To be able to hear the very high pitched cricket–like call of Titipounamu, the rifleman, is a real test of one’s hearing. Indeed many older people never hear them at all as the birds work their way about the bush, gleaning their food from small crevices and epiphytic mosses and lichens on the trunks and branches of trees. However, to hear Titipounamu, the rifleman, the very smallest of our endemic birds, one must trek into the bush for they do not venture near settled areas. So, having trekked into the local bush recently, I must have spent a good hour watching a pair of riflemen, totally rapt in their behaviour, while my friends went in search of other species.
The pair I was watching did not move far from the few trees I could see about me. They would start at the bottom of a tree and work their way up in short hops and with fluttering wings, diligently searching in the crannies and bark in the moss and lichen growing there. They would then drop with open wings to the bole of another tree and start the process over again. They used their relatively large feet to grip the rough trunks of trees and assisted themselves with quick flicks of their wings. The pair kept in contact with their short high–pitched calls. Unlike the fantail, they never chased insects into the air, possibly because their powers of flight are too feeble.
The ornithologist, Oliver, says the rifleman has its own beat and traverses the same territory every day. He relates a poignant observation that even when the bush was cut down around him the rifleman remained in the felled timber. Buller has said that “it moved with such celerity that it is rather difficult for the collector to obtain a shot”!
The New Zealand wrens are an ancient family of tiny birds with no close affinity to other groups of birds anywhere in the world. They arrived in New Zealand at the same time as the New Zealand thrush and the wattlebirds, wind assisted migrants in early Cenozoic times.
Of the six known species of New Zealand wrens that once lived throughout New Zealand, the rifleman and the rock wren are the only survivors. The lighthouse keeper’s cat towards the end of the nineteenth century killed off the Stephens Island wren. Its two flightless relatives, the thick–thighed and long–billed wrens, were exterminated by the Pacific rat, Rattus exulans, brought to New Zealand hundreds of years before by Maori. The fourth species to go was the bush wren. An island reserve, pristine as a muttonbird island, was its last outpost. The arboreal “black” rat, Rattus rattus, went ashore from fishing boats and finished them off in the 1960s.
The male rifleman is bright green above while the female is of a more somber brownish tone and her head and back are flecked with ochre. Both birds are white on their under surfaces and have white eyebrow stripes. They have short, rounded wings and a very short tail and a long thin awl–like bill which is slightly upturned for better insertion into cracks. Females are larger than males.
The literature tells me that the nest may be found in some crevice of bark or hole in a tree, a fissure in a broken branch, or a cranny penetrating dry wood. The nest may fit the cavity exactly so that sometimes it is quite large compared with its builders; sometimes it has a domed roof and a side entrance but the entrance hole is the smallest the bird can safely squeeze through and is thought to be probably pretty well vermin proof. Guthrie–Smith saw riflemen’s nests sealed all around their enclosing cavity with moss and spider web. Other nests are described as so minute as to defy observation. The hen only needs a space of two or three inches in which to lay her four white eggs, the smallest eggs laid by any New Zealand bird, upon a bed of feathers and moss. Both parents feed the chicks. Occasionally first brood chicks may help feed the second brood.
Richdale has observed the rifleman nesting behind weather boards of a hut, in a jam tin upside down on a peg and supplies a photo of a nest under a cow cover hanging in a cowshed.
Buller reports that the rifleman may sometimes be decoyed into the open hand by the rapid twirling of a leaf, a trick I have also heard Maori used with a number of birds, including the rifleman. I did not attempt that old trick as I watched them, content to just enjoy their presence and let them be.
The bird's English name, rifleman, stems from a fancied resemblance of the bird's plumage to the uniform of an early colonial regiment. However Stella Anderson says, "because it follows a spiralling route when going over the bark for food the little wren obtained its English name — 'to rifle' means to make spiral grooves as, for example, in a gun barrel."
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»»» Song of rifleman
Other common names: —
8 cm., males 6g., females, 7 g., male bright green above, female somber brownish, head and back are flecked with ochre, both birds are white on their under surfaces and have white eyebrow stripes, short, rounded wings, very short tail, long thin awl–like bill.
Where to find: —
The North Island rifleman, granti is widely but sparsely distributed in forests and common on Little Barrier and Great Barrier Islands. In the South Island chloris, the best numbers are in high altitude beech forest and lowland podocarp forest. They like mature Tawa forest in the North Island and Manuka/Kanuka and Hakea scrub in the South Island.
Youtube video —
Credit for the photograph: —
Illustration description: —
Gray, George Robert & Sharpe, R. Bowdler. The Zoology of the voyage of HMS Erebus & Terror, Birds of New Zealand., E.W. Janson, London 1875. The revised edition of Gray (1846)
Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.
Oliver, W.R.B. New Zealand Birds, 1955.
Richdale, L.E., Native perching Birds of New Zealand.
Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1888.
Anderson, Stella I., Encounters with Birds, 1982.
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Thursday, 5 June 2014; ver2009v1