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Volume 41, 1908
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Art. XLIII.—New Zealand Bird-song.

[Read before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, 4th November, 1908.]

I Spent a week in December of last year in the neighbourhood of a clump of thirty or forty acres of native bush near Stony Bay, Little Akaroa; and as this was my first time of being for any length of time near the bush, I occupied myself in recording the notes of such birds as happened to be there.

The most elusive notes I found to be those of the bell-bird (korimako—Anthornis melanura). I could catch and fix individual notes, but it was some days before I could be sure of their sequence. The reason will be seen on referring to the records following:—

and so on. The pitch of the initial note of the phrases (1) and (2) varied from d to c, as shown in (3). The consequence was that on checking the notes taken one day with notes taken the next I found they differed, often to a wide degree. I was not able to discover if the variation in pitch was due to the song being sung by different birds, or if one bird was able to vary it as it pleased. The most usual phrase was (1): the notes follow one another very quickly, the two concluding the phrase being most distinctive and characteristic. A variation where these two notes are discarded is shown in (2). Here the whole phrase is lengthened, and two notes of different pitch introduced—the two last, which are sustained longer than those preceding. These concluding notes are very pleasing, the last especially being deep, full, and melodious. I only heard this variation as a continuation of (1), and then only when the two distinctive notes were discarded. The difference between the day-song and the even-song was very marked: in the latter the notes were sung more deliberately, and, whilst the general theme of the day-song was followed, the intervals were slightly different. The parallel of the more usual day-song was also the more usual evensong (4): it will be seen that a pause approximately twice the length of the note was made after each note, and the distinctive note uttered only once, the interval between the acciaccatura and the main note being also less. The variation of the even-song (5) ended on the same note as the variation of the day-song. I more than once saw a bell-bird on the top of a dead tree at the edge of the bush repeating one or other of the phrases (4) and (5) in

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the evening, at intervals of perhaps half a minute, and for five or more minutes at a time. As twilight deepened a new theme was taken up: the tree-top sentinel disappeared, and from the dark bush came the quickly uttered notes shown in (5). These would be continued, with the slight variations shown occurring now and again, for two and three minutes without pause or cessation; and when they ceased no other note was heard, the next cry coming from the now stirring morepork: his cry consisted of two muffled but clear notes, the second a semitone lower than the first.

I heard more of the whirring flight of the tui (Prosthemadera novaezealandiae) than of his song, the commonest call I heard during the week being a repetition of a single note, from four to eight times, the most frequent number being five, as shown in (1) following:

It was especially noticeable of the pitch of this note that it never varied: every time I tried it it was b. Fenwick, travelling in the southern part of this island, recorded the note as f, and said that it varied in different localities. The five notes were generally, though not always, followed by the three gutturals kree, kraw, krurr. These gutturals have no definitive pitch; each has its distinct vowel sound, however, and they can be imitated by breathing the words rather than articulating them; the r carries the German sound, produced by slight vibration of the uvula. The five notes are ventriloquous—that is, they appear to come from a distance away from the bird; and I, having been told the notes were those of a bell-bird, thought the tui I was watching answered them with the gutturals: I soon saw, however, that the same bird produced both. The notes have a clear, mellow tone, and when uttering them the bird sits motionless, with outstretched neck, in some high tree—usually, when I saw him, in a totara or black-pine. The last of the gutturals, krurr, was at times used as the initial for the slur shown in (2). This high slurred note was very sweet and plaintive—one of the sweetest of all I heard. I heard these calls of the tui much more often than his song. This song (3) is an instance of seeming imitation: the theme is the same as in the song of the bell-bird, the difference being in the intervals and the tempo. The initial note varied almost to the same degree as that of the bell-bird. The two distinctive final notes of the latter, however, I did not hear imitated. In the tui song the fourth and sixth notes, both a, were long-drawn and most melodious. I heard no other notes from the tui: I came too late in the season to hear him at his best.

The black fantail (tiwakawaka—Rhipidura fuliginosa) had a slurred note that was similar to the slur of the tui, but was a sixth higher. I heard the fuller song of this bird only once. It alit on the rough bark of a black-pine only a yard from me, and twittered a pleasant little song, of limited range, however, and little variation. I did not wish to interrupt it, as it was the first time of hearing it, so did not take the pitch; and, unfortunately, I did not hear the song a second time. It hovered about the opening-note, never more than a tone (more often a semitone) above or below, being, indeed, hardly more than a twitter.

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I saw only two parrakeets (kakariki—Cyanoramphus novae-zealandiae) during the week, and from them obtained (1) and (2) following:—

The first notes sounded very like the words “Take me back,” and were repeated at fairly long intervals. The quality of the parrakeet's note differs considerably from any others that I heard: it could be imitated on an oboe or clarionet; the tui and bell-bird might be imitated on a mellow flute, though it would be difficult to render the high notes with sufficient softness.

