An enduring frustration for museum curators is being aware of objects or specimens that have little or no acquisition or collection data. This, sadly, is often the case with our oldest natural history specimens. A specimen without data is almost worthless – while an old specimen with good data is almost priceless.
It is an unfortunate reality of New Zealand museums that they were typically slow to grasp the importance of recording details of objects and specimens received, and ensuring that the data remained permanently associated with the object through adequate labelling and catalogue entries. The Colonial Museum (which eventually evolved into Te Papa) was created in 1865, but it was the best part of a century before curation standards for the bird collection (at least) could be considered world class or comparable to modern standards. Many old specimens are now tagged ‘No data’, or have only the briefest register entries.
Among the poorly-labelled treasures in the bird collection is a South Island kokako nest simply labelled “Freshwater Basin, Milford Sound”, with no date, no collector’s name, and no description of the site where the nest was found. This is the only nest we have for this species, which is now hovering close to extinction (if not already gone).
The South Island kokako was formerly found throughout the South Island and Stewart Island, but by the end of 19th Century it had become a very rare bird. Along with several other forest bird species (including piopio, bush wren, huia and saddleback), it probably succumbed to predation by the advancing tide of recently-introduced ship rats and stoats.
While there were occasional sightings accepted of South Island kokako in the 20th Century (including in 1911 on Stewart Island, and in 1967 in Mt Aspiring National Park), I am unaware of any nests being found for well over a hundred years. The nest in the Te Papa collection is clearly very old, but it is rather unsatisfying to label it as “Pre 1900, collector unknown”.
Curators occasionally get lucky, and chance upon information about old specimens in their care. In this case, the information was in a rather obscure article written by Thomas Potts and published in the New Zealand Country Journal in 1880. Fortunately Potts compiled the first four years of his regular column in the journal into a book ‘Out in the open; a budget of scraps of natural history gathered in New Zealand’, published in 1882 and reproduced as a facsimile by Capper Press in 1976.
Thomas Potts was the first person to publish extensively on the plight of New Zealand’s birds, and his classic 1882 book is considered the first substantial conservation text produced in this country. Pages 194-203 contain a chapter on ‘Notes on rare or little known birds’, which includes a detailed description of Potts finding kokako nests at Milford Sound, whilst in the company of James Hector, the founding Director of the Colonial Museum:
“In January, 1873, whilst exploring the bush that fringes Milford Sound, the writer was so fortunate as to discover five nests, at heights varying from ten to seventeen feet above the ground…[at the first nest]..The parent…was…covering two nestlings as yet unable to see…The other nests were found in damp situations (one with a broken egg) in a small patch of bush at Freshwater Basin, close by Lady Bowen Waterfall.
[near the first nest] a pio-pio had built her home…as Dr. Hector wanted the young [kokako] for the Colonial Museum, at the next visit [the nest] was rendered desolate, the young were carried away from their snug quarters and offered as victims on the altar of science. At the institution thus referred to, probably to this day, they may be observed by the curious, dangling in a jar of spirits.
…from the specimens procured by the writer at Milford Sound, in January, 1873, one nest and two tender nestlings were placed in the Colonial Museum: other nests were deposited in the Canterbury Museum, where they may yet be seen.”
The two nestlings sacrificed “on the altar of science” are no longer held by Te Papa, but Canterbury Museum still has a South Island kokako nest labelled “Milford Sound”, and Te Papa also holds an undated South Island piopio nest simply labelled “Cleddau River, Milford Sound”, in addition to our South Island kokako nest. This passage written by Thomas Potts 134 years ago therefore provides collection data for three rare nests of two extinct (or nearly so) bird species held by two New Zealand museums.
With thanks to Paul Scofield of Canterbury Museum for checking details of their South Island kokako nest.
Colin Miskelly, Curator Terrestrial Vertebrates