Art. XXI.—Notes on the Saddleback of New Zealand (Creadion carunculatus).
[Read before the Manawatu Philosophical Society, 17th March, 1910.]
A Year ago Mr. S. Percy Smith, F.R.G.S., ex-Surveyor-General of New Zealand and distinguished Maori scholar and historian, informed me that when surveying in parts of the North Island many years ago he occasionally observed flights of the popokatea, or whiteheads (Clitonyx albicapilla), being followed by saddlebacks in their gregarious migrations through the native forests. This peculiar habit of the saddleback, or native starling, in following flights of, and associating with, other species of birds in the forests was first observed and reported by the gold-diggers during the gold-rush in the great forests of the west coast of the South Island, nearly fifty
years ago. The saddlebacks were first observed following flights of yellow-heads, or native canaries (Clitonyx ocrocephala)—the South Island congener of the whitehead—when feeding through the forest.
The younger generation of Maoris having never seen flights of popokateas and tataekos followed by saddlebacks passing in succession through the forests, I have since Mr. Percy Smith informed me endeavoured to elicit from the older Maoris any information respecting their comparative numbers, whether of more frequent occurrence in certain seasons, and the class or nature of the forest where the associated troops of birds were generally met with.
The New Zealand forests vary much in the association of species of plants according to the chemical constitution of the soils, situations, and altitudes on which they occur.
My chief object, therefore, in endeavouring to obtain information from the older Maoris has been to ascertain, if possible, whether particular areas of forest were more frequented by the popokateas and saddlebacks (tieke of the Maori), and, if so, to endeavour also to ascertain the cause. The prehistoric Maori was an accurate observer of natural causes, particularly those affecting his own food-supplies. Replying to my inquiries, Tutu Hihi, a Native of Parihaka, informed me that he had heard his old father speak of the difficulty of procuring kakas, tuis, and kukus (pigeons) in some seasons eighty to ninety years ago, owing to the partial or total failure of their natural foods extending over large areas of forest, and that in such seasons they—the people of his tribe—had to make long excursions to certain more fruitful areas of forest to procure these birds for preserving for winter use. Excepting in the Urewera country, where the old Native methods of bird snaring and trapping are still practised, the old experienced Native bird snarers and trappers of other tribes now living near or within the areas of European or pakeha settlements have all passed away, which, indeed, makes it almost impossible to obtain reliable information on the habits of a species of bird that has become so rapidly extinct since their time and day.
Whilst engaged compiling these notes I wrote to Mr. Percy Smith, inquiring if there were any localities or particular class of forest where the associated birds frequented more than others in the North Island. Having had exceptional opportunities of observing the native birds in the bush in almost every part of the North Island for nearly sixty years, Mr. Smith's reply, here given, should prove of much interest and value: “In the early days here in Taranaki—that is, from fifty to sixty years ago—when I was constantly in the untouched forests then lying behind New Plymouth, often for months at a time, the bird-life was a very prominent feature, and the popokatea one of the commonest birds of all. They used to frequent all the patches of forest in the gullies about the town, also of which at that time there were many. The birds were never seen singly, but always in flocks of about thirty to forty, hopping about from branch to branch, with their little musical twitter. They were invariably accompanied by a pair of saddlebacks, or tieki (or tiaki), who seemed to act as guardians of the flock, giving the alarm, when any one approached, with their sharp notes. The word tiaki in Maori means “a guardian,” and this, no doubt, was the origin of the name. I spent several years at Kaipara, north of Auckland, in 1859–64, and in the forests there the popokatea was noticed quite as numerous as in Taranaki, always with the accompanying tieki. The last I saw of the popokatea was two years ago, when a flock of about half a
dozen, accompanied by two fantails, passed through the native bush in my garden. I was surprised and pleased to see them, for I had not noticed them for many years previously. I have seen them all over the North Island, but never of late years. Alas ! I fear we may quote the old Maori proverb in reference to them: Kua ngaro i te ngaro o te moa (They are lost, like the disappearance of the moa).”
