A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 9

Plants of Canterbury — Turnip — Tutu — Ferns — Ti Palm — Birds — Paradise Duck — Tern — Quail — Wood Hen — Robin — Linnet — Pigeon — Moa — New Parroquet — Quadrupeds — Eels — Insects — Weta — Lizards.

The flora of this province is very disappointing, and the absence of beautiful flowers adds to the uninteresting character which too generally pervades the scenery, save among the great Southern Alps themselves. There is no burst of bloom as there is in Switzerland and Italy, and the trees being, with few insignificant exceptions, all evergreen, the difference between winter and summer is chiefly perceptible by the state of the grass and the temperature. I do not know one really pretty flower which belongs to the plains; I believe there are one or two, but they are rare, and form no feature in the landscape. I never yet saw a blue flower growing wild here, nor indeed one of any other colour but white or yellow; if there are such they do not prevail, and their absence is sensibly felt. We have no soldanellas and auriculas, and Alpine cowslips, no brilliant gentians and anemones. We have one very stupid white gentian; but it is, to say the least of it, uninteresting to a casual observer. We have violets, very like those at home, but they are small and white, and have no scent. We have also a daisy, very like the English, but not nearly so pretty; we have a great ugly sort of Michaelmas daisy too, and any amount of spaniard. I do not say but that by hunting on the peninsula, one might find one or two beautiful species, but simply that on the whole the flowers are few and ugly. The only plant good to eat is Maori cabbage, and that is swede turnip gone wild, from seed left by Captain Cook. Some say it is indigenous, but I do not believe it. The Maoris carry the seed about with them, and sow it wherever they camp. I should rather write, used to sow it where they camped, for the Maoris in this island are almost a thing of the past.

The root of the spaniard, it should be added, will support life for some little time.

Tutu (pronounced toot) is a plant which abounds upon the plains for some few miles near the river-beds; it is at first sight not much unlike myrtle, but is in reality a wholly different sort of plant; it dies down in the winter, and springs up again from its old roots. These roots are sometimes used for firewood, and are very tough, so much so as not unfrequently to break ploughs. It is poisonous for sheep and cattle if eaten on an empty stomach.

New Zealand is rich in ferns. We have a tree-fern which grows as high as twenty feet. We have also some of the English species; among them I believe the Hymenophyllum Tunbridgense, with many of the same tribe. I see a little fern which, to my eyes, is our English Asplenium Trichomanes. Every English fern which I know has a variety something like it here, though seldom identical. We have one to correspond with the adder’s tongue and moonwort, with the Adiantum nigrum and Capillus Veneris, with the Blechnum boreale, with the Ceterach and Ruta muraria, and with the Cystopterids. I never saw a Woodsia here; but I think that every other English family is represented, and that we have many more besides. On the whole, the British character of many of the ferns is rather striking, as indeed is the case with our birds and insects; but, with a few conspicuous exceptions, the old country has greatly the advantage over us.

The cabbage-tree or ti palm is not a true palm, though it looks like one. It has not the least resemblance to a cabbage. It has a tuft of green leaves, which are rather palmy-looking at a distance, and which springs from the top of a pithy, worthless stem, varying from one to twenty or thirty feet in height. Sometimes the stem is branched at the top, and each branch ends in a tuft. The flax and the cabbage-tree and the tussock-grass are the great botanical features of the country. Add fern and tutu, and for the back country, spear-grass and Irishman, and we have summed up such prevalent plants as strike the eye.

As for the birds, they appear at first sight very few indeed. On the plains one sees a little lark with two white feathers in the tail, and in other respects exactly like the English skylark, save that he does not soar, and has only a little chirrup instead of song. There are also paradise ducks, hawks, terns, red-bills, and sand-pipers, seagulls, and occasionally, though very rarely, a quail.

The paradise duck is a very beautiful bird. The male appears black, with white on the wing, when flying: when on the ground, however, he shows some dark greys and glossy greens and russets, which make him very handsome. He is truly a goose, and not a duck. He says “whiz” through his throat, and dwells a long time upon the “z.” He is about the size of a farmyard duck. The plumage of the female is really gorgeous. Her head is pure white, and her body beautifully coloured with greens and russets and white. She screams, and does not say “whiz.” Her mate is much fonder of her than she is of him, for if she is wounded he will come to see what is the matter, whereas if he is hurt his base partner flies instantly off and seeks new wedlock, affording a fresh example of the superior fidelity of the male to the female sex. When they have young, they feign lameness, like the plover. I have several times been thus tricked by them. One soon, however, becomes an old bird oneself, and is not to be caught with such chaff any more. We look about for the young ones, clip off the top joint of one wing, and leave them; thus, in a few months’ time, we can get prime young ducks for the running after them. The old birds are very bad eating. I rather believe they are aware of this, for they are very bold, and come very close to us. There are two that constantly come within ten yards of my hut, and I hope mean to build in the neighbourhood, for the eggs are excellent. Being geese, and not ducks, they eat grass. The young birds are called flappers till they can fly, and can be run down easily.

