Yellowhead and Whitehead, from Walter Lawry Buller's Birds of New Zealand, 1888.
“Given the clue to a mystery, difficulties quickly unravel themselves," writes Guthrie Smith. "The particular mystery connected with the nidification of the whitehead, was the number of individuals in attendance upon a single nest. For a few hours indeed the solution seemed simple. It was easy to surmise that the newly emancipated brood of a first hatching were still - as happens in the case of the fantail — importuning their parents for food; that young freshly fledged whitehead nestlings — the children of an earlier marriage — were still being given snacks and tit–bits by kindly parents even whilst engaged in the onerous duty of rearing a second family.
“Our first solution to the puzzle was, however, soon discarded as being untenable. Watching at the distance of just a few feet, it became apparent that the birds busily flying to and fro were not expectant, tantalised, recently abandoned first-brood youngsters; indubitably they were mature specimens of the breed.
“We soon in fact discovered that our first nest under the camera was being run by at least three birds — four we believed. Three were easily identified at one and the same moment by the difference in quality and appearance of food carried, by the different manner in which the legs and wings of moths lay in the bills of the respective birds. The identity of the fourth, its relation to the other three, and its interest in the nest, was harder to establish, for when a single member of the quadruple alliance arrived alone, it commonly awaited the presence of a second and third shareholder, frequently of both, before proceeding to deliver the goods. Again and again it was possible to swear to three separate birds, each definitely distinguishable by the insect wings, legs and bodies in its beak; the fourth was the difficulty. It was a bird partly engaged in feeding the brood, and partly engaged as lookout or scout. The plumage of the sexes being but slightly differentiated, it was impossible to tell if one and the same bird always acted as guard, if in fact the responsibility of scouting was shared or was settled by arrangement or by chance. It was not until the youngsters were taken from the nest and placed on a twig preparatory to being photographed, that all four parents showed themselves simultaneously. The efforts of each of the four members to distract and allure, their excitement, anger and apprehension, then announced their parenthood as surely as Solomon’s proposition to divide the child discovered the true mother.
“Later, we had a second nest, also containing young, under the camera. As in the first case recorded, we were sure of the four birds, but could not actually identify them until as before the youngsters were handled. Then, as in the first instance, the four partners fluttered about the camera in a frenzy of alarm. A third case gave similar results. However, there do seem to occur cases where a pair own a nest. Be that as it may, the vast proportion of whitehead’s nests are administered by four birds, not two birds.
“We never came across a family of more than three. Three was the number of youngsters photographed in the nests run by groups of four old birds. Three likewise was the number taken from the tree-tops and immediately claimed as the property of four old birds. Three invariably was the number seen on the kanuka tops, where by-the-bye they offered excellent marks for counting, seated, as is their habit, cuddling close like love-birds. In our experience on Little Barrier Island — and it was an experience extending over weeks — a clutch of three eggs was never exceeded. One nest alone, owned perhaps by two birds only, contained two eggs.
“Although in the forest at high and low elevations, parties of whitehead were from time to time noted, they were few and far between; they were comparatively rare. It was amongst the tall groves of kanuka fringing the coast and in lower growing denser shrubberies of manuka that these birds were most plentiful. These two species of scrub almost exclusively supplied them with insect food and nesting material. Orchard and garden stocked with alien caterpillars and grubs, ordinarily so tempting both to natives and aliens, were unvisited by whitehead. Practically all food and all building material were drawn from the kanuka thickets.
“The nest of the whitehead is a fairly substantial structure, based on rootlets and small rough pliable kanaku twigs, then comes moss, frayed grass, sedge, and thin strips of bark, inter-mixed sometimes and interwoven with a few skeleton leaves from a small group of Lombardy poplars. The interior is composed of very finely shredded kanuka bark, the edges of the nest as trim and tidy almost as those of the chaffinch. Nests are placed in a variety of sites: sometimes deep in the dense mass of twig and and small pliable branchlet, dead or green, that darken the interior of the solitary young kanuka trees of ten to fifteen feet; sometimes at similar heights of groups of the same species. Oftenest, however, woven with web and fibre into suitable forks and branch junctions, they are placed high among the naked, rough–barked, windblown thickets.
“The eggs are white, sprinkled and peppered with brown. The newly hatched young are in the beginning fed on crushed insects and when rather older on small moths.
“Whiteheads are much troubled by parasites, the old birds constantly searching their feathers for these troublesome pests, the young still in the nest spending long mornings preening and scratching. At a surprisingly early period they begin to stand upright in the nest and flap their little wings. Whenever they can grip the rough bark of the kanuka stems, they are encouraged to scramble upwards into the shade and shelter of the thick tops. There immediately beneath the dense plane of green, they sit in threes, pressed close to one another.
“The old birds scale the boles like the rifleman, or mount upwards in alternate runs and pauses like fernbirds on dry flax stems. Towards one another they are particularly sociable and friendly. Flying to and from the nest, meeting and passing, it is their custom to shiver wings in courteous greeting. Return to the nest, too, is always heralded by cheerful chirps and twitterings, audible at twenty and thirty yards. When, as not infrequently happens, one of the four is chased by a crabbed tui or bellbird, another of the little company will generally intervene to distract the foe.
“It is pleasant to be able to state that this amiable little species is plentiful on Little Barrier Island and that there appears no reason why it should not continue to remain on that ideal bird sanctuary.”
— Wairarapa, 2005.
North Island in native forests and older exotic forests but not North of Auckland, and some off shore islands, Little Barrier, Tiritiri Matangi, Mokoia and Kapiti Islands
Mohua nests, Transactions of the New Zealand Institute
Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1888.
Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, Volume 3, 1870.
Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.
Oliver, W.R.B. New Zealand Birds, 1955.
Guthrie–Smith, H., Birdlife on Island and Shore, 1925.
Tuesday, 19 September, 2023; ver2023v1