It will be noted that Mr. Percy Smith explains the presence of the saddleback with the whiteheads as guardians to the flock. When closely observing the saddlebacks following the large troop of yellowheads in the Westland forest twenty-two years ago I noted that the former fed eagerly in the trail of the latter in passing slowly on their course. When afterwards describing their associated movements * I raised the theory that the chief object of the tieke in following the yellowheads through the bush was to feed on the larger insects which the latter disturbed and rejected. Apart from the economic importance or otherwise of the remarkable association of these two species, it was to me a magnificent and charming pageant of birds. The last large flight of tataekos, or yellowheads, I observed occurred in March, 1905, in the native beech forest at Sylvan Lake, on the Dart River, flowing into Lake Wakatipu, in Central Otago. Though beautiful their plumage and musical their concerted ringing notes, their charming associates of former days—the tiekes—were absent.
The disappearance or migratory movements from certain districts of some species of native birds, and their return to those districts after years of absence, is due to the fluctuations of supply of their natural and necessary food. The three last mild and fruitful seasons of the native flora have been and are highly favourable to the well-being of the native birds. Many species have bred successfully and multiplied in the larger forest-areas in Taranaki. A continuance of such seasons, which are almost invariably followed by others less fruitful or impoverished, is, no doubt, the cause of the migratory changes of the native birds from districts far apart from each other.
But apart from these phases of the saddleback's history, it is of great interest to note that, notwithstanding the long lapse of time since the separation of the North and South Islands, during the Pliocene period, the method or habit of the saddleback in following the yellowheads in the South Island forests should likewise continue with its white-headed congener in those of the North Island. Though these two forms are now given specific rank, it is probable that the yellowhead has evolved its slightly larger form and yellow coloration in a greater degree in the South Island than the whitehead has developed its typical white coloration in the North Island. That both species have been evolved from the same form or stock having much plainer colours there could be no doubt. But, whilst these two beautiful species of native birds have evolved their divergent typical coloration, the saddleback has apparently undergone no material change in its form and typical colours in either Island during their long separation.
In the supplementary edition of the “History of the Birds of New Zealand” Sir Walter Buller states that the saddleback is now extinct in the North Island. For several years the like was also said of the whitehead. When travelling over nearly the whole of the North Island a few years ago I made numerous inquiries from the Natives wherever I went
[Footnote] * “Birds of Lake Brunner District” (Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. 21, p. 205, 1889).
respecting the native birds, and ascertained that the whitehead was numerous on the forest-clad ranges whence rise the tributaries of the Motu River, flowing into the Bay of Plenty. During the last two years I have also learned of its occurrence in several other localities, which should remain tapued against avaricious and merciless collectors. In former years the Maoris were great lovers of tamed and caged birds, but only once, after numerous inquiries, have I been able to learn of a caged saddleback having been kept in a Native kainga or village. The older Maoris of the present time also assert that the tieke, or saddleback, was a very difficult bird to snare.
The rapid extinction of this beautiful species of native starling is to me more remarkable than those extinct and expiring species belonging to the New Zealand avifauna. Being strictly a forest-dwelling bird, subsisting on a variety of larvae and insects occurring only in the forest, it was apparently naturally unfitted to change its habits to search for and subsist on other varieties of larvae and insects procurable in the open country. Since improved methods of tillage were introduced by the Taranaki settlers, as in other provinces, several species of native cockchafer beetles (Odontria) have increased, as elsewhere in New Zealand, at an unprecedented rate. As the larvae increase in size, and the grass they attack withers, they attract flights of the introduced English starling and the Indian or Eastern minah (Acridotheres tristis). With the abundance of larval food on the rich grass lands in the extensive dairying country of Taranaki the starling has increased in such vast numbers as to materially affect the numbers and well-being of the minah. The starlings repair every evening, in flights of several thousands in each, to Moturoa Island, a rugged precipitous rock in the sea nearly a mile from the shore, situated about two miles south of New Plymouth.
In the South Island the starlings roost during the night on Eucalyptus, or Australian gum-trees, and in fissures of limestone rocks in many districts. I observe that the minahs prefer to remain closer to the great forest belt or national forest reserve, an area of native forest six miles broad extending all around the base of the extinct volcanic cone of Mount Egmont, in Taranaki. Thus we note that, whilst these introduced species flourish on the abundant and excellent food procurable in the open country, the native tieke, or saddleback, seems to be naturally unfitted to do so, with the inevitable result that the beautiful species has become or is rapidly becoming extinct.
As with other vanished and vanishing species of New Zealand's unique native birds, so with the tieke. All we can possibly do is to faithfully record all facts relating to their habits which have been and are procurable in our tie.