The weka (Ocydromus) was fairly common, but I obtained only two calls, as follow:—

The first call was the usual one; I heard the second only once. These I take to be the call of the female weka; for, according to an old Maori wartale, the cry of the female is ko-ee, ko-ee, ko-ee, whilst that of the male is tee-waka, tee-waka.

Of all the songs I heard, the most interesting to me was that of the grey-warbler (riroriro—Pseudogerygone igata). In the bush, it was the least developed of the songs that had got beyond a mere twitter, such as that of the fantail—that is, it has not yet acquired a definite succession of phrases, nor is the range of notes at all wide; but, whilst it is the least developed, it shows great possibilities for varied development. The warbler is one of the native birds commonly found around human habitations; it may constantly be heard, especially in the morning; and the peculiar thing is that away from the bush, possibly under the influence of introduced songbirds, the song of the warbler has acquired a certain definiteness. The melody that may be heard almost every morning in any part of Christchurch is shown in (1):—

The phrases always follow in this sequence when the full song is sung. It may break off at any part, or, if continued beyond the notes written, it is an exact repetition. There is, however, a variation that I have heard in the song of the town bird; the variation is in the four concluding notes, as shown in (2). Here an enharmonic note is introduced, adding still more to the plaintiveness of the melody. The last note is invariably much lighter than those preceding, and there is a distinct accent on the first note of every phrase of five. Last year, when the variation was introduced, I did not once hear the song continued beyond it: this year I have heard one bird continue it, repeating the variation. The song is very sweet, though so highly pitched. On hearing the variation, one is impressed by the idea that it is a late development, as there is a hesitation in the uttering of the enharmonic note: the interval introduced, too, is wider than usual. Knowing this song, it was with surprise that I heard the very different song of the bush-warbler. The phrase of five notes, the last a semitone below the first four,

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evidently the basic phrase, was constant, but the combination of the variously pitched phrases followed no sequence that I could discover. It meandered on in the way shown below:—

There was nothing regular nor determinate: the phrases did not always fall in three sequences, a higher interval following as frequently as a lower: the song, too, was prolonged indefinitely, as if the bird itself had no idea of rounding it off. In the bush I only once had the good fortune to actually see a warbler singing. It was perched on the topmost branchlet of a ribbon-wood at the edge of the bush, which lay below it in a deep valley, and it sat turned towards the trees below, facing, with outstretched neck, now this way, now that, singing like a prima donna to a rapt audience. I have often seen the dilating and throbbing throat of a singing-bird, but in this warbler not only the throat but the skin completely round the neck seemed puffed out with ruffled feathers, and throbbed as the bird sang its long, irregular, indeterminate, minor melody. This was the most tantalizing of the songs: I constantly heard it, faintly as if far away in the bush, and it repeatedly distracted me into endeavouring to catch a sequence in its measures whilst I was taking the pitch of other notes. I was unsuccessful, however, in obtaining any definite sequence beyond the five notes of the basic phrase. The pitch is very high, and I do not know of any instrument by which it could be imitated.

Another very highly pitched note was that of what I assume to be a young bush-wren or rifleman (titipounamu—Acanthidositta chloris). It was the only bird of the kind I saw, and it sat on a vine a couple of yards away, uttering the very faint, cheeping notes:—

It was hardly louder than the chirp of a cricket, and though so high in pitch was remarkably sweet and plaintive.

There was one bird which I was unable to identify, either on the spot or subsequently, though now I think it may be a hedge-sparrow (Accentor modularis). It was a little larger than a sparrow, dark grey, with darker colouring along the upper parts, and tail long and narrow. I saw it singing several times: it clung to a vine, moved its head a little from side to side as it sang, its tail quivering as the note with the tremolo, as shown in the melody below (1), was uttered:—

As will be seen, the melody, which is very regular and distinct, is much longer than that of any other of the bush birds; and this led me to conjec-

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ture that it was not a New-Zealander. The melody was not always sung fully through; more often it was broken after the first or second tremolo, or after the theme ending on g flat. Sometimes the two phrases enclosed between single bars would be replaced by the phrase enclosed between double bars; but I repeatedly heard the full melody as above. On certain days this bird was very plentiful; and one day, there being but little bird-song, I was trying Schubert's “Fisher-maiden” on my whistle, when no less than four of them perched close beside me piping away most energetically, and the louder I whistled the louder and faster they piped, as if they thought it their duty to pipe me down. The pitch varied considerably, but, as I doubted the bird's being a native, I was content to take down the melody. A call which the bird sometimes uttered, with no melody preceding or following, is shown in (2). Should this prove to be the song of the Accentor, it would be interesting to know how it compares with the song of the Home bird.

