Art. XXXI.—A Romance of Samoan Natural History; or Records relating to the Manu Mea, or Red Bird of Samoa, now nearly, if not quite, extinct.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 4th August, 1897.]
“What shall I send you from the islands?” was the question I put to an old friend, fond of natural history pursuits, as I was leaving England for the South Seas in 1838. “Send me a dodo,” was the prompt but startling reply, and one
that I thought had but little chance of being in the slightest degree realised; but, strange to say, as the years rolled on, from that most unlikely part of the world, and in a very unexpected manner, I was enabled to do a great deal towards making known to the scientific world the nearest approach now known to the long-lost and long-extinct dodo.
In 1843, or some five years after my friend's strange and jocular request, a Samoan native brought me a couple of what I at once saw were rare and extraordinary birds, male and female—the manu mea, or red bird of Samoa. I had never seen any before, and the man assured me that they were very rare birds, and most difficult to obtain. I gladly paid the required reward, and made arrangements for the safe keeping of my prizes. That they were extraordinary birds was at once seen, not simply from their rarity, but also from their singular appearance. The head and strong hooked beak resembled a parrot, but the legs were as unmistakably of the pigeon family; so that the whole appearance of the bird was a puzzle. I searched in vain through every book at my disposal for some clue as to its character, but could find nothing whatever to solve the mystery. The birds had been captured on the nest, and were thus uninjured, and likely to do well in captivity; but at that time I had no idea of the treasure thus brought to me. Still, I was greatly delighted with my prizes, and took every precaution to insure their safety. My native lads were familiar with the food required, and fed them after the manner of their pigeons, at feeding which they were adepts.
At first the birds were very timid and shy, but soon began to quiet down, and there seemed every prospect of our being able to keep them in confinement. Some time after, however, one of the birds was, unfortunately, killed, but the other continued to thrive, until late in the year 1843 a friend, Mr. Evans, who was going to Sydney, kindly offered to take the bird there, and endeavour to ascertain something about it, and thus satisfy my curiosity as to its character and class. Some native lads on board the vessel took charge of the bird, and fed it, native fashion; and, as they are clever bird-fanciers, it reached Sydney safely. Mr. Evans at once took it to a taxidermist, andeavoured to ascertain from him something further about it, but the man was equally at a loss with myself, and could give no information whatever: the bird was a marvel he could not solve. My friend's business engagements prevented his taking further trouble in the matter, and he left the bird with that gentleman, bringing me, on his return, a lory in exchange, but not the slightest information of the kind I so much desired.
Deprived of native care and attention the bird, apparently,
soon died, and the skin, with others, was purchased by or for Lady Harvey, either in Sydney or else in Scotland; but eventually this unique and precious specimen came into the possession of Sir William Jardine, of Edinburgh, and was first described by him in 1845 (“Annals of Natural History,” vol. xvi., p. 175) under the name of “Gnathodon strigirostris.” Its true habitat, however, was unknown until it was announced later on, in Mr. Strickland's “Report on the Progress and Present State of Ornithology,” read before the British Association at York, that “the recent American voyage of discovery will extend our knowledge of Polynesian zoology, and its researches will be made known by Mr. Titian Peale, who is said to have discovered, among other varieties, a new bird, allied to the dodo, which he proposes to name Didunculus,' and we believe strigirostris has been applied specifically.
I may here mention that during the visit of the United States Exploring Expedition to Samoa, in 1838–40, before alluded to, several members of the expedition, including Mr. Peale, the naturalist, were my guests for a short time at Falelatai, on their way to the mountain at the back of the settlement, and during their visit I spoke to them of the manu mea, described its habits as well as I could, and told them how I had tried in vain to obtain it. I did not see them on their return from the mountain, but heard afterwards that they had obtained a specimen.
From the specimen in Sir William Jardine's possession the bird was figured by Mr. Gould in his magnificent work the “Birds of Australia,” and its distinctive character shown. At that time there were only two specimens known to exist—viz., the one in the United States, taken there by Commodore Wilkes, and the other the one in the collection of Sir W. Jardine, in Edinburgh—the identical bird that I had sent to Sydney in 1843.
