Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 30, 1897
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Woodhens (Ocydromus).

We have cleared most of the little peninsula on which our house stands, and now it is a favourite place for the wood-hens, but they do not like each other's company, and there are seldom more than two to be seen at once, though there are half a dozen occasional visitors. They often treat us to some spirited races across the open, and are no mean runners when assisted by their wings, but all seem to be so well matched that they generally run dead heats. If there happens to be one a little slow it is sure to be minus its tail, which is not of much account anyway; yet they seem to think a great deal of it, for the pulling of a feather is sure to bring on a fight, very fierce at first, but quickly dying away into threatening attitudes and various grunts which may represent bad language. The championship appears to be awarded more for courage than muscle, because the smallest hen, when she was thinking of nesting, would hunt away all the others, both males and females, except her mate, with whom she was generally friendly, but not always so. Those were the only pair here mated throughout the winter, and the only pair that would sing in concert. The male is our pet, and we call him “Chicken.”

Out of all the others we hardly heard a chirrup until about the 16th July, when several of the old widows became quite musical all at once, and vied with each other in calling the loudest and the fastest. Then, to our surprise, we heard by the lower note and slower tune of one that it was a male. This one came to our place in a most disreputable rig-out of half-moulted feathers, so I called it “Scrag.” It was a weakly, poor thing, and one of the hens used to thrash it and

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hunt it away. That is why I thought it a widow, though it had the stronger beak and legs of a male. However, I gave it a few good dinners of boiled fish, and it soon plucked up courage and learned to know the rattle of the lid on the dog's pot, and would come up carefully for a share. The dog seemed to notice that they only took little bits, and he soon disregarded them; so that now when I spread out fish on a stone it is common to see a weka on one side and a dog on the other, and both quite contented.

With better times and a grand new coat Scrag actually captivated the hen that used to hunt him about so contemptuously—the old story, “The course of true love,” &c. Then he started a series of fights with Chicken, and kept them up for several days, until both had lost nearly all the pretty feathers on their heads; and Chicken was obliged to give up part of his domain, retaining the house and Sandy Bay, while Scrag has Boatshed Beach. The boundary is a bunch of fallen timber, and they keep it fairly well, only Scrag is tempted up to the house sometimes for scraps, when he knows he is poaching, and will run with whatever he gets and eat it on his own ground. Chicken often hunts him to the boundary, but Scrag will not run a yard past it, so that they often have a fight down there, but nothing very serious. They jump up and kick like common fowl, but their claws are very weak, and can have no effect on such tough hides as theirs; and their wings are soft and fluffy, and only useful to hide their heads when down at the end of a round. The beak is the weapon, and the head the only place they aim at, so that there is a lot of shaping and fencing for very little bloodshed; in fact, their whole aim appears to be to disfigure each other by plucking the feathers that contribute most to personal appearances. At all events, that is the result of their battles. If Chicken was fighting for a mate now he would have no chance at all, for he looks so scrubby about the head that no self-respecting Maori-hen would look at him. The hens seems to have the same object in view when they fight, and it is equally effective. There was a pretty little hen here until she got her head plucked and lost all her good looks, and now she is always calling for a mate, but apparently cannot find one. This is surely an advance on the old method of deciding between rivals, for science has a better show, and there is less cruelty, yet the desired effect is attained.

Chicken can dance beautifully when he likes, which is very seldom, and very little of it at that. He waves his wings, dives his head, swings it to and fro, and then with a flap, a jump, and another wave of the wings, he blinks his eyes as if he forgot the rest. Yet he has the right idea, and knows perfectly well what is graceful in motion. He has also some idea

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of “showing off,” his beauty-spots being the bared primaries, which he shows to the best advantage by stretching his wings forward towards the ground, at the same time making himself tall and full breasted; but the humour takes him just as seldom as the dancing.

I found their nest about 200 yards away, in the sunniest place they could find, on a little hill. It is sheltered from the rain by the drooping flax-leaves, is deep and warm, and lined with frayed and dead flax. Every evening she used to go up there and call for him, and if down at the house he would answer and go away at once. They were always clucking and croaking about there, but I could never find any eggs in it.