Observations will have to be much more extended before any comparisons can be made or remarks offered on the different songs; and I have offered these incomplete notes in the hope that others who are in the bush may be induced to record notes in various parts of the Islands, so that complete records may be had of the songs of all our birds, in all the months of the year, as well as in all localities.

Additional Records Taken In December, 1908, From Birds In The Same Bush.

Bell-bird: The notes were similar to those taken last year.

Tui: The following additional notes were obtained:—

When uttering the notes a opening (4) the neck was stretched out, with the bill half-open. The sounds represented by tiu tiu aurr were repeated very quickly: the tiu was like the striking together of two hard stones, the aurr being quite different—a decided guttural. The pitch was quite distinctly e and a. These sounds took the place of the kree kraw krurr heard last year. The tsrr was like the sound of a corkscrew being forced through a stiff cork, and it, with the aurr preceding it, was very emphatic. The high, sweet, slurred note following was sometimes succeeded by a very soft, melodious, canary-like phrase, which bubbled, like honey transformed to sound, in the throat of the bird, so softly that it could only be heard at close quarters. I several times heard (4) sung the full length; more often it broke off after the tsrr, or after the slurred note.

The note in (5) was repeated alone. It is “explosive,” but very clear and bell-like. It was only sounded once—that is, it was neither preceded

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nor succeeded by any other note; and if a cork could be imagined as a clear sound, it was as if the note popped like a cork from a bottle.

The notes of (6) were also very bell-like in tone, but were of quite a different nature from (5). They were deliberately sounded, an average of two seconds separating them. The variation (7) was as often heard as (6).

The sounds of (8) are merely part of (4) repeated without any notes: one would suppose they would rasp the bird's throat to pieces. They were varied—tiu tiu aurr, tiu tiu tiu aurr, and tiu tiu tiu aurr, tiu tiu aurr.

Weka: One other call was heard; it calls for no comment:—

Fantail: The following notes were obtained:—

The note is not clearly sounded; it is uttered more as if forced through a constricted passage, and it is rather a twitter than a whistle. It varies not only in pitch, but in sound, so that it may be represented by different letters at different times, as above. Whilst singing, the bird flits restlessly about the bough.

Morepork (ruru; Ninon novice-zealandice):—

The cry is more commonly heard without the five introductory notes. It was muffled, as one might imagine the cry of the hokio, the ominous bird of battle. The Maori represented the latter part of the cry as kia koa, and the sound might well be given as koa, pronounced like caw with a slight vibration of the uvula.

Grey-warbler: Two complete songs were obtained:—

It will be noticed that the phrase of five notes is this year replaced by three triplets. The falling sequence in semitones is similar to that recorded last year, and again it will be noted that there is nothing determinate in the song. The termination of (3) is effective: I heard it only once.

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Wren: The note of the wren was this year c sharp as against e last year. The only variation, if it can be called variation, was in the suppression or insertion of rests. The notes might be single, or broken into groups of two, three, four, or more, or they might be uttered up to fifteen times without a break in the sequence.

Robin (toutouwai; Miro albifrons): This bird's note, a sharp, clear whistle, was of a very simple nature, being a repetition of one note, a sharp.

Yellow-breasted tit (ngiru-ngiru: Petroeca macrocephala): This song is simple, but very pretty and plaintive. It is a soft twitter, nearer a whistle than the twitter of the fantail, and is uttered during flight as well as when the bird is stationary; in the latter case the throat and tail quiver slightly.

Blight-bird, silver-eye, or wax-eye (tauhou; Zosterops caerulescens): Setting aside the rambling melody of the grey-warbler, the blight-bird has the longest definite song of the native birds—so long, indeed, that the name of “tauhou” (the stranger) is justified; for the songs of the true natives are all short. I heard the song of one bird only, but as it sang away, with slight intervals, for from five to ten minutes, I was able to take down the various phrases which it employed:—

The bird was very obliging: whilst it paused it allowed me to take the pitch and intervals of the various notes of the phrases in (1). Whilst it sang it sat quite still, holding its bill in the air; its throat throbbed, especially when sounding the notes represented by tiu. As in the case of the fantail, most of the notes could be represented by letters. The song was very quiet and sweet, somewhat like that of a canary, but not nearly so shrill nor vigorous. The songster was quite alone: I heard no other blight-birds near at the time. The phrases were employed in all sorts of sequences: there may have been others which I did not catch, for at first. I was content to sit still and listen: other individuals, too, may have different phrases. The following combination is an approximate representation of the song; but, as stated, the combination constantly varied:—