The owl and the pussycat all at sea with a beautiful pea-green parrot

Colin Miskelly (Curator of Vertebrates, Te Papa) investigates the history behind the naming of the endemic birds of the Antipodes Islands

The Antipodes Islands were so named because Captain Henry Waterhouse considered them to be the nearest point of land to the antipodes of London – i.e. the opposite side of the globe. The original name he gave in 1800 was ‘Isle Penantipode’, meaning ‘island next to the antipode’, as he recognised that the islands were a speck in a vast ocean, and that there would be no land exactly opposite London.

Antipodes Island parakeet. Photo by D.Boyle. NZ Birds on line

Antipodes Island parakeet. Photo by D.Boyle. NZ Birds Online

Despite their remote location, the islands were soon relocated by sealing captains. Over the following three decades, the islands’ fur seals were hunted to extinction, with the last recorded visit by a sealing crew in 1830. It is likely that this same team (from the Boston brig Rob Roy) captured other wildlife on the island – perhaps due to a complete lack of seals – as within a year one of the islands’ green parakeets was displayed at the zoological gardens in London.

These days, Edward Lear (1812-1888) is best known as a writer and illustrator of nonsense poems – with ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ his most famous work. But long before he wrote of runcible spoons and bong-trees, Lear made a name for himself as a bird artist, producing beautiful paintings and lithographs. His first book – published when he was only 19 years old, in 1831 – was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots. This limited edition work is now one of the most sought after and expensive of all early bird books. Among the spectacular colour lithographs was a plain green parakeet that Lear named ‘Platycercus unicolor Uniform Parrakeet’.

Young Antipodes Island pipit. Photo by M.Fraser. NZ Birds Online

Young Antipodes Island pipit. Photo by M.Fraser. NZ Birds Online

Antipodes Island parakeet feeding. Photo by D. Boyle. NZ Birds online

Antipodes Island parakeet feeding. Photo by D. Boyle. NZ Birds Online

But no-one knew where the bird came from. The mystery lasted for more than half a century before Captain John Fairchild of the New Zealand government steamer Stella solved it in 1886. Lear’s ‘Uniform Parrakeet’ lived as far away from London Zoo as it was possible to get!

The first scientist to visit the Antipodes Islands was the Austrian collector and taxidermist Andreas Reischek, in 1888 (also on board the Stella). Reischek named both the Antipodes Island pipit (as Anthus steindachneri) and the local form of ‘red-crowned’ parakeet (as Platycercus hochstetteri). Reischek had been based in New Zealand since 1877, but both names honoured his mentors back in Austria. The pipit was named after Dr Franz von Steindachner (1834-1919), Privy Counsellor, zoologist and Director of the Imperial Museum in Vienna, where Reischek himself returned to the following year.

Reischek’s parakeet. Photo by M. Fraser. NZ Birds Online

Reischek’s parakeet. Photo by M. Fraser. NZ Birds Online

The parakeet name honoured Arthur von Hochstetter, “the son of a sincere friend from whom I received many kindnesses, and who has too soon passed away”. The recently deceased friend was the geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter (1829-1884), who had visited New Zealand in 1858-59, and is himself honoured in the names of Hochstetter’s frog (Leiopelma hochstetteri), South Island takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri), Hochstetter’s giant land snail (Powelliphanta hochstetteri) and the sky-blue toadstool shown on our $50 banknote (Entoloma hochstetteri). It is unknown why Reischek chose to honour Arthur (then a 25 year-old medical student) rather than his late father – perhaps he thought the living would appreciate the honour more than the dead.

It is also unclear why this parakeet has come to be known colloquially as Reischek’s parakeet, rather than the more obvious alternative name of Hochstetter’s parakeet. The only other New Zealand bird where the person who named the bird is now recognised in the bird’s common name, rather than the person they were honouring in the scientific name, is the fossil Simpson’s penguin (Platydyptes marplesi) named by George Gaylord Simpson. In this case there was already a bird known as Marple’s penguin (another fossil species, Palaeeudyptes marplesi), and so a different name was required to avoid confusion.

Antipodes Island snipe with caterpillar. Photo by D.Boyle. NZ Birds Online

Antipodes Island snipe with caterpillar. Photo by D.Boyle. NZ Birds Online

The Antipodes Island snipe took nearly 40 years to acquire a valid name, due to a case of mistaken identity. Captain Fairchild collected one in 1887, and the following year Walter Buller described it as being larger, darker in plumage, and with a more curved bill than the Auckland Island snipe – but for some unknown reason, he did not give it a name. Lord Walter Rothschild eventually named the Antipodes Island snipe 5 years later, as Gallinago tristrami. The name honoured Canon Henry Baker Tristram of Durham, who had named the Snares Island snipe earlier that year (1893). However, it transpired that the specimen Rothschild selected as his type specimen was actually an Auckland Island snipe, and so Gallinago tristrami became a junior synonym of what is now Coenocorypha aucklandica aucklandica. As soon as the error was recognised (in 1927), Rothschild had another, and ultimately successful attempt at naming the Antipodes Island snipe, as Coenocorypha aucklandica meinertzhagenae. The subspecific name honours the British ornithologist Annie Meinertzhagen (1889-1928), who had published a review of the world’s snipes and woodcocks the previous year. The Antipodes Island snipe is one of only three living endemic New Zealand birds named after a woman, along with the New Zealand fairy tern (Sternula nereis davisae) and the North Island fernbird (Bowdleria punctata vealeae).


Further information:

Antipodes Island parakeet

Reischek’s parakeet

New Zealand pipit

Subantarctic snipe

Blog about Antipodes Island parakeet

Blog about Antipodes Island snipe