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An essay by Louis Becke

Two Pacific Islands Birds: The South Sea Corncrake And The Tooth-Billed Pigeon

Title:     Two Pacific Islands Birds: The South Sea Corncrake And The Tooth-Billed Pigeon
Author: Louis Becke [More Titles by Becke]


Although I had often heard of the "corncrake" or landrail of the British Isles, I did not see one until a few years ago, on my first visit to Ireland, when a field labourer in County Louth brought me a couple, which he had killed in a field of oats. I looked at them with interest, and at once recognised a striking likeness in shape, markings and plumage to an old acquaintance--the shy and rather rare "banana-bird" of some of the Polynesian and Melanesian Islands. I had frequently when in Ireland heard at night, during the summer months, the repeated and harsh "crake, crake," of many of these birds, issuing from the fields of growing corn, and was very curious to see one, for the unmelodious cry was exactly like that of the _kili vao_, or "banana-bird" of the Pacific Islands. And when I saw the two corncrakes I found them to be practically the same bird, though but half the size of the _kili vao_.

_Kili vao_ in native means bush-snipe, as distinct from _kili fusi_, swamp snipe. It feeds upon ripe bananas, and papaws (mamee apples), and such other sweet fruit, that when over-ripe fall to the ground. It is very seldom seen in the day-time, when the sun is strong, though its hoarse frog-like note may often be heard in cultivated banana plantations, or on the mountain sides, where the wild banana thrives. At early dawn, or towards sunset, however, they come out from their retreats, and search for fallen bananas, papaws or guavas, and I have spent many a delightful half-hour watching them from my own hiding-place. Although they have such thick, long and clumsy legs, and coarse splay feet they run to and fro with marvelous speed, continually uttering their insistent croak. Usually they were in pairs, male and female, although I once saw a male and three female birds together. The former can easily be recognised, for it is considerably larger than its mate, and the coloration of the plumage on the back and about the eyes is more pronounced, and the beautiful quail-like semi-circular belly markings are more clearly defined. When disturbed, and if unable to run into hiding among the dead banana leaves, they rise and present a ludicrous appearance, for their legs hang down almost straight, and their flight is slow, clumsy and laborious, and seldom extends more than fifty yards.

The natives of the Banks and Santa Cruz Groups (north of the New Hebrides) assert that the _kili_ is a ventriloquist, and delights to "fool" any one attempting to capture it. "If you hear it call from the right, it is hiding to the left; and its mate is perhaps only two fathoms away from you, hiding under the fallen banana leaves, and pretending to be dead. And you will never find either, unless it is a dark night, and you suddenly light a big torch of dried coco-nut leaves; then they become dazed and stupid, and will let you catch them with your hand."

Whilst one cannot accept the ventriloquial theory, there can be no doubt of the extraordinary cunning in hiding, and noiseless speed on foot of these birds when disturbed. One afternoon, near sunset, I was returning from pigeon-shooting on Ureparapara (Banks Group) when in walking along the margin of a taro-swamp, which was surrounded by banana trees, a big _kili_ rose right in front of me, and before I could bring my gun to shoulder, my native boy hurled his shoulder-stick at it and brought it down, dead. Then he called to me to be ready for a shot at the mate, which, he said, was close by in hiding.

Walking very gently, he carefully scanned the dead leaves at the foot of the banana trees, and silently pointed to a heap which was soddened by rain.

"It is underneath there," he whispered, then flung himself upon the heap of leaves, and in a few seconds dragged out the prize--a fine full-grown female bird, beautifully marked. I put her in my game-bag. During our two-mile walk to the village she behaved in a disgusting manner, and so befouled herself (after the manner of a young Australian curlew when captured) that she presented a repellent appearance, and had such a disgusting odour that I was at first inclined to throw her--game-bag and all--away. However, my native boy washed her, and then we put her in a native pigeon cage. In the morning she was quite clean and dry, but persistently hid her head when any one approached, refused to take food and died two days later, although I kept the cage in a dark place.

These birds are excellent eating when not too fat; but when the papaws are ripe they become grossly unwieldy, and the whole body is covered with thick yellow fat, and the flesh has the strong sweet taste of the papaw. At this time, so the natives say, they are actually unable to rise for flight, and are easily captured by the women and children at work in the banana and taro plantations.