On the 24th August, in the early morning, Chicken marched into the house and craned his neck at my hands with unusual eagerness. I thought he must be very hungry, and I gave him some food, which, contrary to his usual custom, he took up and carried away, trotting along the beach with his neck stretched out as if he was in a great hurry. After breakfast, when working at our big boatshed, we noticed him passing several times with some tiny grub or worm in his bill. I thought he must be feeding his mate while hatching, and went away to see the nest, but it was empty and cold. Yet all that day he was running back and forward until evening, when his gait gave the idea that he was tired out with so many journeys. Late in the evening he stayed away, and his mate came up to the house for food. Next morning when he came I went away along his track, and Burt gave him something, which he promptly brought along, but instead of going to the nest he turned away in the bush, and I had to follow his beaten track until I heard him clucking and soon saw him under the bushes breaking up the food and calling his mate to the feast. I saw her on a new nest, but fearing she might forsake that also I came away and left them.

A day or two later, when both were at the house, I went away to see the eggs; but the nest was empty—no eggs and no young ones. “All a hoax,” said I, “or else the rats have eaten them.” But next day, when coming home, we met them near the beach, and they scolded and threatened the dogs, so that I knew they had chickens; but I had to wait a long time before the old ones got confidence enough to call out of their hiding three tiny little black chickens, which were just able to stagger about, yet with sense enough to scramble under cover when the old ones told them to do so. They gradually brought them nearer the house until they occupied a sheltered corner, where the little ones remained while the parents went away for food. They are the very best of nurses. The male in particular is never tired of running here and there and bringing home something. They seldom succeed in getting

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more than enough, because when we give them too much they cram the little ones until they cannot eat-another scrap, and then the old ones become solicitous, and hold up food to them with a crooning, pitiful note, as if they feared the little gluttons were going to die because they could not eat.

On a wet day the parents look miserable running about in the wet, but the little ones will be stowed away in some cosy nook, and never think of following the old ones without a great deal of calling and coaxing. In this matter they appear quite intellectual compared with other fowl; but they may have learned the idea before the advent of rats, and retained part of it for more than a hundred generations after its utility had become doubtful. That is in theory. In practice there are as many wekas as can get a decent living, many of them being poor and insufficiently fed, for which they can thank the rats. Recently I left a penguin's egg near a rat-hole, and when I returned ten minutes later the egg was gone. The rats are numerous and fierce, and why they have not eaten the little chickens when both parents are away I cannot understand, especially when they are so often in holes that would just suit the rats.

The staple food of the wekas appears to be sand-fleas, which are here in plenty, not only on the beaches, but all through the bush, under the dead leaves and rubbish; and they are never tired raking over this and pulling about the seaweed in search of them. They also pull about the dead grass and turn over every chip in search of other things, but it is all done with the beak—they are not such fools as to go kicking things all over the place like common fowls. The sand-fleas are lively, and can make long jumps, so that whilst a rooster would be turning round to look for them they would have all jumped away. Of course, there are hosts of other insects, including cockroaches in plenty and monster earthworms, which they may catch at night, for they are often out on mild nights, and always active late in the evening. Yet they seem to prefer the scraps from our table to anything they have on their own, and soon learn to eat everything we have. They may have acquired their taste for fish by finding some stranded on the beach, but where they learned to eat bread and butter is a mystery, for they take to it like a robin. There is a little plant with a white bulb like a marble which they know well, and like to eat, but it is watery and quite tasteless.

I threw my hat at one of them one day for being in some mischief, and it is quite comical how long and how well he remembers it, for whenever I take my hat off now he is under cover like a flash. And, again, a young one came to us at the clearing, and after dinner we brought it some food; and in that one lesson it learned the motion of the hand in throwing

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the food, so that some days after when I pretended to throw it something it ran towards me and looked for it on the ground. Thus they appear to be strikingly sensible, because they learn at once by experience; and if every living thing did that there would be hardly any fools after a few years' experience. Though their brain may be very small, it is probably of fine quality, or perhaps a host of fancies are absent in their case, and only the useful faculties are developed.

