Picturesque New Zealand/Chapter 18

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Picturesque New Zealand by David Paul Gooding
Chapter XVIII


CHAPTER XVIII

Unusual Zoölogy—The Gigantic Moa—Interesting Birds of To-day—A Land of Many Fishes—The Long Fish of Maui

Zoölogically New Zealand is as remarkable as it is botanically. But this is true mainly in a negative sense. In one case nature has been prodigal, in the other case it has been one-sided and parsimonious.

Within New Zealand's borders Nimrod would have found nothing worthy of his prowess, unless it were the long-extinct moa or an incarnated taniwha. Excepting what has been introduced, its land mammalia is confined to two species of bat. It has no snakes, no land reptiles, barring lizards, and with the exception of the katipo spider there are no poisonous insects.

In its avi-fauna New Zealand has been strangely and bountifully favored. It has land birds that cannot fly and migrating birds that cross oceans, even to remote Siberia. And in the days when some birds were far taller than men, it had gigantic avi-fauna of which single specimens were almost large enough for a tribal feast.

Why has New Zealand been so generously blest with flora and so niggardly supplied with land fauna of the reptilian and mammalian branches? Why, as it seems to have been connected with Australia, has it no kangaroos or wombats, no duck-billed platypus, or any of the many species of snakes found in the island continent? Why, too, has New Zealand none of the animals of South America or of South Africa, if, as extinct land insects, worms, and shells indicate, it was a part of these continents? No man knows.

New Zealand has been especially favored with flightless birds. Now these are comparatively rare, but hundreds of years ago they were plentiful. The greatest of these was the ostrich-like moa (Dinornithidæ), evidently the largest creature that ever existed in New Zealand. The moa was absolutely wingless, it apparently was slow and stupid, and some of the eighteen known species were ridiculously squatty. Of the squatty sort was the Dinornis elphantopus which, though the heaviest built, was only half as tall as some other species.

The moa's height was from two to eleven feet; the tallest had a leg five and one half feet long. The neck was very long; some of the bones of the largest birds were five or six inches in maximum diameter at the joints; the largest eggs had a lengthwise diameter of nearly a foot; and gizzard stones were from one fourth of an inch to an inch thick. From head to legs—in some species to toes—the bird was covered with short, soft feathers similar to the feathers of the emu and the cassowary, and there are indications that some moas had a tuft of feathers on the head.

The moa existed at least as far back as the Pliocene age. In the Pleistocene period a very large percentage of moas died, possibly as a result of the long, cold winters common to that age; and in large quantities their bones were washed into lakes and swamps or buried in sand-dunes and river alluvium. In Glenmark Swamp, Canterbury, the remains of more than a thousand have been found, and in Southland fully four hundred skeletons were discovered within a radius of twenty-five feet.

Following the Pleistocene age the moas increased as the climate became more equable, and when the Maoris arrived they were plentiful in both islands. In vague Maori legends the moa's extinction is ascribed to fire and earthquake, but it is generally believed by authorities that the Maoris themselves exterminated the bird, probably three or four hundred years ago.

Of living birds New Zealand has a great variety. The land birds, which are far outnumbered by water and shore birds, are noted for their difference from the land birds of all other countries. Three of them—the kiwi, weka and kakapo—cannot fly, and the fern bird, now seldom seen, flies weakly.

The most singular of these birds is the kiwi (Apteryx), a long-billed bush bird that sleeps during the day. The kiwi, of which there are brown and gray species, has a peculiar shape. It has no tail, and in appearance is a cross between a football and a gourd. The bird nests in holes and hollow logs, and close observers say that apparently its eyesight is defective and that it is guided almost wholly by smell. In its egg-laying capacity the kiwi is, perhaps, the most unusual bird in the world. Although only as large as an ordinary domestic fowl, it lays an egg five inches long and three inches wide and averaging between eleven and twelve ounces in weight. It has been suggested that prior to laying the hen actually undergoes confinement.

The kakapo, or road-making parrot, finds itself in a peculiar predicament. Its wings are eleven inches long, yet their muscles are so weak that the bird cannot fly. The tracks of this night bird are sometimes more than a foot wide, and in snow they can be followed for miles. It is doubtful if the world has a more economical road maker than the kakapo. This enthusiastic vegetarian eats the greater part of the roots and grass he removes.

A rare bird very much prized by the Maoris is the huia, the long, black tail-feathers of which, tipped with white, are proudly worn by them in their hair and on their hats. The most striking fact about the huia is the difference between the bills of the sexes. The male has a short, straight beak, but that of the female is long and curved. Each bill performs a distinct service. When seeking grubs the male enlarges the grub's hole and the female draws the insect out.

