The Supposed Flightless Duck from Campbell Island.
[Read before the Canterbury Branch, Royal Society of N.Z., Setempber 15, 1937; received by the Editor, December 15, 1937; issued separately, June, 1938.
In occasional papers of the Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology, No. 1, J. H. Fleming describes “A new genus and species of Flightless Duck from Campbell Id.” He says: “The genus may be known as Xenonetta, gen. nov. Bill narrow, not broad as in Nesonetta; culmen line and sides of the maxilla nearly straight; lamellae and maxillary flap poorly developed; nail shorter and rounder than in Nesonetta; nasal openings small and oval. Mandible narrow, the gnathidia compressed at the base. Wings short, the shafts weak; tail wedge-shaped, the shafts stiff. Tarsi reticulate.” In regard to the last specification he adds a foot-note: “I hesitate to use this as a generic character, but the scales are clearly reticulate in this specimen.”
If this description be examined, and specimens of Nesonetta from Auckland Islands compared with it, I do not think there is any justification for making a new genus or even species of this bird. Firstly the bill, “narrow, not broad”: In the dozen or so skins of Nesonetta which I have examined in Auckland and in Christchurch there are all shapes of bill, from broad to very narrow; in some the bill is very narrow and quite straight and parallel on the sides. There is a considerable variation in the development of the lamellae and the maxillary flap, a specimen in the Christchurch Museum showing no more than Fleming shows in his illustrations of his bird. The nail in some specimens is practically the same as shown in his drawings for Xenonetta, while the under view of the supposed new genus' bill can be perfectly matched by the bill of a specimen from the Auckland Museum. Actually there is a very great variation in the shape and form of the bills of specimens of Nesonetta, due, no doubt, in part to the age of the specimens when killed, and the manner in which the bill was subsequently dried. The accompanying plate shows photographs of the bill of a specimen of Nesonetta just taken out of spirits. It will be noted that the gnathidia are spreading at the base. This bird was subsequently skinned, and after 48 hours' drying the gnathidia were compressed at the base, proving that this character is of no value diagnostically.
In the reticulate tarsus, Fleming himself places little reliance, so it will suffice to say that I have examined tarsi showing similar reticulations to those of his plate in both Nesonetta and Elasmonetta.
Fleming's description of the colouring of his bird fits specimen Av. 166.3* from the Auckland Museum, excepting for the feathers of the lower breast and abdomen which in the Auckland Museum bird have wide edgings of pale buff. His coloured figure† of the
[Footnote] * Av. 166.3 is labelled female, and is probably in its juvenal plumage.
[Footnote] † A hand-coloured figure of the type specimen sent by Mr. Fleming to Mr. R. A. Falla, Director of the Canterbury Museum
head and neck of Xenonetta show these parts to be identical with those of Av. 166.3, whose bill, which measures 34 mm., is narrow, not broad, and has the curious lines on the underside of the nail referred to by Fleming as a character of Xenonetta.
It is not only because the differences described by Fleming appear to me to be insufficient to warrant him in describing his bird as new, but also because I regard as insufficient the evidence that the specimen came from Campbell Island. It is true that it is labelled as from there, but mistakes in labelling birds are by no means uncommon, and mistake such as this one could easily occur through a slip of the tongue by Captain Fairchild or an error on the part of Captain T. E. Donne. Captain Fairchild would no doubt have been: mentioning several of the sub-antarctic islands and may uninentionally have given Captain Donne the impression that the bird came from Campbell Island, or the error may have been Captain Donne's. It must be remembered that, even to-day, very few New Zealanders who have not actually been to the sub-antarctic know anything about the islands there.
If a flightless duck had been obtained from Campbell Island it seems incredible that no one should have heard of it for fifty years. Reischek is reported by Fleming to have been told that flightless duck were on this island, but he did not see any. Surely this should be regarded as evidence against the existence of the duck there, rather than for it. Had Reischek not been told this, he might not have looked for the bird, but having been told it, he would certainly have made every effort to find it. I have asked two men in Bluff who were on Campbell Island for some years as shepherds if they had ever seen or heard of a flightless duck there, and they said they had not—that there were grey duck (Anas superciliosa) there, but no flightless duck. Captain Fairchild for many years after he is supposed to have taken this duck was in constant touch with Sir W. L. Buller. Throughout the latter's Supplement to the Birds of New Zealand he constantly acknowledges information and gifts of southern birds which he had received from Captain Fairchild. How can it be imagined that Fairchild, if he had taken a flightless duck on Campbell Island, should never have mentioned the extremely interesting fact to Buller?
Perhaps, however, the most conclusive evidence on this point is that of Mr. A. W. Bethune, late engineer of the Government boats, who visited the Campbell Islands on many occasions from the eighties onward. Mr. Bethune was a keen collector on these southern cruises and brought back many specimens of birds and eggs to Buller and others. In a letter to the writer he states that he never heard of a flightless duck being found in this locality. Mr. Bethune joined the Government steamer “Stella” on 4th June, 1885,* and would therefore have been on the “Stella” at the time when this flightless duck is supposed to have been collected on Campbell Island; yet he did not hear of it. In the face of this evidence, I think we may reasonably dismiss the claim that Mr. Fleming's specimen came from Campbell Island as unsubstantiated.
[Footnote] * Letter to the writer from the Secretary of the Marine Department, Wellington