Buller’s Birds of New Zealand: A History of the Birds of New Zealand
The Shore Birds of North America
The two fine volumes whose titles are given above, though poles apart in conception as are the countries with which each is concerned, are not inappropriately reviewed here side by side; for while the bird fauna of New Zealand and North America could not be more dissimilar, they have one close link—the migratory shore birds, which, thanks to the more enlightened days in which we pretend we are living, can be sure of a welcome at each end of their immense journey, in place of a shower of shot. It is in fact from Northwest America that New Zealand receives some of its most interesting winter visitors—the farthest flying migrants from their Nearctic breeding grounds to the New Zealand shores.
Since the second edition of Buller’s Birds appeared in 1888, enormous strides have been made in our knowledge of migratory birds, and it is now realized that, in addition to the godwit and knot, both of which were known to Sir Walter Buller in his day, a number of other American shore birds regularly undertake this stupendous journey to and fro, while some, especially first-year birds, summer in New Zealand before returning “home.” When Sir Walter Buller was in New Zealand the bar-tailed godwit was locally known as the “curlew,” and the numbers of these unfortunate birds which were slain—in and out of shooting season—must have been incredible, until they left these inhospitable shores for yet another. It is now a protected species in New Zealand. Godwits and knots are often close companions in winter quarters, and, in a little book recently reviewed in these pages, it is stated that “mixed flocks in favored localities often contain many thousands of these ‘fellow travellers.’ ” From North America there also come to New Zealand in small numbers: sharp-tailed sandpipers, rufous-necked sandpipers, curlew sandpipers, long-billed curlews, and whimbrels; and few years are said to pass without reports of American pectoral sandpipers and Hudsonian godwits having reached New Zealand shores. There are several other “globe-spanners”—the sanderling is the best-known—which regularly make the journey: for example, the ruddy turnstone, so called in America to distinguish it from the Alaskan black turnstone which does not follow in the footsteps of its ruddy relation but stops short at the Straits of Magellan.
All these visitors to New Zealand, as well as several unmentioned, will be found discussed in Shore Birds of North America, where some are depicted in the color illustrations; but when Buller wrote his History of the Birds of New Zealand very few had been recognized. In the revised edition with new material added to much of the original text, the editor, E. G. Turbott, refers to some of these Birds of Passage (pp. 139-140).
THE NAME of Walter Lawry Buller is a household word to all students of bird life in the rich Australian region to this day, but there will be many readers of The New York Review who, although they may be interested in birds, have never even heard of him. Some introduction to the man himself and explanation of why a book written in 1887-8 is worth a new edition in 1967 are therefore called for. Walter Buller was born in 1838 in New Zealand, the son of a Cornishman who had come to the country two years earlier in charge of a Wesleyan Mission Station. Young Walter is said to have been academically inclined and intellectually brilliant; a chance meeting with the celebrated naturalist, William Swainson, whose friendship he gained, went far to influence the whole of his future life. Buller became fluent in the Maori language before the age of seventeen, an accomplishment which was to be of the greatest help when he came to study the birds of New Zealand.
Choosing law as his profession, Walter Buller was appointed a Resident Magistrate and Native Commissioner in 1862, a position he retained for several years. In 1871 we hear of him in England where he held an official appointment as Secretary to the Agent-General. Three years later, he was called to the English Bar and thereafter was frequently resident in Britain for short spells, representing his country in a number of official capacities. In that same year, 1874, he returned to legal practice in New Zealand, making his permanent home in Wellington, where he specialized in Maori land-claims and devoted himself with unbounded zest to his ornithological pursuits. Buller succeeded in gaining the interest of his government in an ambitious work on New Zealand birds which he had in preparation—a project which he finally brought to conclusion in 1873 with the publication of the first edition of A History of the Birds of New Zealand, a work which brought him wide renown. He again went to London in 1885 as New Zealand Commissioner at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, and a knighthood was conferred on him in 1886 by Her Majesty the Queen, who created him K.C.M.C. in recognition of his services as Commissioner.
The growing body of information on New Zealand birds soon called for a fresh publication, and a second edition of the History eventually made its appearance in 1887—a much more ambitious and more richly illustrated work. It came out in thirteen parts, in the custom of the day, and was finally completed in bound form in 1888. The edition was limited to 1,000 copies and the lithographic stones from which the beautiful plates had been printed were erased.
Buller chose for his illustrator Mr. J. G. Keulemans, a Dutchman considered to be the leading artist of the day. His earlier plates had already illustrated the original edition, but for the second edition of 1888 entirely new illustrations were planned. In a letter to the Australian Times Sir Richard Owen wrote: “The specimen part is illustrated by the most perfect colored figure of a beautiful bird that I ever saw in any work.” Readers of this new edition of the History can see for themselves how richly the compliment was deserved.
While Buller was a man of many interests apart from his legal and public work, he spent a great deal of time in the field, in search of birds in the most inaccessible parts of the islands. As an acute observer he was in a class by himself and, fortunately for those who came after him, he was a gifted writer.