The hawk is simply a large hawk, and to the unscientific nothing more. There is a small sparrow-hawk, too, which is very bold, and which will attack a man if he goes near its nest.

The tern is a beautiful little bird about twice as big as a swallow, and somewhat resembling it in its flight, but much more graceful. It has a black satin head, and lavender satin and white over the rest of its body. It has an orange bill and feet; and is not seen 4 in the back country during the winter.

The red-bill is, I believe, identical with the oyster-catcher of the Cornish coast. It has a long orange bill, and orange feet, and is black and white over the body.

The sand-piper is very like the lark in plumage.

The quail is nearly exterminated. It is exactly like a small partridge, and is most excellent eating. Ten years ago it was very abundant, but now it is very rarely seen. The poor little thing is entirely defenceless; it cannot take more than three flights, and then it is done up. Some say the fires have destroyed them; some say the sheep have trod on their eggs; some that they have all been hunted down: my own opinion is that the wild cats, which have increased so as to be very numerous, have driven the little creatures nearly off the face of the earth.

There are wood hens also on the plains; but, though very abundant, they are not much seen. The wood hen is a bird rather resembling the pheasant tribe in plumage, but not so handsome. It has a long, sharp bill and long feet. It is about the size of a hen. It cannot fly, but sticks its little bob-tail up and down whenever it walks, and has a curious Paul–Pry-like gait, which is rather amusing. It is exceedingly bold, and will come sometimes right into a house. It is an arrant thief, moreover, and will steal anything. I know of a case in which one was seen to take up a gold watch, and run off with it, and of another in which a number of men, who were camping out, left their pannikins at the camp, and on their return found them all gone, and only recovered them by hearing the wood hens tapping their bills against them. Anything bright excites their greed; anything red, their indignation. They are reckoned good eating by some; but most people think them exceedingly rank and unpleasant. From fat wood hens a good deal of oil can be got, and this oil is very valuable for almost anything where oil is wanted. It is sovereign for rheumatics, and wounds or bruises; item for softening one’s boots, and so forth. The egg is about the size of a guinea fowl’s, dirtily streaked, and spotted with a dusky purple; it is one of the best eating eggs I have ever tasted.

I must not omit to mention the white crane, a very beautiful bird, with immense wings, of the purest white; and the swamp hen, with a tail which it is constantly bobbing up and down like the wood hen; it has a good deal of bluish purple about it, and is very handsome.

There are other birds on the plains, especially about the river-beds, but not many worthy of notice.

In the back country, however, we have a considerable variety. I have mentioned the kaka and the parroquet.

The robin is a pretty little fellow, in build and manners very like our English robin, but tamer. His plumage, however, is different, for he has a dusky black tail coat and a pale canary-coloured waistcoat. When one is camping out, no sooner has one lit one’s fire than several robins make their appearance, prying into one’s whole proceedings with true robin-like impudence. They have never probably seen a fire before, and are rather puzzled by it. I heard of one which first lighted on the embers, which were covered with ashes; finding this unpleasant, he hopped on to a burning twig; this was worse, so the third time he lighted on a red-hot coal; whereat, much disgusted, he took himself off, I hope escaping with nothing but a blistered toe. They frequently come into my hut. I watched one hop in a few mornings ago, when the breakfast things were set. First he tried the bread — that was good; then he tried the sugar — that was good also; then he tried the salt, which he instantly rejected; and, lastly, he tried a cup of hot tea, on which he flew away. I have seen them light on a candle (not a lighted one) and peck the tallow. I fear, however, that these tame ones are too often killed by the cats. The tomtit is like its English namesake in shape, but smaller, and with a glossy black head and bright yellow breast.

The wren is a beautiful little bird, much smaller than the English one, and with green about its plumage.

The tui or parson-bird is a starling, and has a small tuft of white cravat-like feathers growing from his throat. True to his starling nature, he has a delicious voice.

We have a thrush, but it is rather rare. It is just like the English, save that it has some red feathers in its tail.

Our teal is, if not the same as the English teal, so like it, that the difference is not noticeable.

Our linnet is a little larger than the English, with a clear, bell-like voice, as of a blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil. Indeed, we might call him the harmonious blacksmith.

The pigeon is larger than the English, and far handsomer. He has much white and glossy green shot with purple about him, and is one of the most beautiful birds I ever saw. He is very foolish, and can be noosed with ease. Tie a string with a noose at the end of it to a long stick, and you may put it round his neck and catch him. The kakas, too, will let you do this, and in a few days become quite tame.