After my return to England in 1846 the late Dr. Gray, of the British Museum, showed me a drawing of this bird, which I at once recognised, as also a drawing of a new species of Apteryx, which had been made from a skin purchased in Sydney in the same lot with the skin of the manu mea which I had sent from the islands to Sydney, and which he explained came from some place unknown. A native chief who was with me at the time at once recognised this latter bird as the puna'e (springer-up), a bird well known in Samoa, but which, like the manu mea, was rapidly becoming extinct. Both Dr. Gray and the late Mr. Mitchell, of the Zoological Gardens, took great interest in the description I gave of the habits of these birds; and I suggested that prompt and special efforts should be made to procure further specimens of both
before it was too late, advice which after many years was acted upon.
Fourteen years pass: and I had been many years resident in Victoria, but had heard nothing further of the famous manu mea, when one day I was surprised to see a notice in the Argus of the 2nd or 3rd August, 1862, calling attention to the fact that at a meeting of the Royal Society, recently held in Melbourne, a letter was read from His Excellency Sir H. Barkley referring to a communication which he had received from London relative to some rare pigeons (Didunculus strigirostris) from the Navigator Islands, which the Zoological Society of London were most desirous of procuring. The society offered £50 per pair for living specimens, and £10 to £12 for skins. His Excellency forwarded some drawings of the pigeon, and stated that he had endeavoured to assist the effort, but asked for further information, if it could be obtained. I at once communicated with Dr. Mueller, the then vice-president of the Society, and told him that I recognised the description as that of the manu mea, or red bird of Samoa, and gave him such information as I possessed respecting it. My letter was quickly followed by a reply from Dr. Mueller, accompanied by a coloured drawing of the bird, which could not be mistaken.
Subsequently a notice of a meeting of the Royal Society was published in the Argus of the 14th August, 1862, in which it was stated that an interesting letter was read from the Rev. J. B. Stair, of Broadmeadows, relating to the pigeon from the Navigator Islands, upon which information had been requested by Sir H. Barkley on behalf of the Zoological Society of London. Mr. Stair had seen the tracing of the bird, and recognised it as the manu mea, or red bird of the islands. He had also kindly mentioned the names of several gentlemen in the islands who he thought would use their best influence in endeavouring to procure specimens, but in consequence of the great rarity of the bird he is very doubtful of their success.
Under date of the 15th August Mr. Sprigg, the secretary of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, wrote to me stating that Dr. Mueller had placed my letter respecting the Didunculus before the Society, and that he had been directed by them to return me their best thanks for the information I had afforded them. Mr. Sprigg stated that he had written to J. C. Williams, Esq., H.B.M. Consul at Samoa, asking his help in procuring specimens of the bird. He had also sent copies of my letter to Mr. Williams. He further said, “I have also furnished a complete copy to Sir H. Barkley,” who, in reply to Mr. Sprigg, says, “With the information supplied by the Rev. Mr. Stair I trust there will be no insuperable difficulty in obtaining the bird, if still in existence; but, should it
not be forthcoming, I will beg of Commodore Burnett to let one of the ships of war passing that way call and repeat the inquiry, as suggested by Mr. Stair.”
Five months later, under date of the 10th January, 1863, Mr. Sprigg, of Melbourne, wrote to me, enclosing copy of a letter he had received from Mr. Williams, of Samoa, re the manu mea, in which he says, “I have been” over twenty years trying to get one of the birds you write about, and have only just within the last two months been fortunate enough to secure one, which is now thriving well, and I hope that when I go to Sydney I shall be able to take it with me. Although, for myself, I should rather favour the Sydney Acclimatisation Society, yet, as you have first written to me about the bird, I should think it only just to give you the first offer. I have had great difficulty in obtaining the bird, as they are nearly extinct, having been destroyed by the wild-cats. The Rev. J. B. Stair's account is very correct. I hope to be in Sydney about May or June, when I shall be happy to hold any further communications with you.—John Williams, British Consulate, Apia, Upolu, Samoa, 19th November, 1862.”
