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Volume 31, 1898
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Art. XVII.—Notes on the Fourth Skin, of Notornis.

[Read before the Otago Institute, 13th September, 1898.]

The news that a fourth specimen of Notornis had been captured was received with the greatest interest, not merely by naturalists, but by the public generally. The following history of the bird deserves to be recorded, since a statement in a recent text-book on ornithology gives the impression that it is already extinct. Dr. Gadow, in Bronn's “Thierreichs: Aves,” says, on page 182 of the systematic part, that the bird “kürzlich aus-gestorben.”

I need not here enter into a history of the previous captures; it is fully recorded in Sir Walter Buller's valuable work. Suffice it to recall the fact that the present specimen is the fourth only that has been seen in the flesh during fifty years; or, rather, I should say the capture of which has been recorded by naturalists, because, from various sources, we are led to believe that specimens have been not infrequently killed and eaten by Maoris and by settlers, and parts of the skeletons of several others are known from various parts of the South Island. The present bird was captured on the 7th August, by the dog belonging to Mr. Ross, under the circumstances recorded in the following paragraph which appeared in the Otago Daily Times:

“It appears that on Sunday morning, the 7th August, as the Messrs. Ross lay awake in their bunks, they heard an unusual bird-call in the bush near the edge of the lake, and about 100 yards or so from their camp. In discussing It they came to the conclusion that it was not unlike a certain double call often made by the Californian quail, only more bass—not so sharp and clear as the quail-call. The peculiar call was discussed, but nothing more happened until evening. One of the Messrs. Ross was then taking a walk along the beach just

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before darkness set in. When near the spot whence had proceeded the peculiar bird-call in the morning the dog that was with him made a dart into the bush, and shortly after emerged with a bird in its mouth. The bird was not quite dead, and it was at once taken to the camp, where it expired a short time after its capture. Its fortunate captor thought it was a Notornis, and it was taken with all speed to the foot of the lake. Involving as it did a twenty-five-mile pull, it was early morning before the foot of the lake was reached; but fortunately there was time to pack the bird securely and despatch it by the mail coach for Lumsden, en route to Invercargill.”

To this account I will add that the bird was taken to Dr. Young, of Invercargill, who at once communicated with me as to its preservation, and promptly sent the bird to Dunedin, where it arrived on the 11th August. Since that date it has been in the Otago University Museum, and hearty thanks are due to Dr. Young and the Messrs. Ross for allowing it to remain on exhibition here.

An examination of the bird showed it to be a young female, in a thoroughly healthy, clean condition. Owing to the cold weather, it was perfectly fresh on arrival. The dog—evidently a thoroughly trained retriever—had not done any perceptible injury to the skin, but on examining the skeleton it was found that the coracoids had been crushed. The only injury, to the feathers was on the neck, round which a string seems to have been tied just behind the head, no doubt for conveyance to Invercargill.

On its arrival I carefully compared this fourth skin with the detailed account given by Buller of the third skin, which is now in the Dresden Museum, and of which the Otago Museum possesses two oil-paintings. I may say that the plate representing Notomis in the new edition of “The Birds” is not so accurate a representation of the colouring of the bird as the plate in the old edition, although from a lithographer's point of view the former is a much better picture; the colours, however, are too dull, and there are a few inaccuracies of drawing to which I shall have to direct attention.

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The colouration and measurements of the present specimen agree very closely with the account given by. Sir Walter Buller, but the bird is rather smaller in all its dimensions; and, as this specimen is a young female, the eggs of which do not exceed 1/8in. in diameter, we have every reason to believe that Bullèr's suggestion that the Dresden specimen was a female is correct. One of the skins in the British Museum is brighter in colouration and larger inv size, and he presumes it to be that of the male bird, whilst the second British Museum specimen is also probably a female.

Before proceeding to the description it may be as well to

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refer to the name of the bird. The early history of the discovery of the fossil bones in the North Island is well known. To these Owen gave the name Notornis mantelli, and this & name was also bestowed on the subsequently discovered living specimen in the South Island. But Dr. Mayer, after a careful examination of the skeleton of the Dresden specimen came to the conclusion that the South Island bird is a different species. He named it Notornis hochstetteri.

The examination by the late Professor Parker of the other skeleton in the possession of the Otago Museum, as well as the account given by Mr. A. Hamilton of portions of skeletons in his possession, seem to me to support Mayer's opinion, and for the future the Takahe should be spoken of as a distinct species from the fossil.

Dunedin Specimen Dresden Specimen
In. In.
Length from the tip of the beak, along the curvature of the back, to the tip of the tail 23 24 ½
Length of wing, from the flexure 9 10
Length of largest quill 7
Length of tail 4 ½ 4 ¾
Length of tibiotarsus, measured from the anterior angle of the upper extremity to the articulation of the middle toe 3 ¼ 3 ½
Length of middle toe and claw 3 ¾ 4.1
Length of hind toe and claw 1 ½ 1 ½
Length of bill, from corner of gape to tip 2 1/16 2 ½
Height of bill at the base, across both mandibles, passing through the angle of the gape 2*
Total length of head, from tip of beak to back of skull, along the line of the gape 4 ½