NO ISLAND in the world holds such an array of rare and interesting birds as New Zealand, and we are indeed fortunate that Buller was present at a time when most species were sufficiently numerous to come under his notice. His descriptions of their manner of life are enthralling. I would particularly draw attention to his account of the HiHi—to use its Maori name—which is not only a romance in itself, but contains also a description of the feather robes to which the unfortunate HiHi had perforce to pay tribute: for one such garment presented to Her Majesty the Queen “some forty adult birds were placed in contribution.” (Yet another fine example of the Maori art is in the ethnological collection at the British Museum, in both of which is a bright margin of Tui and Pigeon feathers, to heighten the effect.)
Another remarkable bird is the Takahe (Plate 32), described as a ponderous, flightless, brilliantly colored gallinule with massive bill and legs, which for years was believed extinct but was dramatically rediscovered in grassland valleys over 2,000 feet in altitude, in 1948. These are only two of the amazing species discussed and illustrated in color in the new edition of this work. Many bear romantic Maori names: Kokako Huia, Tui, Kaka, Kea, Kakapo, Pukeko, and Weka. Dr. P. L. Sclater, F.R.S. referred to the Kakapo, or “owl parrot,” as “one of the most wonderful perhaps of all living birds.”
Flightless birds which had been able to evolve in the almost complete absence of carnivorous predators have always been a feature of the bird fauna. Some of the big Moas (Dinornis) survived into the seventeenth century, while today the flightless kiwis are the best known of the surviving species and are locally not uncommon. With such a wealth of new information about the birds and with such an array of plates by a leading artist, it is not surprising that a new edition of this work has been published.
EDITING A BOOK to conform with modern needs, especially one which has become a classic, is a very exacting task indeed, and it is fortunate that in this case it has been entrusted to such capable hands. Mr. Turbott has written a thoroughly sensible Introduction, which contains a wealth of information not only about Buller himself, and of how his second edition came to be published within fourteen years of his first History, but explains his own views as to what should or should not be included in this new text. Buller made the editor’s task all the easier in that in his original publication he had paid meticulous attention to the habits of the New Zealand birds and, while painting a rather gloomy picture about their future, owing—in his day—to the ruthless destruction of the primeval forests and the drainage of marshland to the detriment of the avifauna, he did, at the same time, provide first-hand information on the status of the various species during the violent change which accompanied European settlement of the land. All this is invaluable material for the student of the New Zealand ecology, now and in the future. For Mr. Keulemans’s beautiful plates there can be nothing but approval. I have not actually compared the reproductions with the originals, but they appear first class.
It has been Mr. Turbott’s wise aim to preserve Buller’s popular history, omitting only those portions of the text not strictly related to the species under discussion. The result is an even more readable text. Buller himself was a very good naturalist and writer, able to convey splendid portraits of the birds he had studied without recourse to flowery language or the horrible abbreviated prose to which we have now grown used. Buller lived in an age when the life habits of the birds mattered more than their biological significance, the craze for which has ruined ornithological literature for so many of us, resulting in appallingly dry papers and books.
Mr. Turbott’s practice is to give, under the English name in bold capitals, the Maori name and the Latin name (with author and date of the birds’ first description) in small type. Then follows a paragraph with up-to-date information on each bird concerned. Buller’s text itself follows. The result is a fine book. It must, however, be borne in mind that only those birds which Buller had illustrated in his History, with a few additional species, are included. The History (1888) had included all the native species known at that time. Readers requiring the complete list should obtain the Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand (reviewed in these pages October 26, 1967), of which Mr. Turbott was one of the three distinguished authors.
The big book now reprinted is embellished with 48 plates in color by the late J. G. Keulemans, reproductions of the stone plate lithographs from the second edition of the original work. It is a very large book (14 3/10 × 10 inches), and was printed in Japan. While the greatest credit for this fine work must go to Sir Walter Buller himself, ornithologists in every country will be grateful to Mr. Turbott for this scholarly new edition.
SIR WALTER BULLER continued to work actively in ornithology in New Zealand until his departure to live in London in 1898. He died in London in July 1906, the recipient of many honors. He has often been criticized for the large collections he built up of species which he himself foresaw would have a tremendous struggle to survive against the inroads of Man, but it must be acknowledged, as Mr. Turbott has stressed, that taking so much life was chiefly in the course of his own study, and local opinion in New Zealand has cleared his name of the charge that he collected for pecuniary gain. It is perfectly permissible to exchange specimens—all the great museums of Europe and America do so—but how galling to British ornithologists to remember the circumstances which robbed England of the second Buller collection, once the proud possession of the incomparable Tring Museum and now removed forever to New York.
The Shore Birds of North America is a remarkably fine production which should please professional ornithologists, bird-lovers, and artistically minded people all over the world, for the thirty-two picture plates by Robert Verity Clem are striking and unusual examples of bird-portraiture, matching the authoritative text by Peter Matthiessen and Ralf S. Palmer.
