglaux albifacies, I give a few notes collected from Buller's work.
The bird was first described by Mr. J. R. Gray, in the “Voyage of the ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror,’” under the name of Athene albifacies. Dr. Kaup afterwards made it the type of the genus Sceloglaux, of which it still remains the sole representative. Gould points out that its prominent bill, swollen nostrils, and small head, are characters as much accipitrine as strigine, and that its short and feeble wings indicate that its powers of flight are limited, while its lengthened tarsi and shortened toes would appear to have been given to afford a compensating increase of facility of progression over the ground.
There is no doubt that in former times the bird was more plentiful, especially when New Zealand was overrun with a frugivorous rat, which was its chief food; but, with the disappearance of the natural food, as a matter of course the bird would either be compelled to find other subsistence or perish.
There are three specimens in the British Museum, two in Wellington, two in Christchurch, one in Dunedin, and now one in Nelson.
We are indebted to Mr. W. W. Smith, of Ashburton, for nearly all the knowledge we possess of these interesting birds. When he lived near Timaru he discovered indications of them in crevices among some rocks, and by means of smoke forced them out and captured several. Some he kept in captivity to study their habits, and some specimens he forwarded to Sir Walter Buller. Mr. Smith succeeded in getting them to pair and deposit eggs, and made sundry interesting notes of their habits. They are not so active as the morepork in seizing their prey. The male bird (as all males should be) is very attentive to the wants of the female, keeping guard over her during incubation and receiving food and carrying it to her.
They deposit two eggs. Their food, judging from the composition of the pellets or castings, consists principally of beetles and other large insects.
The name “laughing owl” is applied from the sound they make, which is a kind of ridiculous laugh in a descending scale.