SUN-BITTERN, the Eurypyga helias of ornithology, a bird that has long exercised systematists and one whose proper place can scarcely yet be said to have been determined to everybody's satisfaction.
According to Pallas, who in 1781 gave (N. nördl. Beyträge, vol.ii. pp. 48-54, pl. 3) a good description and fair figure of it, calling it the “Surinamische Sonnenreyger,” Ardea helias, the first author to notice this form was Fermin, whose account of it, under the name of “Sonnenvogel,” was published at Amsterdam in 1759 (Descr., &c., de Surinam, ii. 192), but was vague and meagre. In 1772, however, it was satisfactorily figured and described in Rozier's Observations sur la physique, &c. (vol. v. pt. 1, p. 212, pl. 1), as the Petit paon der roseaux—by which name it was known in French Guiana. A few years later D'Aubenton figured it in his well-known series (Pl. Enl., p. 782), and then in 1781 came Buffon (H.N., Oiseaux, vol. viii. pp. 169, 170, pl. xiv.), who, calling it “Le Caurlâ on petit paon des roses,” announced it as hitherto undescribed and placed it among the Rails. In the same year appeared the above-cited paper by Pallas, who, notwithstanding his remote abode, was better informed as to its history than his great contemporary, whose ignorance, real or affected, of his fellow-countryman's priority in the field is inexplicable; and it must have been by inadvertence that, writing “roses” for “roseaux,” Buffon turned the colonial name from one that had a good meaning into nonsense. In 1783 Boddaert, equally ignorant of what Pallas had done, called it Scolopax solaris, and in referring it to that genus he was followed by Latham (Synopsis, iii. 156), by whom it was introduced to English readers as the “Caurale Snipe.” Thus within a dozen years this bird was referred to three perfectly distinct genera, and in those days genera meant much more than they do now. Not until 1811 was it recognized as forming a genus of its own. This was done by Illiger, whose appellation, Eurypyga has been generally accepted.
|(From Cambridge Natural History, vol. ix., “Birds.” by permission of Macmillan & Co., Ltd.)|
Fig. 1.-Sun-Bittern (Eurypyga helias).
The sun-bittern is about as big as a small curlew, but with much shorter legs and a rather slender, straight bill. The wings are moderate, broad, and rounded, the tail rather long and broad. The head is black with a white stripe over and another under each eye, the chin and throat being also white. The rest of the plumage is not to be described in a limited space otherwise than generally, being variegated with black, brown, chestnut, bay, buff, grey and white—so mottled, speckled and belted either in wave like or zigzag forms as somewhat to resemble certain moths. The bay colour forms two conspicuous patches on each wing, and also an antepenultimate bar on the tail, behind which is a subterminal band of black. The irides are red; the bill is greenish olive; and the legs are pale yellow. As in the case of most South American birds, very little is recorded of its habits in freedom, except that it frequents the muddy and wooded banks of rivers, feeding on small fishes and insects. In captivity it soon becomes tame, and has several times made its nest and reared its young (which, when hatched, are clothed with mottled down; Proc. Zool. Soc., 1866, p. 76, pl. ix. fig. 1) in the Zoological Gardens (London), where examples are generally to be seen and their plaintive piping heard. It ordinarily walks with slow and precise steps, keeping its body in a horizontal position, but at times, when excited, it will go through a series of fantastic performances, spreading its broad wings and tail so as to display their beautiful markings. This species inhabits Guiana and the interior of Brazil; but in Colombia and Central America occurs a larger and somewhat differently coloured form which is known as E. major.
For a long while it seemed as if Eurypyga had no near ally, but on the colonization of New Caledonia by the French, an extremely curious bird was found inhabiting most parts of that island, to which it is peculiar. This the natives called the Kagu, and it is the Rhinochetus jubatus of ornithology. Its original describers, MM. Jules Verreaux and Des Murs, regarded it first as a heron and then as a crane (Rev. et Mag. de Zoologie, 1860, pp. 439–441, pl. 21; 1862, pp. 142–144); but, on Mr George Bennett sending two live examples to the Zoological Gardens, Mr Bartlett quickly detected in them an affinity to Eurypyga (Proc. Zool. Soc., 1862, pp. 218, 219, pl. xxx.), and in due time anatomical investigation showed him to be right. The kagu, however, would not strike the ordinary observer as having much outward resemblance to the sun-bittern, of which it has neither the figure nor posture. It is rather a long-legged bird, about as large as an ordinary fowl, walking quickly and then standing almost motionless, with bright red bill and legs, large eyes, a full pendent crest, and is generally of a light slate-colour, paler beneath, and obscurely barred on its longer wing-coverts and tail with a darker shade. It is only when it spreads its wings that these are seen to be marked and spotted with white, rust-colour, and black, somewhat after the pattern of those of the sun-bittern. Like that bird, too, the kagu will, in moments of excitement, give up its ordinary placid behaviour and execute a variety of violent gesticulations, some of them even of a more extraordinary kind, for it will dance round, holding the tip of its tail or one of its wings in a way that no other bird is known to do. Its habits in its own country were described at some length in 1863 by M. Jouan (Mém. Soc. Sc. Nat. Cherbourg, ix. 97 and 235), and in 1870 by M. Marie (Actes Soc. Linn. Bordeaux, xxvii. 323–326), the last of whom predicts the speedy extinction of this interesting form, a fate foreboded also by the statement of Messrs Layard (Ibis, 1882, pp. 534, 535) that it has nearly disappeared from the neighbourhood of the more settled and inhabited parts.
Fig. 2.-Kagu (Rhinochetus jubatus).
The internal and external structure of both these remarkable forms is now fully known and it appears that they, though separable as distinct families, Eurypygidae and Rhinochetidae, must be deemed the relics of very ancient and generalized types more or less related to the Rallidae (see Rail), and Psophiidae (see Trumpeter). It is only to be remarked that the eggs of both Eurypyga and Rhinochetus have a very strong ralline appearance—stronger even than the figures published (Proc. Zool. Soc., 1868, pl. 12) would indicate. (A. N.)
- This figure and description were repeated in the later issue of this work in 1777 (vol. i. pp. 679–781, pl. 1) .
- Possibly he saw in the bird's variegated plumage a resemblance to the painted snipes, Rhynchaea. His specific name shows that he must have known how the Dutch in Surinam called it.