THE BIRDS OF NEW ZEALAND.
A CELEBRATED naturalist has said that "New Zealand is .1.A_ the most interesting ornithological province in the world," and Mr. Bailer's exhaustive history of its birds seems to justify the assertion. Our distant, beautiful, romantic colony, the last remnant of a former continent, and geologically considered, proba- bly the oldest country on the face of our globe, contains at the present day the only living representatives of an extinct race of wonderful birds. It is by a difficult and vague effort of imagi- nation only that we can picture to ourselves the aspect of the world in the time when the huge creatures to whom modern science has assigned names as clumsy and impracticable as their gigantic frames, had the mud and the forests, the caverns and the ice- fields, all to themselves ; when the cave-bear had no prevision of an insignificant animal with two legs and a smooth skin who should teach his ursine descendants to dance ; when the Arctic reindeer slept with his nose in the snow, un- troubled by a dream of sledges to be drawn by degenerate antlered serfs in the far future, and when the mammoth ancestors of "the earth-shaking beast" made war on their own account. There is an immeasurable distance between the wildest image of desolation, the grandest picture of untrodden solitude on the face of the earth, as it now is, and the contemplation of it in those awful far-off years, when,— " No ship went o'er the waters wide, no boat with oar or sail,
But the wastes of the sea were tenanted by the dragon and the whale."
It is so difficult for the lords of the creation to picture the wide world without any trace or promise of themselves in it, pervaded by strange forms of animal life, full of motion and instinct, but silent from articulate speech. But the bird-world of New Zealand is more easily imagined ; it remained undisturbed by the presence of man so much longer ; its magnificent forests, its coasts, swept by the vastest stretch of ocean in the world, were, until 500 years ago, the home of beautiful winged and wingless creatures which belonged to the prehistoric times. Throughout the para- disaical land, with its mighty mountains, its glaciers, its pleasant valleys, its great sweeps of rich flax-bearing country, its long stretches of undulating fern downs, its copses of tropical trees, its precipitous gorges, its beneficent streams, there have been found no traces of animals which could have warred with or hurt the birds. Brute enemies came in with human invaders, but when Captain Cook first visited New Zealand he found only the native rat (smaller than the Hanoverian) and a little green lizard. Through what unnumbered ages had the birds had it all to themselves, before the ancestors of the Maories came in canoes across 3,000 miles of ocean from the Sandwich Islands, five centuries ago, and, it may be, beholding the gigantic Moa assembling in crowds to observe the strangers—whom they would not dread, having never known fear—took them for some terrible kind of warriors in feathered panoply. Were there
traditions among the plumed giant-warders of the great island of the awful ancientness of days when the land stretched on and on, to distances which even the flight of the frigate-bird could not have compassed, until a time came when immeasurable mountain- bearing tracts of it went down into the deep, and the waste of waters rolled where it had been? If, from age to age, the birds did really "confabulate," what wonderful traditions of nature must have died out with that last Moa, of which the natives tell.
At Punakitiri-Turanga, in the North Island, it lived, say the Maori, in its solitary old age, and when resting, stood always on one foot, with its beak turned towards the quarter whence the wind blew.
A weird sight it must have been, in its height and bulk like Sindbad's roc, with ostrich head and the wide, bright, long- lashed eye of the desert-bird, which sees the simoom-laden wind before the red sands have begun their deadly dance along the red horizon. The songs and traditions of the Maori frequently refer to the wearing of the feathers of the Moa by queenly damsels and princely chieftains; and some of the early colonists remember chiefs, whose veracity they could not doubt, who assured them that they had often seen the beautiful rare feathers of the renowned bird of their ancestors. It is gone, with the Great Auk, the Dodo, and the scarlet-robed Aphanapteryx of Mauritius, but it is more interesting than any of them, as the chief of a great bird. kingdom, unshared by other animal life. Perhaps the giants did not rule,—it may be that the dwarfs had the best of it there, too, being, even among birds, "mostly sassy,"—but how grand they must have looked !
Immense numbers of other huge wingless birds, of various genera and species, existed in New Zealand within recent historic times ; and their diminutive representatives (the different species of Apteryx) still exist, but they are rapidly disappearing, dying out by decay, under the changed physical conditions of the country, and being killed out by the beasts which would have had no chance with their great ancestors. A tap from the beak of a Moa would have done the work of a modern poleaxe, but Mr.