From this time onward, until the end of August, 1863, with the exception of a notice concerning the habits of the bird, by Dr. G. Bennett, of Sydney, no further information appeared respecting the success or otherwise of the search for this much-coveted bird. At length, on the 30th August, 1863, the Melbourne Argus of that date announced the fact that a pair of Didunculus had reached Sydney from Samoa, and had been purchased by Dr. Bennett for the London Zoological Society, and that the birds “were doing well.” Dr. Bennett bought them on his own account, for transmission to the Zoological Society of London. At a meeting of the Acclimatisation Society of New South Wales, at which he made the statement, he said, “He wished to express his thanks to that Society, as also to the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, for the liberal resolutions passed by them to unite with him in the purchase, on account of the very high price demanded for the birds, the ultimate object, however, of which would be to send them to the same destination he intended; but, on reflection, he considered it more desirable and more satisfactory to take the sole responsibility upon himself, as well as the expense. These birds were nearly, if not quite, extinct, and were remarkable as forming a living example of the long-extinct dodo, of which nothing now remained but one head and foot, the first being placed in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, and the latter in the British Museum. A cast from this foot could be seen in the Museum at Sydney.” Dr. Bennett further stated that the only specimen of the Didunculus at present in Europe was the one in
the possession of Sir William Jardine, and from it all the drawings and descriptions of the bird had been made. There were also, it is said, two specimens in America; and these three, with his two living birds, now in Sydney, were all at present known to exist. No living specimen had as yet ever been seen in Europe.
Three days later, on the 3rd September, 1863, the following paragraph appeared in the Argus: “With reference to the paragraph which appeared on Monday concerning the purchase of a pair of rare birds (the Didunculus) by Dr. George Bennett, of Sydney, we have been requested to state that, although Dr. Bennett is the actual possessor, it is solely to the exertions of the council of the Acclimatisation Society of Melbourne that the scientific world is indebted for the possession of these long-sought-for birds. It was at the request of this council, and upon the faith of their representations, that Mr. J. C. Williams, the British Consul at the Samoan Group, brought them to Sydney, and it was intended that the purchase should have been a joint one with Dr. Bennett, the council being desirous of allowing him to participate in the honour, as he had for many years been endeavouring to procure a specimen of this bird.” This arrangement, however, had not been carried out, and Dr. Bennett observes that he “considered it more advisable and satisfactory to take the sole responsibility and expense. The Zoological Society of London had been informed to whom the credit is due.” This explanation was most certainly due to the council of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, as they had been under the distinct promise of first offer of purchasing the bird by Mr. Williams in his communication of the 19th November, 1862.
Mr. Williams reached Sydney on the 13th June, 1863, and five weeks later, on the 24th July, a second manu mea was brought to Sydney for him, so that he could offer two birds for sale, a fact considered of much importance. The last bird that reached Sydney was from a different island—Savaii —and was considered older than the one brought by Mr. Williams. Both were, however, placed together, but the last-received bird seemed wilder and more restless than the other, a fact no doubt arising from its having been more recently captured and placed in confinement. Up to the time of purchase the birds had continued under native care and feeding, which was of great help alike to the birds themselves and to those who subsequently took charge of them, the Samoans being very successful in their treatment of the native birds.
On the 21st August, 1863, Dr. Bennett completed the purchase of the two birds, and took possession. A little over three weeks later the older and last-received bird sickened and
died, to the great disappointment of all concerned. Alluding to the time subsequent to the purchase, Dr. Bennett says, “The adult bird often runs wildly about the cage, flapping its wings, and, when the door is opened, makes every effort to escape. On the 12th September, a little over three weeks after the purchase, the older and last-received bird refused food, which continued to the morning of the 14th September, when several fits carried it off in the course of the day. I placed the body, entire, in spirits, to enable a complete anatomical description to be given of the bird by Professor Owen.” Dr. Bennett further says, “I observed a quantity of white powder, such as is often seen to fall from the white cockatoos, on the bottom of the cage, and on the 4th October, the remaining bird not seeming well, a change was made in the food, loquats being given, of which the bird cracked the seeds, and seemed better for the change. On the 23rd October it again refused food, but took a large quantity of gravel, yet still eating nothing for two days. It was therefore thought that the loquat-seeds did not agree with it, and they were discontinued. On the 25th October the bird got much worse, and, fearing it might die, it was placed in a parrot-cage, so as to enable the artist summoned to finish the drawing from life, as it would be better seen in a large cage, when, to the great surprise of all, the bird jumped from the perch, and commenced eating what, on examination, was found to be hemp-seed, and from that time it was fed on that kind of food, and soon regained its usual health.” This singular circumstance clearly points to the difficulty of arranging food for a bird whose habits are so little understood. I have no doubt that the death of the other bird arose from change of food, and also, perhaps, from change of attendance, the natives so much better understanding their habits than Europeans. The surviving bird throve well on this change of diet, and after a time was placed on board the ship “La Hogue,” Captain Williams, and given in charge of Mr. Broughton, the chief steward, who had acquired great experience in the management of birds, and in whose skill and care every confidence was felt.