Besides these, there is an owl or two. These are heard occasionally, but not seen. Often at night one hears a solemn cry of “More pork! more pork! more pork!” I have heard people talk, too, of a laughing jackass (not the Australian bird of that name), but no one has ever seen it.

Occasionally we hear rumours of the footprint of a moa, and the Nelson surveyors found fresh foot-tracks of a bird, which were measured for fourteen inches. Of this there can be little doubt; but since a wood hen’s foot measures four inches, and a wood hen does not stand higher than a hen, fourteen inches is hardly long enough for the track of a moa, the largest kind of which stood fifteen feet high. We often find some of their bones lying in a heap upon the ground, but never a perfect skeleton. Little heaps of their gizzard stones, too, are constantly found. They consist of very smooth and polished flints and cornelians, with sometimes quartz. The bird generally chose rather pretty stones. I do not remember finding a single sandstone specimen of a moa gizzard stone. Those heaps are easily distinguished, and very common. Few people believe in the existence of a moa. If one or two be yet living, they will probably be found on the West Coast, that yet unexplored region of forest which may contain sleeping princesses and gold in ton blocks, and all sorts of good things. A gentleman who lives at the Kiakoras possesses a moa’s egg; it is ten inches by seven. It was discovered in a Maori grave, and must have been considered precious at the time it was buried, for the Maoris were accustomed to bury a man’s valuables with him.

I really know of few other birds to tell you about. There is a good sprinkling more, but they form no feature in the country, and are only interesting to the naturalist. There is the kiwi, or apteryx, which is about as large as a turkey, but only found on the West Coast. There is a green ground parrot too, called the kakapo, a night bird, and hardly ever found on the eastern side of the island. There is also a very rare and as yet unnamed kind of kaka, much larger and handsomer than the kaka itself, of which I and another shot one of the first, if not the very first, observed specimen. Being hungry, far from home, and without meat, we ate the interesting creature, but made a note of it for the benefit of science. Since then it has found its way into more worthy hands, and was, a few months ago, sent home to be named. Altogether, I am acquainted with about seventy species of birds belonging to the Canterbury settlement, and I do not think that there are many more. Two albatrosses came to my wool-shed about seven months ago, and a dead one was found at Mount Peel not long since. I did not see the former myself, but my cook, who was a sailor, watched them for some time, and his word may be taken. I believe, however, that their coming so far inland is a very rare occurrence here.

As for the quadrupeds of New Zealand, they are easily disposed of. There are but two, a kind of rat, which is now banished by the Norway rat, and an animal of either the otter or beaver species, which is known rather by rumour than by actual certainty.

The fishes, too, will give us little trouble. There are only a sort of minnow and an eel. This last grows to a great size, and is abundant even in the clear, rapid, snow-fed rivers. In every creek one may catch eels, and they are excellent eating, if they be cooked in such a manner as to get rid of the oil.

Try them spitchcocked or stewed, They’re too oily when fried,

as Barham says, with his usual good sense. I am told that the other night a great noise was heard in the kitchen of a gentleman with whom I have the honour to be acquainted, and that the servants, getting up, found an eel chasing a cat round about the room. I believe this story. The eel was in a bucket of water, and doomed to die upon the morrow. Doubtless the cat had attempted to take liberties with him; on which a sudden thought struck the eel that he might as well eat the cat as the cat eat him; and he was preparing to suit the action to the word when he was discovered.

The insects are insignificant and ugly, and, like the plants, devoid of general interest. There is one rather pretty butterfly, like our English tortoiseshell. There is a sprinkling of beetles, a few ants, and a detestable sandfly, that, on quiet, cloudy mornings, especially near water, is more irritating than can be described. This little beast is rather venomous; and, for the first fortnight or so that I was bitten by it, every bite swelled up to a little hard button. Soon, however, one becomes case-hardened, and only suffers the immediate annoyance consequent upon its tickling and pricking. There is also a large assortment of spiders. We have, too, one of the ugliest-looking creatures that I have ever seen. It is called “weta,” and is of tawny scorpion-like colour with long antennae and great eyes, and nasty squashy-looking body, with (I think) six legs. It is a kind of animal which no one would wish to touch: if touched, it will bite sharply, some say venomously. It is very common, but not often seen, and lives chiefly among dead wood and under stones. In the North Island, I am told that it grows to the length of three or four inches. Here I never saw it longer than an inch and a half. The principal reptile is an almost ubiquitous lizard.

Summing up, then, the whole of the vegetable and animal productions of this settlement, I think that it is not too much to say that they are decidedly inferior in beauty and interest to those of the old world. You will think that I have a prejudice against the natural history of Canterbury. I assure you I have no such thing; and I believe that anyone, on arriving here, would receive a similar impression with myself.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51