Saving the World's Only Flightless Parrot!

After their momentous victory in our online poll recently, birds have been all the rage here at Life Gone Wild. The bizarreness of the Hoatzin made it a great candidate to be featured here, but it meant that a host of other brilliant birds missed out on the limelight. To make up for this, we’ve got another bird that we think deserves some attention. We’re delighted to introduce you to one of the most charismatic birds around: The Kākāpō (Strigops habroptila)!

 A 75 day old 'Manu' the Kakapo! Photo courtesy of NZ Department of Conservation (DOC), taken by Don Merton

A 75 day old 'Manu' the Kakapo! Photo courtesy of NZ Department of Conservation (DOC), taken by Don Merton

The Kākāpō is endemic to New Zealand, and is a critically endangered nocturnal parrot. In fact, they are the world’s heaviest parrot (weighing in at up to 4kg), and the only flightless parrot in the world. The Kākāpō is an absolutely gorgeous bird, with their mottled green feathers providing them excellent camouflage in the forests that they call home. Their feathers are soft (other birds have stiff feathers to fly), and they have facial discs of finer feathers around their eyes (somewhat like an owl). This has led to them also being called the ‘owl-parrot’.

About 10 years ago, Kākāpō received some… interesting publicity thanks to a peculiar incident, so you may in fact recognise them! It involved one particular Kākāpō and through this ‘incident’ he achieved international fame, leading him to become New Zealand’s “Official Spokesbird for Conservation.” The Kākāpō in question is Sirocco, the first ever Kākāpō to be hand-reared. The poor little guy suffered a respiratory illness when he was only three weeks old! Once he was deemed fit and ready to survive in the wild he was released. However, because of his intensive care, he imprinted upon humans. He was just more interested in those coming to check in on him than other Kākāpō. So much so, that it is thought that it is very unlikely that Sirocco will ever breed with another Kākāpō.  Sirocco’s ‘interest’ in humans took a bit of a turn in 2009. During filming of the BBC documentary Last Chance to See featuring Stephen Fry, Sirocco got a bit too interested in zoologist Mark Carwadine. In a now fairly famous clip, Sirocco then attempted to mate with Carwadine’s head! Ever since, he has been the face of Kākāpō conservation in New Zealand (and internationally too)!

The infamous clip that brought Sirocco worldwide attention!

Kākāpō are very special birds, for a number of reasons. According to the NZ Department of Conservation, each individual has their own distinct personality. Hand-rearing these mostly solitary birds, they get to know them pretty well, and they can range from grumpy or aloof, cheeky and playful, explorers, and “insatiable food lovers.” Kākāpō have a very specific diet. Similar to our friend the Hoatzin, the Kākāpō is also herbivorous. While they can be quite varied in what plants they eat, they have an undoubted favourite! When the Rimu tree fruits, they will feed almost exclusively on that. If it is a particularly abundant fruiting season, it will kick off a breeding season for the Kākāpō as well!

Remember how we mentioned they’re flightless? Well because of this, Kākāpō have evolved strong claws and beaks that help them climb (they’ve been recorded 20m high in Rimu trees before)! Their legs have also developed into being much more functional than most other birds. The Kākāpō are renowned hikers, sometimes walking several kilometres at a time, and can put on a surprising burst of speed when necessary.

 The mottled colouration of the Kakapo's feathers provide excellent camouflage in their forest homes. Photo by Paddy Ryan. ARKive

The mottled colouration of the Kakapo's feathers provide excellent camouflage in their forest homes. Photo by Paddy Ryan. ARKive

Evolving in New Zealand had a significant impact upon the Kākāpō. The islands of New Zealand had no mammals until the arrival of humans between 1250 -1300, bringing with them dogs and rats. This spelled the beginning of a dire time for Kākāpō. Birds ruled the lands until this time, with eagles being the top of the food chain. This meant that being inconspicuous was key for birds like the Kākāpō, as eagles hunt thanks to their excellent vision. Flight was out, and camouflage was in. When disturbed the Kākāpō freezes, allowing their mottled feathers to do their bit, blending in to the bush and disappearing from sight. Mammalian hunters though, such as the cats and stoats that came with the arrival of the Europeans in the early 1800s, find their prey using smell. This renders the excellent camouflage of the Kākāpō irrelevant as they have a distinctive and strong smell. This made the Kākāpō easy prey for these introduced hunters, and saw them decimate the poor parrot population.

 The remains of one of Andrew Henry's original Kakapo translocation pens. Image Andrew Digby I DOC

The remains of one of Andrew Henry's original Kakapo translocation pens. Image Andrew Digby I DOC

Once upon a time, the Kākāpō was incredibly common around Aotearoa (the Maori word for New Zealand). So common in fact, that an early explorer described being able to shake a tree, and Kākāpō falling to the ground like apples!  With the influx of people and things like the rats, cats, and dogs they brought with them, things didn’t stay this way for long. By 1840 the Kākāpō had become extinct on the North Island, and it wasn’t long after that they were nearly extinct on the South Island too. This led to one of the earliest known attempts by a government to get involved in conservation. In 1894 Richard Henry led the New Zealand government to try and save the Kākāpō by relocating several hundred birds to Resolution Island, a predator-free island in Fiordland. Unfortunately, this was a complete failure as the island saw the arrival of stoats within 6 years, which destroyed the Kākāpō population. Following this attempt, people seemed to lose interest in the Kākāpō. No one was actively caring for them, and only a few birds remained, clinging to life in isolated parts of New Zealand. In the mid-1900s, the Kākāpō was as good as extinct.