I found Scrag's nest on the 7th September, with two eggs in it, but they laid another after that, and brought out the chickens on the 8th October, so that the period of incubation was about twenty-seven days. They took turns at hatching, for when I saw the hen on the beach I found the male on the nest, and vice versâ; and in this they show their sense also, for it is easy for two compared with one doing it all, as in the case of the kiwi and kakapo.

In July, when out at the clearing, I heard a woodhen screaming in distress down in a gully, and as it continued I called to Burt, who was nearer the spot, to see what was the matter. Guided by the sound, he went down quickly and found a sparrow-hawk holding on to a woodhen under a log. He caught the hawk, and the hen ran away. When I went over I saw that the hawk's beak was full of the inner down of the hen, so that she had a narrow escape that time, and by calling for help exchanged places with her enemy. They have a special note to indicate the presence of a sparrow-hawk, and generally let us know when there is one about. The tuis, mokos, and robins can also sing out “Sparrow-hawk!” in their own language, and all the others understand; so that he is proclaimed everywhere he goes, which is just what he does not want, and he must have a very vexatious time of it trying to get a living. On another occasion I hung a fishing-net on the clothes-lines to dry, and when we came home a little male sparrow-hawk was caught in the net about 1 ft. from the ground. Our tame weka was in a great state of agitation, yet bold enough to come up and peck at the hawk in defence of her chickens, who was probably stooping for one of them when the net caught him.

In seven weeks the three chickens grew up nearly as big as their parents, but very soft, of course. And then one of them disappeared, with a hawk, I suppose, though we had killed six, and thought we were doing a good turn, because we saw one hunting a pigeon.

When the tide is low and the wekas are tempted away out on the beaches I think the hawks take 90 per cent of the young ones, which may be quite desirable, because from recent developments the wekas appear to be the worst enemies of the ducks.

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Our goose made her nest right before the window, and only 10 yards from the house. In gathering material she took a little straw, but preferred more substantial stuff. When leaving the nest she carefully covered up the egg, so that I was surprised to find it so deep among the sprigs and chips. I covered it up again as I got it, but next morning the nest was opened, and only a few scraps of eggshell remained. I was not sure whether it was the dog or the weka, but intended to find out. The weka was evidently interested in the nest, for we saw him walking round while the goose was on it. We knew, also, that he would break an egg at sight, for we tried him with a penguin's egg; he had also stolen a roa's egg-shell and destroyed it. This was a strong shell, and I saved part of it to show how he could punch holes in it. He could pick up a penguin's egg and run away with it so quickly that I could hardly get it from him. We got several goose-eggs by going at once and taking them away, until one morning I was busy with log-fires and did not go at once. I heard when the goose came off, because her mate gave her a noisy greeting, and a few minutes afterwards I found the nest torn about and the weka and his family around the broken egg some yards away. Next time the goose was on the nest the weka waited about there all the time, though the gander tried to drive him away, and I went out and threw soft things at him, yet he flipped about and defied me, so that I took a dislike to him for his outrageous cunning. When the goose came away Burt went at once and found the weka digging up the nest in search of the egg; and when she started to hatch, though there were no eggs, she regularly covered up the nest when leaving it, and the weka never failed to rake it out when he found her absent, and, of course, a goose could never hatch an egg where there was such an artful and patient thief as that.

Long ago I knew they were egg-eaters, but I never dreamed that they were half so bad as this shows them to be. We have had this weka since it was a chicken, and he has only a small domain where there are no penguins. Probably he never saw a duck's nest in his life, and certainly not a goose's, for this was the first in the sound, yet he seemed to know all about it, and that the eggs would be covered up. The ducks cover theirs until they start to hatch, and then also when they leave the nest of their own accord; and that is evidently where this weka's forefathers learned the habit, and faithfully handed it down to this promising youngster. To this small matter hangs a very long, old story, which we will never hear in full, about the ducks watching and fighting for their eggs, and the wekas successfully robbing them year after year until it became a fixed habit for transmission, the result of which we saw plainer and truer than by writing.

