Until recently, Piopio were considered part of an endemic family, Turnagridae, but due to mitochondrial DNA testing they are now treated as part of the birds–of–paradise and bowerbird assemblage, perhaps most closely related to the catbirds of eastern Australia. There were two subspecies; the North Island, tanagra, and the South Island, Stephens Island and probably Stewart Island, capensis.
Walter Lawry Buller writes so about this bird: “There is a peculiar charm about the New Zealand forest in the early morning; for shortly after daylight a number of birds of various kinds join their voices in a wild jubilee of song, which, generally speaking is of very short duration. This was the morning concert to which Captain Cook referred in such terms of enthusiasm; and the woods of Queen Charlotte’s Sound, where his ship lay at anchor, are no exception to the general rule. In illustration of this, I take the following from an entry in one of my notebooks: ‘Tuesday, 5 a.m. — At this moment the wooded valley of the Mangaone, in which we have been camped for the night, is ringing with delightful music. It is somewhat difficult to distinguish the performers amidst the general chorus of voices. The silvery notes of the Bellbird, the bolder notes of the Tui, the loud continuous strain of the native Robin, the joyous chirping of a flock of Whiteheads, and the whistling cry of the Piopio — all these voices of the forest are blended in wild harmony. And the music is occasionally varied by the harsh scream of a Kaka passing overhead, or the noisy chattering of Parakeets on a neighbouring tree, and at regular intervals the far off cry of the Long–tailed Cuckoo and the whistling call of its bronze-winged congener; while on every hand may be heard the soft trilling notes of Myiomoira toitoi, (tomtit).’
“For more than an hour after this concert had ceased, and the sylvan choristers had dispersed in search of their daily food, one species continued to enliven the valley with his musical notes. This bird was the Piopio, or New Zealand Thrush, the subject of the present article, and unquestionably the best of our native songsters. His song consists of five distinct bars, each of which is repeated six or seven times in succession; but he often stops abruptly in his overture to introduce a variety of other notes, one of which is a peculiar rattling sound, accompanied by the spreading of the tail, and apparently expressive of ecstasy. Some of the notes are scarcely distinguishable from those of the Yellowhead; and I am inclined to think the bird is endowed with mocking powers. The ordinary note, however, of the Piopio, whence it derives its name, is a short, sharp whistling cry, quickly repeated.
“It was when I obtained a caged Piopio that I first became acquainted with its superior vocal powers. In 1866 I purchased one for a guinea from a settler in Wellington, in whose possession it had been for a whole year. Although an adult bird when taken, it appeared to have become perfectly reconciled to confinement; but on being placed in a new cage it made strenuous assaults on the wire bars, and persevered until the feathers surrounding its beak were rubbed off and a raw wound exposed. It then desisted for several days; but when the abraded part had fairly healed, it renewed the attempt, and with such determined effort that the fore part of the head was completely disfigured, and the life of the bird endangered. On being removed, however, to a spacious compartment of the aviary, it immediately became reconciled to its condition, made no efforts to escape, and for a period of fifteen months (when it came to an untimely end) it continued to exhibit the contentment and sprightliness of a bird in a state of nature.
“I observed that this bird was always most lively during or immediately preceding a shower of rain. He often astonished me with the power and variety of his notes. Commencing sometimes with the loud strains of the Thrush, he would suddenly change his song to a low flute note of exquisite sweetness; and then abruptly stopping, would give vent to a loud rasping cry, as if mimicking a pair of Australian magpies confined in the same aviary. During the early morning he emitted at intervals a short flute note, and when alarmed or startled uttered a sharp repeated whistle.
“This caged bird was generally fed on dry pulse or grain; but he also evinced a great liking for cooked potato and raw meat of all kinds; in fact he appeared to be omnivorous, readily devouring earthworms, insects of all kinds, fruits, berries, green herbs, &c. He was supplied daily with a dish of fresh water, and was accustomed to bathe in it with evident delight.
“At one time he occupied the same division of the aviary with a pair of Australian Ring-Doves which had commenced to breed. The Doves were allowed to bring up their first brood in peace; but when the hen bird began to build a second time, she was closely watched by the Piopio, and immediately the first egg was deposited he darted upon the nest and devoured it. The innocent little Ring-Dove continued to lay on in spite of repeated robbery, and had at length to be placed beyond the reach of her persecutor.
“During the day the Piopio was unceasingly active and lively; at night he slept on a perch, resting one leg, and with the plumage puffed out into the form of a perfectly round ball, the circular outline broken only by the projecting extremities of the wings and tail. Every sound seem to attract his notice, and he betrayed an inquisitiveness of disposition which in the end proved fatal; for having inserted his prying head through an open chink in the partition, it was seized and torn off by a vicious Sparrow-Hawk in the adjoining compartment of the aviary.
“In the wild state this species subsists chiefly on insects, worms and berries. I have shot it on the ground in the act of grubbing with its bill among the dry leaves and other forest debris. Its flight is short and rapid. It haunts the undergrowth of the forest, darting from tree to tree, and occasionally descending to the ground, but rarely performing any long passage on the wing. It is very nimble in its movements; and when attempting on one occasion to catch one of these birds with an almost invisible horsehair noose, it repeatedly darted right through the snare, and defeated every effort to entrap it.
“Sir James Hector informs me that, during his exploration of the West Coast in the years 1862–63, he found it very abundant, and on one occasion counted no less than forty in the immediate vicinity of his camp. They were very tame, sometimes hopping up to the very door of his tent to pick up crumbs; and he noticed that the camp dogs were making sad havoc among them. He is of the opinion that within a few years this species would also be numbered among the extinct ones.
“Mr Potts, who studied this bird pretty closely in Wetland, states that the nest is generally found among the thick foliage of the Tutu, Coriara ruscifolia, but sometimes in Karamu or Manuka, that it is sometimes finished off with soft tree–fern down as lining, and that it usually contains two eggs; and he is of the opinion that the bird breeds twice in the season.”
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26 cm., plump olive-brown bird.
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Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1888 & 1873.
Oliver, W.R.B. New Zealand Birds, 1955.
Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1888.
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Sunday, 1 June 2014; ver2009v1