(Apropos of this common tendency of the flesh of birds to acquire the taste of their principal article of food, I may mention that in those Melanesian Islands where the small Chili pepper grows wild, the pigeons at certain times of the year feed almost exclusively upon the ripe berries, and their flesh is so pungent as to be almost uneatable. At one place on the littoral of New Britain, there is a patch of country covered with pepper trees, and it is visited by thousands of pigeons, who devour the berries, although their ordinary food of sweet berries was available in profusion in the mountain forests.)

On some of the Melanesian islands there is a variety of the banana-bird which frequents the yam and sweet potato plantation, digs into the hillocks with its power-fill feet, and feeds upon the tubers, as does the rare toothed-billed pigeon.

One day, when I was residing in the Caroline Islands, a pair of live birds were brought to me by the natives, who had snared them. They were in beautiful plumage, and I determined to try and keep them.

The natives quickly made me an enclosure about twenty feet square of bamboo slats about an inch or two apart, driving them into the ground, and making a "roof" of the same material, sufficiently high to permit of three young banana trees being planted therein. Then we quickly covered the ground with dead banana leaves, small sticks and other _debris_, and after making it as "natural" as possible, laid down some ripe bananas, and turned the birds into the enclosure. In ten seconds they had disappeared under the heap of leaves as silently as a beaver or a platypus takes to the water.

During the night I listened carefully outside the enclosure, but the captives made neither sound nor appearance. They were still "foxing," or as my Samoan servant called it, _le toga-fiti e mate_ (pretending to be dead).

All the following day there was not the slightest movement of the leaves, but an hour after sunset, when I was on my verandah, smoking and chatting with a fellow trader, a native boy came to us, grinning with pleasure, and told us that the birds were feeding. I had a torch of dried coco-nut leaves all in readiness. It was lit, and as the bright flame burst out, and illuminated the enclosure, I felt a thrill of delight--both birds were vigorously feeding upon a very ripe and "squashy" custard apple, disregarding the bananas. The light quite dazed them, and they at once ceased eating, and sat down in a terrified manner, with their necks outstretched, and their bills on the ground. We at once withdrew. In the morning, I was charmed to hear them "craking," and from that time forward they fed well, and afforded me many a happy hour in watching their antics. I was in great hopes of their breeding, for they had made a great pile of _debris_ between the banana trees, into which in the day-time they would always scamper when any one passed, and my natives told me that the end of the rainy season was the incubating period. As it was within a few weeks of that time, I was filled with pleasurable anticipations, and counted the days. Alas, for my hopes! One night, a predatory village pig, smelling the fruit which was always placed in the enclosure daily, rooted a huge hole underneath the bambods, and in the morning my pets were gone, and nevermore did I hear their hoarse crake! crake!--ever pleasing to me during the night.



THE TOOTH-BILLED PIGEON OF SAMOA--(_Didunculus Strigirostris_)

The recent volcanic outburst on the island of Savai'i in the Samoan Group, after a period of quiescence of about two hundred years, has, so a Californian paper states, revealed the fact that one of the rarest and most interesting birds in the world, and long supposed to be peculiar to the Samoan Islands, and all but extinct, is by no means so in the latter respect, for the convulsion in the centre of the island, where the volcanic mountain stands nearly 4,000 feet high, has driven quite a number of the birds to the littoral of the south coast. So at least it was reported to the San Francisco journal by a white trader residing on the south side of Savai'i during the outbreak.

For quite a week before the first tremors and groan-ings of the mountain were felt and heard, the natives said that they had seen _Manu Mea_ (tooth-billed pigeons) making their way down to the coast. Several were killed and eaten by children.