New Zealand was not prepared to give up entirely though and saw a reinvigorated effort between 1949 and 1973. During this period, the New Zealand Wildlife Service sent out over 60 expeditions to find any evidence of surviving Kākāpō. Most of these expeditions focused on the Fiordlands. 6 male Kākāpō were discovered, but only one survived more than a few months in captivity. At this point, no surviving birds were known. Over the next four years, 18 more male Kākāpō were found in Fiordland. No female birds were (or have since been) found in the region. However, for those trying to save the Kākāpō, their luck was about to change.

 The curious face of a Kakapo. Aren't they gorgeous birds! Photo by Paddy Ryan | ARKive

The curious face of a Kakapo. Aren't they gorgeous birds! Photo by Paddy Ryan | ARKive

 A male Kakapo 'booming'. Photo Andrew Digby | DOC

A male Kakapo 'booming'. Photo Andrew Digby | DOC

Before we tell you how conservationists got lucky, let’s talk quickly about how Kākāpō get lucky. Kākāpō are the only parrot in the world known to take part in what is known as ‘lek breeding.’ This refers to when male birds put on displays at fixed locations to attract the attention of females, before taking NO part in raising the offspring. Male Kākāpō find themselves on a noticeable outcrop (such as a nice prominent ridge, or a hilltop with low-growing plants). They create what is known as a ‘track-and-bowl system.’ This sees the Kākāpō bash out a network of tracks that branch out from a shallow, bowl-shaped depression in the earth. Once he’s created the perfect bowl and made himself comfy, he starts his wooing. He fills his thoracic air sac and lets out a ‘boom’ every 1 to 2 seconds. This deep, low-frequency sound can be heard 300-400m away on flat ground, or nearly 5km away up in the mountains!  He emits 20-30 booms before letting out a high-pitched metallic ‘chinging’, which helps females locate where his bowl is. You can hear them for yourself here! These songs are serious marathon efforts. Kākāpō can ‘boom’ and ‘ching’ every night for two or three months and can go on (without a break) for a massive… 8 HOURS! I guess when you only breed 2 or three times a decade, you’ve gotta do what you gotta do!!

Now, where were we? Oh yeah! In 1977 ‘booming’ was heard from Rakiura, a (mostly) predator-free island. It turned out to be about 200 male Kākāpō! Excitingly, they even managed to eventually confirm that female birds were also present. This island population has been the bedrock of all conservation work to save the species to date, and will be for the foreseeable future! The discovery of these birds was a vital lifeline for the Kākāpō. The decision was made to evacuate the Rakiura population as feral cats were sending the Kākāpō population towards dangerous levels. Between 1980 and 1997, the remaining birds on Rakiura were transported to three offshore island sanctuaries to safeguard what was left of the Kākāpō. The islands are; Codfish Island/ Whenua Hou, Maud Island, and Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island. Between 1974 and 1981, five males from Fiordland were also transferred to Little Maud Island to encourage the genetic diversity of the population.

 'Alice' and her 45 day old chick in the nest on Whenua Hou/Codfish Island. Image Don Merton | DOC

'Alice' and her 45 day old chick in the nest on Whenua Hou/Codfish Island. Image Don Merton | DOC

Cats had been eradicated from Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island in 1980, but this left one other pest on the island that caused big issues for the Kākāpō. By 1995, at least 12 chicks had been produced across the island, but only three had managed to survive. Without the cats around, the rats lacked predators, and they ran riot on the island. Sadly, Kākāpō chicks were easy prey. This meant that the Kākāpō struggled to reproduce quickly enough to offset the adult mortality rate. In 1995 the Kākāpō population had fallen as low as 51 birds, instigating a major and urgent review of the management of Kākāpō in New Zealand. This, in turn, led to the creation of the National Kākāpō Team, formed alongside a new ten-year Kākāpō Recovery Plan, an increase in funding, staffing and the creation of the Kākāpō Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee.  One of the key elements was to ensure the islands were predator free. It took nearly a decade, but in 2004 all three islands were officially free from predators. Finally, they had sanctuaries that were suitable for the long-term rehabilitation of the Kākāpō population!

 The rise and fall of the Kakapo population over the years! From  NZ DOC

The rise and fall of the Kakapo population over the years! From NZ DOC

Given we’re writing an article on them, the Kākāpō recovery plan must have seen more success, right? WELL, between 1995 and 2003 the population increased by 68%, up to 86 birds. As of 2000, 5 new female Kākāpō had been produced, and there had been 13 breeding attempts. So far so good, but thankfully things have continued to improve even more since then! 2016 was the largest Kākāpō breeding season to date! 37 chicks surviving the season. While not all grew to adulthood, the success of that season provides great hope for a hands-free conservation strategy in the future. With the next breeding season predicted to be at the end of 2018/beginning of 2019, hopefully, the Kākāpō can breed to even greater success this time around! The total population (at time of writing) stands at 149 adult Kākāpō.

The Kākāpō is simply a marvellous bird, with a fascinating history! Maybe I’m just a sucker for charismatic, slightly weird species, but in the same fashion as when I wrote about the wonderful pangolins, I’ve found myself falling in love with the Kākāpō. Bringing attention to the critically endangered wildlife of our natural world is such an important part of working to save them. Keep your eye out for another Kākāpō article in the future! We’ll look at some of the ways that scientists and conservationists are working to save these crazy parrots, particularly with the help of some VERY special canine friends! Stay tuned!

 How could you not love that little face?? Sirocco is a bird worth falling in love with! Photo: DOC

How could you not love that little face?? Sirocco is a bird worth falling in love with! Photo: DOC

 

Most information from the New Zealand Department of Conservation Kakapo Recovery Team, and History of the Kakapo websites.