The book is very large (14 1/2” * 10 1/2”) and weighs approximately five pounds. It has been sumptuously produced by the Viking Press: printing, large fount, paper, and binding are all excellent, and the plates have evidently been reproduced by expensive six-color lithography. The illustrations have been painted by Mr. Clem in “opaque water color.” Their generous size provides the artist with space in which to group together half a dozen figures of more than one species which habitually consort with one another on shore and marsh, all in natural postures. The result is exceptionally pleasing and marks Mr. Clem as an artist of outstanding merit. It is as if the watcher were looking down on the birds from a slight elevation, such as the crest of a sandhill, upon birds on the shore below. Plate 20, for example, is a very pleasing picture of a group of sandpipers, some asleep, others resting on one leg.
A striking feature in Mr. Clem’s paintings are the realistic backgrounds against which the birds are shown; the rock work and boiling sea in Plate 17, where the black oyster-catcher is the centerpiece (are its legs really so heavy and its toes so short?) are both splendidly shown in this picture. We might even have supposed the backgrounds to have come from photographs had we not been told of the exact areas which the sponsor and artist visited together to obtain knowledge of the true habitats before the pictures were painted. Some of the results obtained are bird-portraiture at its best. However, as there will be many non-American purchasers of this handsome book, it is a pity that the American colloquial names of the birds, printed on the page opposite each plate, are not accompanied by the Latin names also, for there are many Europeans and others who are unfamiliar with snowy plovers, willets, tattlers, and surf-birds, to mention but four local species, and they will need to turn to the second half of the book for enlightenment.
Scattered through the text are charming black and white drawings (not in line), by the same talented artist. Peter Matthiessen, who has written the main text, is well known for his books on American wildlife. Mr. Matthiessen rightly styles his text “an essay on the shore birds.” His eleven chapters should be read in sequence if a proper appreciation of their contents is to be gained. If read in a haphazard fashion they are apt to be somewhat confusing, for many subjects or species are discussed, often on a single page. There is, however, more sense in Mr. Matthiessen’s arrangement than appears at first glance: Chapter One serves as a general introduction to the shore-bird families; Two, to their characteristics: bathing, feeding, preening, and so on. Chapters Three and Four mainly discuss the mechanics of flight and the great distances covered by some: e.g., the greater yellow-legs flies from “Tierra del Fuego to Alaska careless of company,” whereas stilts and jaçanas are with us all the year, and oyster-catchers and some other species migrate only locally. In Chapter Five we learn of the astonishing feat of the spotted sandpiper which can fly straight up out of the water and straight into it (if pursued), continuing its escape under water and using its wings for the purpose; in Chapter Six the author stresses taxonomic difficulties at the present day and the influence of comparative behavior on classification.
APROPOS the problem of classification, how wise was Darwin’s observation “Too much systematic work…somewhat blunts the faculties.” The reviewer cordially agrees with Mr. Matthiessen when he remarks: “It seems too bad in any case that so much energy is spent in taxonomic haggling, especially when more basic questions remain un-answered.”
The reckless lumping of species and genera, so rife in certain quarters in America, is causing much confusion in nomenclature. The endless chopping and changing of names and merging of genera appears inexhaustible. American ornithologists would do well to look at their own National Museum in Washington for guidance, whence came the widely praised Wetmore System of classification.
The Appendix to this book by Ralf S. Palmer discusses the sequence of plumage succession in the wading birds, and is a valuable introduction to the important final half of the text entitled “Species Accounts” by the same writer. Dr. Palmer was a wise choice in this connection as he is presently engaged on a stupendous work, A Handbook of North American Birds. A professional zoologist, he is eminently fitted to discuss the shore birds from the strictly scientific viewpoint. He starts off well by retaining the black oyster-catchers under their specific names, with none of the nonsense of lumping them with the Eurasian species of ostralegus. We hope he will not be carried too far to the left by the biologists.
In this important part of the book Dr. Palmer deals species by species with plumage, field identification, voice habitat, distribution, breeding, and general habits, and he has added a section headed “Further Reading,” a subject about which few people are likely to agree. What Dr. Palmer has to tell us is just what is most needed to enable the serious ornithologist to have his queries answered quickly and concisely without having to wade through a mass of irrelevant text, while at the same time he can enjoy Mr. Matthiessen’s interesting and informative but more rambling essays in his leisure hours.
The “Selective Bibliography” arranged according to authors’ names is presumably Mr. Matthiessen’s contribution, since it comes at the end of his section; it is certainly open to criticism. Why on earth has the writer included such numbered items as “correspondence with the author” or “conversation with the author” in such a list without explanation, and omitted such an important work as Finn Salomonsen’s Greenland’s Birds, to name but one obvious omission?
The Index on pp. 268-270 refers mainly to Dr. Palmer’s section of the book. We trust that in due course this authority will provide us with a full bibliography on the Charadriiformes. He might find some useful early titles in the late Dr. Carmichael Low’s second edition of The Literature of the Charadriiformes (1931) when he compiles a list for his Handbook.
The Shore Birds of North America will be an ornament to every library worthy of the name and will give a great deal of pleasure to everyone, however distant from the shores of North America, who is interested in the great family of birds with which it deals. American shore birds are without doubt among the greatest travelers on earth. We must be grateful to Mr. Gardner D. Stout for having sponsored this useful work in the cause of science, and for having gathered such an efficient team to carry out so successfully his ambitious plans.