The “La Hogue” sailed from Sydney on the morning of the 12th January, 1864, and reached England safely on the 10th April following, and on the next day—11th April—the manu mea was handed over to the charge of the authorities of the Zoological Gardens, Regent's Park, thus realising the long-cherished dream of having one of these wonderful birds alive in England.
A few days later, under date of the 26th April, 1864, Dr. Sclater, the secretary of the gardens, wrote to Dr. Bennett: “I am delighted to be able to tell you that the Didunculus is now alive, and in good health, in the gardens. The bird is not
in good feather, but feeds well, and Mr. Bartlett assures me is likely to live.”
Thus ends this, to me, interesting and romantic story of this strange bird, connecting, as it does, so significantly with the past.
A few remarks on the general characteristics of the bird, as also its habits when wild in its native forest and when in captivity, may be acceptable.
As to these, I cannot do better than quote from “Further Notes on the Tooth-billed Pigeon of the Navigator Islands (Didunculus strigirostris),” written by Dr. Bennett from data given, by myself, and published in the Sydney Morning Herald of the 3rd September, 1862:—
“Since the publication of my observations on the tooth-billed pigeon of the Navigator Islands, in the Sydney Morning Herald of the 19th August, 1862, I have received a communication from the secretary of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, containing some valuable notes given to them respecting this rare and valuable bird by the Rev. John B. Stair, of Broadmeadows, Victoria, formerly resident for some time at the Samoan or Navigator Islands, considered the exclusive habitat of this singular bird. I have now selected those portions relating to the bird which are new to science, or will more fully add to its history, and complete, as far as possible, our knowledge of this nearly extinct bird. Mr. Stair says he has seen the Didunculus, and that it is named by the natives the manu mea, or red bird, from the most pre-dominant colour of its plumage being chocolate-red. In 1843 Mr. Stair had two in his possession, one of which was unfortunately killed, and the other was taken to Sydney by a friend to see if it were known, but nothing could be learnt respecting it. The bird was left there, and subsequently died, the skin being afterwards purchased, with others, either by or on account of Lady Harvey, and eventually found its way into the possession of Sir William Jardine, of Edinburgh. The bird was formerly found in great numbers, and this assertion may excite some surprise that such a bird should not have been seen and procured by the early navigators. Now Mr. Stair further observes that which I have for some time suspected—viz., that the bird is nearly, if not quite, extinct. It feeds on plantains, and is partial to the fruit of the soi, a species of Dioscorea, or yam, a twining plant found in the forests of the islands, and producing a fruit resembling a small potato. The habits of this bird, Mr. Stair says, are exceedingly shy and timid, and, like the ground-pigeon, it roosts on bushes or stumps of trees, and feeds on the ground.
They also build their nests in such situations, and during the breeding season both parents aid in the duty of incubation, and relieve each other with great regularity; and so intent are they when sitting on the eggs as to be easily captured. It was in this way that the two living specimens were obtained for him. They are also captured by the natives with bird-lime, or shot with arrows, the sportsman concealing himself near an open space in which some quantity of the soi, their favourite food, has been placed.”
“The power of wing of most of the pigeon tribe is very great, and it also obtains in this bird. It flies through the air with a loud noise, like our topknot pigeon (Lopholimius ant-arcticus), found in the Illawarra district, and many of our Australian pigeons. Mr. Stair describes it when in flight as making so great a noise with its wings that when heard at a distance it resembles the rumbling of distant thunder.”
I have myself often mistaken it for this in the forest when travelling, and can quite understand the delusion. Tradition states that on one occasion a company of atua (warriors) were put to flight, on the march to the scene of action, through mistaking the noise of the distant rumbling caused by this bird on the wing for the rapid approach of a body of opposing troops. They broke, and fled in dismay; but their faint-heartedness was chronicled in sarcastic verse, and resounded long afterwards to their dismay and confusion, as their prowess was rehearsed. A canoe-song, which I have often heard sung, thus records it:—
Pa; lulu le manu, e,
(With a thunder-crash the bird flies, And Safata runs away !)