Before entering into my own experiences and knowledge of this extraordinary bird, gained during a seven years' residence in Samoa, principally on the island of Upolu, I cannot do better than quote from Dr. Stair's book, _Old Samoa_, his description of the bird. Very happily, his work was sent to me some years ago, and I was delighted to find in it an account of the _Manu Mea_ (red bird) and its habits. In some respects he was misinformed, notably in that in which he was told that the _Didunculus_ was peculiar to the Samoan Islands; for the bird certainly is known in some of the Solomon Islands, and also in the Admiralty Group--two thousand miles to the north-west of Samoa. Here, however, is what Dr. Stair remarks:--

"One of the curiosities of Samoan natural history is _Le Manu Mea_, or red bird of the natives, the tooth-billed pigeon (_Didunculus Strigirostris_, Peale), and is peculiar to the Samoan Islands. This remarkable bird, so long a puzzle to the scientific world, is only found in Samoa, and even there it has become so scarce that it is rapidly becoming extinct, as it falls an easy prey to the numerous wild cats ranging the forests. It was first described and made known to the scientific world by Sir William Jardine, in 1845, under the name of _Gnathodon Strigirostris_, from a specimen purchased by Lady Hervey in Edinburgh, amongst a number of Australian skins. Its appearance excited great interest and curiosity, but its true habitat was unknown until some time after, when it was announced by Mr. Strickland before the British Association at York, that Mr. Titian Peale, of the United States Exploring Expedition, had discovered a new bird allied to the dodo, which he proposed to name _Didunculus Strigirostris_. From the specimen in Sir William Jardine's possession the bird was figured by Mr. Gould in his _Birds of Australia_, and its distinctive characteristics shown; but nothing was known of its habitat. At that time the only specimens known to exist out of Samoa were the two in the United States, taken there by Commodore Wilkes, and the one in the collection of Sir William Jardine, in Edinburgh. The history of this last bird is singular, and may be alluded to here.

"To residents in Samoa the _Manu Mea_, or red bird, was well known by repute, but as far as I know, no specimen had ever been obtained by any resident on the islands until the year 1843, when two fine birds, male and female, were brought to me by a native who had captured them on the nest I was delighted with my prize, and kept them carefully, but could get no information whatever as to what class they belonged. After a time one was unfortunately killed, and not being able to gain any knowledge respecting the bird, I sent the surviving one to Sydney, by a friend, in 1843, hoping it would be recognised and described; but nothing was known of it there, and my friend left it with a bird dealer in Sydney, and returned to report his want of success. It died in Sydney, and the skin was subsequently sent to England with other skins for sale, including the skin of an Apteryx, from Samoa. Later on the skin of the _Manu Mea_ was purchased by Lady Hervey, and subsequently it came into the possession of Sir William Jar-dine, by whom it was described. Still nothing was known of its habitat--but this bird which I had originally sent to Sydney from Samoa was the means of bringing it under the notice of the scientific world, and thus in some indirect manner of obtaining the object I had in view.

"After my return to England, in 1846, the late Dr. Gray, of the British Museum, showed me a drawing of the bird, which I at once recognised; as also a drawing of a species of Apteryx which had been purchased in the same lot of skins. A native of Samoa, who was with me, at once recognised both birds. Dr. Gray and Mr. Mitchell (of the Zoological Gardens in London) were much interested in the descriptions I gave them, and urged that strong efforts should be made to procure living specimens. But no steps were taken to obtain the bird until fourteen years after, when, having returned to Australia, I was surprised to see a notice in the _Melbourne Argus_, of August 3, 1862, to the effect that the then Governor of Victoria, Sir Henry Barkley, had received a communication from the Zoological Society, London, soliciting his co-operation in endeavouring to ascertain further particulars as to the habitat of a bird they were desirous of obtaining; forwarding drawings and particulars as far as known at the same time; offering a large sum for living specimens or skins delivered in London. I at once recognised that the bird sought after was the _Manu Mea_, and gave the desired information and addresses of friends in Samoa, through whose instrumentality a living specimen was safely received in London, _via_ Sydney, on April 10, 1864, the Secretary of the Zoological Society subsequently writing to Dr. Bennett of Sydney, saying, 'The _La Hogue_ arrived on April 10, and I am delighted to be able to tell you that the _Didunculus_ is now alive, and in good health in the gardens, and Mr. Bartlett assures me is likely to do well'.

