Art. XXXV.—An Ornithological Note.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 16th October, 1895.]
In the course of searching for material for the bibliography of the moa, now being compiled by my friend Mr. A. Hamilton, of Dunedin, I read and made extracts from two works bearing the imprint of the Historical Publishing Company, Philadelphia and St. Louis. They are of the well-known class of volumes which are carried by travelling book-agents, and, I believe, have had an extensive sale in this colony. The name of J. W. Buel appears on the title-page of each as author, and the books are profusely illustrated with engravings copied from standard works. One of these volumes is entitled “Sea and Land” (1887); the other, “The Living World” (1889); and together they cover almost the entire field of natural history. The author, in his preface to “Sea and Land,” says that he has made use of more than a thousand books on natural history in preparing the work.
In both these books I find references (with familiar woodcut illustrations) to the moa of New Zealand, and in each the author has curiously confounded the extinct Dinornis with the living Apteryx. He has also, in the most impartial manner, adopted the views of those who hold that the moa became extinct in prehistoric times, and of those who maintain, on the other hand, that it existed as late as our own times; and sets forth these divergent ideas without the slightest attempt to reconcile them. It is not necessary to read the whole of these passages; but one section in “Sea and Land,” headed “A Bird without Wings,” and illustrated with a sketch of the kiwi, gives so perfect an example, in brief compass, of the writer's method that I quote it in full:—
A Bird Without Wings.—A single bone, found in a New Zealand watercourse, was brought to England and sent to Professor Owen. It belonged, he said, to a wingless, tailless bird, which was at least twelve feet high ! Other men of science thought this to be impossible, and tried to prevent him from making his opinions known. But Professor Owen was right, and a specimen of the Apteryx (that is, ‘wingless’ bird) in due course arrived at the Zoological Gardens in London. This strange creature was nocturnal in its habits, and, if brought out into the light of day, it ran here and there in search of cover. Wingless and tailless it was, standing upon legs like those of an ostrich, and with a long bill that might
belong to a stork. This long bill had more than one use. When its ungainly owner leaned forward it was used as a support, and was also used to bore in the ground for worms, like our modern snipe. It is supposed to have become extinct during the present century, but this is hardly a justifiable supposition, since there is nothing in the traditions of the native New-Zealanders that concerns this strange creature. This fact leads to the more reasonable belief that the Apteryx perished off the face of the earth many centuries ago, perhaps at the time of the subsidence into the sea of that portion of the Asiatic Continent of which New Zealand was a part. The traditions of man do not extend back to this probable event.”
It would be difficult to imagine anything more bewildering than the information imparted in these few lines; but it is only a specially egregious example of the blunders with which compilations of this class abound. I quote it by way of solemn warning against the showy compilations by hack writers, which are worked off in large numbers on a confiding public by the agents commonly known as “book-fiends.”