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No doubt the weka is a finished thief; but he is not a fighter, because his wings are useless, and his courage is very little better for that purpose. The little teal are terrors to fight with each other, and then they make their wings crack like whips, so that they could easily drive off a weka; and as for a “paradise,” she could kill one if she caught hold of it—but that would be the trouble.

There are wekas on Resolution Island, and when I saw this one's talent I feared for the mother kakapo, who has to do all the nesting herself, until I remembered that she stays at home during the day and only goes to feed at night, when the wekas are mostly tired. This habit she can thank for the very existence of her race.

We have spent a great deal of time clearing for grass, in the hope of fostering paradise ducks. We were inclined to foster wekas also, and were fortunate in having the experience with the goose's nest, otherwise we might have worked for a certain failure. Now, if I get the ducks the Maori-hen will have to leave Pigeon Island. With all their intellect they have weak points, of course, for the strangers will walk up and put their heads in a snare when you hold them out a bait on the point of a stick; and all those who are near at hand will come out and show themselves, while those that are far away are often calling out to tell where they are. I was always friendly to the poor old wekas, and thought them well worth developing, and I am very sorry to have to write them down so mischievous among their fellows. For all that they may turn out to be the most valuable pets in New Zealand.

We saw them skipping about at dusk catching moths and beetles on the wing; and with their very great cleverness and their tireless activity I think they would be a cure for the codlin-moths in orchards. There was some talk of importing bats from England for that purpose, but a bat is a mammal that might catch flies near an anthrax carcase and then fly away over fences and rivers to drop the germs of disease or die among healthy stock; and if we only knew enough about their migrations in the Old World the flight of disease might not appear so mysterious. In Victoria I knew where many hundreds of bats, perhaps thousands, used to sleep in a great old hollow tree, and often saw them streaming out of there in the evening like a swarm of bees. They were easily caught in dozens with a piece of netting, and I found that every one carried a variety of very visible parasites, and perhaps invisible ones, because they had an offensive smell. They often hawk for flies about dwellings and animal camping-grounds, so that they appear to be ideal mediums for collecting, exchanging, and distributing germs.

A new race of bats invigorated by transportation might turn

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out the very worst importation for New Zealand. On the other hand, a weka is the easiest of all birds to inclose where it is wanted, also the easiest to catch, to keep, and to carry, and would be likely to thrive well in its native land. If they only lived in England our fruitgrowers would be longing for them; but because they are at hand they are not much thought of in their own country. No doubt they will be eagerly inquired for in far-off countries if ever it is known that they have all the qualifications required.

Since writing the above I find that they will kill each other's young, and this, with the curious habit of leaving them behind, makes it necessary that each pair, when breeding, should have a run of their own, and be able to make it warm for all intruders. When the little ones are alarmed they pipe out a penetrating call for assistance, and then the old ones appear as if by magic. Perhaps that is why the cunning rat did not eat them—he feared that shrill call and its consequences. When our chickens were about seven weeks old the mother handed them over to the father and took no more care of them, but went up on the hill behind the house, built another nest, and had three eggs in it partly hatched on the 28th October. I took one of them to get the embryo for Dr. Parker, intending to take the others at different stages if I am at home. At this rate every gardener could breed as many as he wanted.

They can swim and dive well to escape, but I never saw them in the water except on business. It is wonderful how they can dispose of food, for they seem to be never beaten either by quality or quantity. A few minutes after a feast they are as hungry as ever, and they get rolling fat very quickly.

Our weka looks after his two big chickens during the day, bags food for them or hunts it up on the beach, and apparently gives them everything he gets. Sometimes he gives them a wigging and chases them away—for schooling, I suppose—yet he fights for them and has many a lively run hunting away intruders, who sometimes chase them and make them scream for assistance. Then he snorts and coughs, and his eyes glare with indignation as he rushes about looking for the offender, who is often sly enough to flip round a corner and make a bee-line out of dangerous ground.