Buller altogether discredits the story of the Kiwi's being" capable of inflicting a dangerous blow, sometimes even killing a dog." A complete life-history of these birds before their final extirpation, such as Mr. Buller gives us, is deeply interesting from every point of view, of course to the scientific, but also to the unscientific mind, for which the tenants of the bird-world have a fanciful charm, not only in their beauty and their joyfulness, but because they must be sought for in the hidden places of nature, in bush, swamp, and jungle. The ground-birds, as we may call the wingless creatures, resemble no others in shape, and though no larger than guinea-fowl, their legs are as powerful as those of an ostrich. Mr. Buller had seventeen of them in his possession at different times,—three had been caught by muzzled dogs in the groves and marshes of the Upper Wanganui, the last stronghold of the Apteryx ip the North Island, where they used to travel in companies of from six to twelve, and make the country resound at night with their shrill cry. One fine female Kiwi was brought from Banana by a native, who had taken it from a small natural cavity on a wild hill-side. Its skeleton is in the University Museum at Cambridge now, and this is a brief account of it in captivity :—" During the day it retires into a small dark chamber, where it remains coiled up in the form of a ball, and if disturbed or dislodged, moves drowsily about, and seeks the darkest corner of its prison, when it immediately rolls itself again into an attitude of repose. Night is the time of its activity, and the whole nature of the bird then undergoes a change ; coming forth from its diurnal retreat full of animation, it moves about the aviary unceasingly, tapping the walls with its long slender bill, and pro- bing the ground in search of earthworms. The feeding of this bird at night with the large glowworm (" toki-tipa" of the natives) is a very interesting sight. This annelid, which often attains a length of 12, and sometimes 20 inches, with a proportionate thickness, emits at night a bright phosphoric light. The mucous matter which adheres to its body appears to be charged with the phosphorus, and on its being disturbed or irritated, the whole surface of the worm is illumined with a bright green light, sufficiently strong to render adjacent objects distinctly visible. Seizing one of these long worms in its large mandibles, the Kiwi proceeds to kill it by striking it rapidly on the ground or against some hard object. During this operation the bird may be distinctly seen under the phosphoric light ; and the slime which attaches itself to the head and bill renders those parts highly phosphorescent, so that, even after the luminous body itself has been swallowed, the actions of the bird are sti,11 visible. There is no longer the slow and half-stupid movement of the head and neok, but the bill is darted forward with a restless activity, and travels over the surface of the ground with a continued sniffing sound, as if the bird were guided more by scent than by sight in its search for food." The captive birds never uttered the loud whistling cry which fills the mountain-haunts of the Kiwi with sound, and the old ones shun the sight of man, trying vainly to hide themselves. Mr. Buller at first believed that only one species of brown apteryx existed, but he is now convinced that there are two, readily distinguishable from each other by a remarkable difference in the structure of their plumage. The grey Kiwi is still abundant, bat is never seen in the North Island, and the diggers are doing their best to exterminate it, by eating itself and its eggs. Though, perhaps, these fast-disappearing creatures have the greatest interest for us, being links between our little day and the nnsearchable past for whose lore we yearn, the avifauna of New Zealand is rich in other special features which are full of charm. A large proportion of the genera are peculiar to the country, while some of the forms are perfectly anomalous, being entirely without a parallel in any other part of the world. And those that are not quite strange to us, how bright and beauti- ful they are ! The birds of the Brazil, and of Borneo, the butterflies of the Malaccas, and of Mariposa, their own espe- cial grove, are not more brilliant and graceful than the birds which Mr. Buller has drawn for us, with all the grand and various surroundings of their dwelling-places. How birds are missed where they are not, travellers have told us. Humbert is dis- posed to attribute the absence of emotion with which he contem- plated the bright, beautiful landscapes of Japan to the want of the sweet and Joyous notes of song-birds. Near home, we have all missed them in the stately glades of Fontainebleau. In Ireland, a place where birds do not sing is " suspect,"— something " unlucky " lurks there ; crime and sorrow have passed over it at some time, and the air is weighted by them, so that the fleet wing cannot cleave it, and the sweet, piercing note of praise and gladness cannot rise upon it. Where the skylark may not warble, evil things have been. In the Australian bush the mocking-bird is a relief, and in the Arctic solitudes the clang of the sea-fowl is music to the ear. But the New-Zealand settler, in remote places, and on the borders of the great forests, has his morning concert at the dawn of day, when the famous Campanile with its silver- tone rings out the Angelus in the stillness, and all the plumed choristers, robed in many colours, take up the strain. The ocean birds are numerous and beautiful, the rivers and lakes of the in- terior swarm with wild-fowl, and the solemn, ghostly white crane, which, in Japan, attends sedately upon the toilers in the rice wamps, inhabits remote places in New Zealand. "As solitary as white crane" is a proverb among the Maories, who are distin- guished by'their habits of accurate observation of the facts of nature. They dearly love their birds, and watch the decline of many of the ancient species with regret. They account in a strange way for the gradual disappearance of the small native birds, alleging that they are in the habit of gathering their food by dipping their long tongues into the blossoms of native trees, but that since the intro- duction of bees the latter have likewise sought the same blossoms for honey, and while concealed in the flower have stung the tongues of the birds, and so caused their death. Then, in their melancholy and poetical way, they compare the condition and fate of.the birds with their own, and observe, that while unconscious of the dangers introduced by civilisation, they are exposed to its pit-falls, and become its victims, and in the same manner as the birds are themselves gradually disappearing. The study of the wonderful collection which Mr. Buller has made has many-sided attractions, but none greater than in the image which it suggests of a land of exquisite beauty, once inhabited only by the fairest and brightest of creatures, and in which dwelt no hateful or hurtful thing.