"In appearance the bird may be described as about the size of a large wood-pigeon, with similar legs and feet, but the form of its body more nearly resembles that of the partridge. The remarkable feature of the bird is that whilst its legs are those of a pigeon, the beak is that of the parrot family, the upper mandible being hooked like the parrot's, the under one being deeply serrated; hence the name, tooth-billed pigeon. This peculiar formation of the beak very materially assists the bird in feeding on the potato-loke root, or rather fruit, of the _soi_, or wild yam, of which it is fond. The bird holds the tuber firmly with its feet, and then rasps it upwards with its parrot-like beak, the lower mandible of which is deeply grooved. It is a very shy bird, being seldom found except in the retired parts of the forest, away from the coast settlements. It has great power of wing, and when flying makes a noise, which, as heard in the distance, closely resembles distant thunder, for which I have on several occasions mistaken it. It both roosts and feeds on the ground, as also on stumps or low bushes, and hence becomes an easy prey to the wild cats of the forest. These birds also build their nests on low bushes or stumps, and are thus easily captured. During the breeding season the male and female relieve each other with great regularity, and guard their nests so carefully that they fall an easy prey to the fowler; as in the case of one bird being taken its companion is sure to be found there shortly after. They were also captured with birdlime, or shot with arrows, the fowler concealing himself near an open space, on which some _soi_, their favourite food, had been scattered.

"The plumage of the bird may be thus described. The head, neck, breast, and upper part of the back is of greenish black. The back, wings, tail, and under tail coverts of a chocolate red. The legs and feet are of bright scarlet; the mandibles, orange red, shaded off near the tips with bright yellow."

Less than twenty years ago I was residing on the eastern end of Upolu (Samoa), and during my shooting excursions on the range of mountains that traverses the island from east to west, saw several _Didunculi_, and, I regret to say, shot two. For I had no ornithological knowledge whatever, and although I knew that the Samoans regarded the _Manu Mea_ as a rare bird, I had no idea that European savants and museums would be glad to obtain even a stuffed specimen. The late Earl of Pembroke, to whom I wrote on the subject from Australia, strongly urged me to endeavour to secure at least one living specimen; so also did Sir George Grey. But although I--like Mr. Stair--wrote to many native friends in Samoa, offering a high price for a bird, I had no success; civil war had broken out, and the people had other matters to think of beside bird-catching. I was, however, told a year later that two fine specimens had been taken on the north-west coast of Upolu, that one had been so injured in trapping that it died, and the other was liberated by a mischievous child.

I have never heard one of these birds sound a note, but a native teacher on Tutuila told me that in the mating season they utter a short, husky hoot, more like a cough than the cry of a bird.

A full month after I first landed in Samoa, I was shooting in the mountains at the back of the village of Tiavea in Upolu, when a large, and to me unknown, bird rose from the leaf-strewn ground quite near me, making almost as much noise in its flight as a hornbill. A native who was with me, fired at the same time as I did, and the bird fell. Scarcely had the native stooped to pick it up, exclaiming that it was a _Manu Mea_ when a second appeared, half-running, half-flying along the ground. This, alas! I also killed They were male and female, and my companion and I made a search of an hour to discover their resting place (it was not the breeding season), but the native said that the _Manu Mea_ scooped out a retreat in a rotten tree or among loose stones, covered with dry moss. But we searched in vain, nor did we even see any wild yams growing about, so evidently the pair were some distance from their home, or were making a journey in search of food.

During one of my trips on foot across Upolu, with a party of natives, we sat down to rest on the side of a steep mountain path leading to the village of Siumu. Some hundreds of feet below us was a comparatively open patch of ground--an abandoned yam plantation, and just as we were about to resume our journey, we saw two _Manu Mea_ appear. Keeping perfectly quiet, we watched them moving about, scratching up the leaves, and picking at the ground in an aimless, perfunctory sort of manner with their heavy, thick bills. The natives told me that they were searching, not for yams, but for a sweet berry called _masa'oi_, upon which the wild pigeons feed.

In a few minutes the birds must have become aware of our presence, for they suddenly vanished.

I have always regretted in connection with the two birds I shot, that not only was I unaware of their value, even when dead, but that there was then living in Apia a Dr. Forbes, medical officer to the staff of the German factory. Had I sent them to him, he could have cured the skins at least, for he was, I believe, an ardent naturalist.

[The end]
Louis Becke's Essay: Two Pacific Islands Birds: The South Sea Corncrake And The Tooth-Billed Pigeon