At the end of October this is his usual day's work until some time in the afternoon, when he goes up the hill to the nest where his mate is hatching, takes her place, and lets her come out for food. If we see her we give her plenty, but she is in no hurry returning, evidently confident that the eggs are safe in his keeping until she has had her outing at leisure.

I wonder greatly they are such good managers if they

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cannot talk. Fancy him going up to the nest, if you can, and putting her off it without exchanging ideas about his object or intention, and without promising to remain until she returns. It is far easier for me to imagine him saying, “Come out now and get something to eat; I will take care of the eggs until you return, and do not be in any hurry, because I am tired and will be glad of a rest here.”

17th November.—This evening I was looking at the antics of the woodhens when Scrag made a rush at something, and then I heard a rat screaming in a big hole under a stump. The dogs also heard it, and I had just time to see the weka drag out a rat when the dogs rushed in and killed the rodent, and I lost the chance of as great a treat as a bull-fight. I know it would require the keenest activity for a weka to kill a rat single-handed, and am not sure that it could do so; but the rat's screams would be sure to attract another weka, and then I think the pair could manage it quite easily, for one could hold while the other stabbed, or both could tug and pull, in which they seem to take a delight, and are very tenacious, so that the rat would be worried to death. This tenacity of hold is quite unexpected from the shape of the weka's beak, but I have played with them by trailing a little fish on the rod, and was surprised how they could hold on until I lifted them off the ground.

22nd November.—We went to Breaksea Sound, and camped in a beautiful place called Beach Harbour, two miles east of Acheron Passage. We soon had the Maori-hens for company, of course, and there were two grown-up chickens. They were all rather shy at first, but food soon opened the way to their friendship or gratitude. I threw an old fellow some crabs, which he evidently took note of at once, for he followed me along the beach, and, after a few lessons, when I turned over a stone and he saw the crabs running he would come up and catch them himself, and his example soon made the others tame. Then I opened cockles for him with my knife, and he would stand at my knee and eat them with more confidence than the Maori-hen I had reared. But the reason I mention him at all is because he gave us an exhibition of his skill as a fisherman. Often I saw them wading in shallow water, but thought the fish too lively for them to catch. However, this one brought up several little fish as long as my finger, and paraded them about, calling his chickens to come for them. His neck and legs appeared to be rather long, as if to suit that sort of work, and I saw him peeping cautiously round corners as if expecting shy game, so that he must have been an old hand at it; and probably his forefathers were fishermen, because the circumstances were suitable.

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With the isolation which these birds seem to crave, and indefinite time, it would not be hard to imagine the origin of a race of waders. In fact, the weka appears to be just the sort of bird to start with, because it will eat anything, and the little chickens are very hardy, with apparently a surplus of digestive power, which latter may be nearer the spirit of life than the old people used to think.

If a tribe of wekas had abundance of any one sort of food, either fish or fruit, I think they would be content with that, and become adapted for obtaining it; and with such material the simple laws we recently heard of could develope a variety of forms in accordance with the great variety of conditions, and the wonder is there are so few to fill them.

In Australia I knew the rails that came there in the spring, when the corn was knee-high. They made their nests in clover bottoms, and I often found their eggs, which were just like the weka's, but much smaller of course. The chickens were also quite black like the weka's, and the parents made the same sort of croaking noise when I went near their nest, but I do not remember their ordinary cry. They could fly well, but did so unwillingly when alarmed, as if they preferred the long grass for refuge; but a dog would make them fly, and then their style was like that of the swamp-hen. They were distinctly migratory, but I never heard where they came from, nor could I imagine any suitable place for them in Australia during the dry season, because they seemed to like damp places. Then, if ever they came to New Zealand, it is no wonder they thought it a paradise, and, deciding to remain for ever, gave up flying. And the wekas have still a trace of their old migratory habits, because they will risk their lives like the rats, and swim for miles to get away out on some lonely island, far from their old homes and their persecuting neighbours. And perhaps these two, with their colonising impulse and great digestive power, may represent advanced germs of the fauna of many lands.