Of New Zealand's singing birds the finest are the tui, or parson bird, the korimako, or bell bird, and the native crow. The parson bird—so named because of the white tuft of feathers under its throat—is truly a wonderful singer. Whenever I heard its marvelous tones—now like a bell, now like an anvil, again like a flute—I was constrained to halt in admiration. So clear are the tui's notes that they have been mistaken for anvil blows.

In strength of wing one of New Zealand's most
Kiwi and egg Picturesque New Zealand 1913.jpg

KIWI AND EGG

extraordinary birds is the long-billed godwit. Every year the godwit makes a return journey of about fifteen thousand miles between the North Island and eastern Siberia. Arriving in New Zealand in September and October—spring in the Southern Hemisphere—it remains until autumn, and then takes flight for Asia.

Two other migrating birds are the shining cuckoo and the long-tailed cuckoo, the first arriving in New Zealand from New Guinea, the other from Polynesia. Considering the cuckoo's small size, this is a wonderful flight.

An astonishing feature of bird life in New Zealand is its great number of shags, or cormorants. That country has fourteen species, or half as many as are found in the entire world. The presence of so many shags there is accounted for by assuming that in ages past, when there was far more land in this part of the world, New Zealand was the meeting-place of two streams of birds, one from the Malay Archipelago and New Caledonia, the other from Antarctica.

The largest sea-bird in New Zealand waters is the albatross. Some of these birds are eighteen inches high, and their wings have a spread of from ten to fourteen feet.

A salt-water bird that is of uncommon interest because of its association with the tuatara lizard is Cook's petrel, a species of the mutton bird. So plentiful is this bird on the east coast of the North Island that cliffs are perforated with its burrows. Frequently it shares its home with the lizard, and the two seem to live peaceably together. The reptile can make its own burrows, and for egg-laying it does; but it prefers basking to burrowing.

For fishermen New Zealand is, like all other good fishing regions of the earth, "a paradise." All around its coasts is a great variety of fish, and in hundreds of lakes and streams trout are found. Altogether New Zealand has about two hundred and thirty kinds of fish, including mackerel, bream, mullet, flounder, barracouta, cod, butter-fish, herring, trumpeter, king-fish, and groper. It also has the very singular frost-fish, which is never taken with hook or net, but swims ashore, especially on frosty mornings; and the peculiar deep-sea ribbon-fish, which loses its swimming power and floats as helplessly as a block of wood when it chances to come near the surface.

Such a fishing country is Aotearoa that English and Scottish sportsmen annually go there to catch trout; and the Liberal Government, seeing another opportunity to distinguish itself, became a fishmonger not long before the Conservatives relieved it of its fishing gear. In the thermal wonderland trout commonly weigh from ten to twenty pounds, and they are so plentiful there that on the shores of Lake Taupo and along the Tongariro River Maoris are said to feed them to pigs.

New Zealand is celebrated not only for its fish resources. It is renowned for one of the biggest fish stories the world has ever heard. Unlike others, this tale has not expanded with repetition; apparently it is big enough to satisfy the most extravagant story-teller. Any fisherman who can make such a catch as did the man this story concerns certainly deserves some free advertising; and that is what the Maori demigod, Maui, has been getting ever since, as tradition records, he fished the North Island, "The Fish of Maui," from the sea with the jawbone of his grandfather, or, as some accounts have it, of his grandmother. This is the same stalwart who previously belabored the sun with this same mighty bone, and, by crippling te ra, made the days longer.

Had Maui followed his own inclination he would not have become the central figure of a tale which allegorically describes the discovery of a new land. Maui was not fond of fishing, and only relatives' contemptuous references to his idleness caused him to go to sea on this eventful day. Hidden in his mat he carried the jawbone, which he had fashioned into a hook. Seeing no fishing-tackle in his hands, Maui's brethren laughed at him, and asked him how he expected to catch fish without hook and lines.

Unruffled by their sarcasm, Maui continued to urge his brothers to go seaward until they lost sight of land. Then Maui dropped his tackle into the sea, and the jawbone, descending to the ocean's bottom, became fastened in the house of Tonganui, Tangaroa's son. To the accompaniment of cries of terror from his kindred, Maui pulled until "the turbid ocean boils, the mountain-tops are near, and many a whirling vortex roars." Then "Ha! the fish of Maui rises from the waters—a land fish—a spacious country—Papa-tu-a-nuku!"

After the fish was taken, Maui told his brothers to remain behind while he went a short distance to offer a piece of the catch to the gods, at the same time cautioning them against touching the fish until his return. His caution was wasted; as soon as Maui had disappeared the brothers cut and ate portions of the fish. This sacrilege so angered Tangaroa, the Maoris' Neptune, that he caused the fish to leap about until it was badly deformed. It is thus that this legend accounts for the formation of the mountains of the North Island.