With regard to the slight difference in colouration between this and the Dresden specimen, I have to make the following remarks The colour of the beak is not uniform. The base is red, much more scarlet than in the picture either of the first or second edition of Buller. Not only is the soft frontal plate red, but this colour extends along the upper surface of the horny beak itself for a distance of 1 ½in.; also, down the sides, in front of the eye, to a distance of ½in.; and along the lower jaw for nearly the same extent. Thus the whole base is bright-red. This tint then fades into a dull reddish-pink, which extends to the tip; but immediately in front of the red base is a band of much paler pink, imperceptibly deepening in tone towards the tip. In Buller's figure, in the second edition, the beak has an orange tint; and he describes it in his diagnosis as “yellowish.” On the perfectly fresh bird, however, it is distinctly pink, but fainter than in the figure of the first edition. The soft frontal plate does not extend so far back as the posterior corner of the eye, as Buller states to be the case (2nd ed., p. 91). On the foot and leg the scales are

[Footnote] * A fraction less.

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reddish - pink—the same colour as the greater part of the beak—without any trace of orange, such as is shown in the figure of the second edition, while the colour is a brighter red than in that of the first edition.

The shape of the bill in the figure of the second edition is entirely wrong so far as the curvature of the lower jaw is concerned. It is represented as being concave downwards, giving a curved sharp point to the beak. On the contrary, the curvature is slightly convex downwards, so that the angle at the tip is greater; and the beak is blunter. The woodcut on page lxxv. is accurate.

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The shape of the nostril is variously described. We find this statement on page 91: “Nostrils oval”; and on page lxxv. : “Nostrils round.” As these statements occur in the diagnosis of the genus it is important to put on record the real facts. I find the nostril very nearly circular; the longitudinal diameter, however, just exceeds the vertical, the measurements being 3 3/16in. and 2/16 in. respectively.

With regard to the shape of the tarsi, these are not cylindrical, but laterally compressed. The account of the scales given in the text (2nd ed.) does not agree with the figure. As a fact, the text is correct and the plate wrong. Each of the sides of the tarsus, as well as the front, is clothed with a series of transversely elongated scales, the three series being separated by a series of much smaller and more irregular ones, posteriorly and antero-laterally. I counted fourteen of these scales on the front series.

The number of scales or scutella on the middle toe, including that which ensheaths the base of the claw, is 26 (Buller gives 23); on the inner toe, 18 (instead of 15); on the outer toe, 25 (instead of 21); and on the hinder toe, 7 (instead of 5). No doubt some variation in these numbers is to be expected, but I have thought it worth while to give them for the present bird. As to the shape of the claws, the artist has drawn them too pointed; the tip, like that of the beak, is blunt. Moreover, the hind toe is placed too high up the foot in the figure (2nd ed.)—as a fact, it rises from the same general level as the other three toes, as shown accurately in the figure in the first edition.

The shape of the wing is much less definite and less compact than would appear from the figure. It is, in reality, more rounded posteriorly as it. lies against the body. I may mention here that the wing is provided with a spur.

Turning now to the general colouration of the plumage, the following points may be noted. A comparison of the plate in the second edition with the bird itself, freshly killed, and with our oil-paintings, done from the Dresden specimen when it arrived in Dunedin, shows very considerable differences. The

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colour in the plate is not that rich indigo-blue characteristic of the bird when seen from in front with the light well on it, but a dull greyish-blue, which does not do justice to the bird's beauty. The wings, again, are not uniformly green, but varied, as is correctly represented in the first edition. The long quills are dark-blue, like the breast, but scarcely so rich in tone; and the major coverts of the primaries are olive-green, or, rather, bronzy-green, like the back. There is a broad band of the same tint across the base of the wing. Bach individual quill has the lower part of the vane blue, its upper part brownish, or, in some lights, nearly black. The tail-feathers have not brown shafts, nor are they dark-brown below. I am here only calling attention to defects in the drawing, for nothing can be added to Buller's careful description beyond the expression of opinion that “purplish-blue” does not seem to me quite the right term. I have called it “indigo-blue,” as it appears to me that the colour is a pure rich blue.

An interesting fact in regard to the colour of the bird, and one which must be of the greatest value to the bird itself, is immediately noticeable in examining the skin in different lights. The best effect is obtained when the light and the eye are in the same direction and the front of the bird be looked at. But if we now look at the back of the bird—as it would be seen if it were running away from the pursuer—no bright tint is to be seen. The colour is a dull dirty grey, admirably adapted for concealing the bird as it escapes into the bush or amongst any growth higher than itself and capable of casting a shade. The white under-coverts. of the tail form, however, a conspicuous mark in the bird, as in so many of its allies' and though more noticeable when seen from the side in contrast with the brighter colours of back and wing, yet, from behind, the white is not so noticeable as might be imagined. It is difficult to say what meaning is to be attributed to this white tail. In many cases, like antelopes, rabbits, &c, it is a “recognition mark,” as Wallace has called it, enabling members of the herd to find their fellows at night, or to follow the lead of others in escaping enemies. It usually occurs in animals of gregarious habit, and we should judge therefrom that Notornis is gregarious. It is all the more curious, then, that isolated individuals have been caught and nothing seen of their fellows. But from what enemy does Notornis flee? What native animal at the present day preys on Notornis ? Probably none. Then, this “recognition mark” must have come down from a time and a place in which there were enemies. This is a matter which at the present time I will not follow up; but it is evident that it is a matter of some interest and perhaps importance.