Dr. Bennett alludes to the singular fact of the manu mea not having been observed by the early navigators, or, indeed, by later ones. Many causes may have contributed to this. In its wild state it was strictly a forest bird, very timid and shy, but apparently at one time very abundant, and taken for food in great numbers. From this peculiar shyness, however, the birds do not appear to have become pets with the natives, as is the case with many other pigeons and doves, both ground or otherwise. Many hundreds of these other birds were caught, and tamed and trained by the natives of Samoa, who were very fond of them, and spent much of their time with them.
Bougainville, who discovered the islands in 1768, says, “The islands where we touched were clothed to the summit with trees laden with fruit, on which wood-pigeons and green, rose, and different coloured turtle-doves reposed. The islanders amuse themselves in their
leisure hours by taming birds. Their houses were full of wood-pigeons, and they bartered them by hundreds.” But it seems certain that no bird like the manu mea was offered for sale to any of those visitors, for we may be sure that a bird of so singular a form would not have escaped the notice of the naturalists attached to those expeditions.
I think the fact is clear that these birds were seldom tamed by the natives, from their timid and restless habits. Hunting them, however, was a very favourite sport with the natives, especially those who resided in the inland villages, and who thus had greater facilities for seeing them, and becoming familiar with their habits. Of late years, however, their numbers have decreased rapidly, since, added to human enemies, the wild-cats, which have increased rapidly, have destroyed vast numbers, and, there being no power to order the destruction of these pests, the complete extinction of the bird becomes simply a question of time.
As to its bearing in confinement, we have many interesting particulars given us by Dr. Bennett, who was an enthusiastic and careful observer. Speaking of the first bird brought by Mr. Williams to Sydney, Dr. Bennett says, “I examined the bird carefully, and found it in good health, but very timid, and a young bird, in immature plumage, with the teeth of the lower mandible not yet developed. It was the size of the Nicobar pigeon, but rounder and more plump in form. It kept steadily looking at me during the time I was examining it, uttering occasionally a plaintive ‘Goo, goo, goo.’”
Referring to the same bird later on, Dr. Bennett says, “It has now attained the full plumage of the adult bird, and the teeth of the lower mandibles are fully developed. When any one approaches the cage it will sometimes retire to an obscure corner, but at other times will remain quiet on the perch, watching every movement of the spectator. It invariably feeds in the light, but will not do so if any one is present. The only opportunity we had of observing its mode of feeding was through the window, when the bird was placed in the verandah of the house. It usually kept on the low perch, but when disturbed would jump on the ground and run rapidly about, and then take refuge in the darkest part of the cage. The whole time that the bird was in my possession it never became domesticated, nor evinced the slightest attachment to the lady who daily fed it; it was the same to her as to a stranger, and I do not think the Didunculus a bird that will be easily domesticated, or reconciled to captivity. At that time the cleaning of the cage was attended with difficulty, from its violent fluttering on any one approaching for the purpose, in which it evinced no little power of wing.”
Dr. Bennett's description of the bird last brought to Sydney, the older bird of the two, will give a good idea of its general appearance. He says, “I found it was a full-grown bird, in adult plumage, with the teeth of the lower mandibles well developed. The head, neck, and upper part of the back was of a greenish-black; the back, wings, tail, and tail-coverts of a chocolate-red. The legs and feet were of a bright scarlet. The mandibles are of a bright orange-red, shaded off near the top with very bright yellow. The cere around the eyes is also of a bright orange-red colour; the irides brownish–black.”
Dr. Bennett cherished an idea which I fear is not likely to be carried out. He says, “For some length of time I have been endeavouring to procure this bird and naturalise it in New South Wales, considering that, from its inhabiting a very limited range, it might soon become extinct, similar to the dodo, Dinornis, and more recently the Notornis (Notornis mantelli) and Phillip Island parrot (Nestor productus); and unless some exertion is made to protect them the Apteryx, kakapo or night-parrot (Strigops habroptilus), and the singular Neomorpha (‘huia’ of the natives), all inhabiting New Zealand, will also perish.”
This will, I fear, be very soon the case with the remarkable bird we have been considering, as also with the puna'e, or Apteryx, of Samoa, a smaller and apparently distinct species from that of New Zealand.