Kakapo - the World's Most Remarkable Parrots Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Kakapo - the World's Most Remarkable Parrots

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A big, fat, green parrot - the kakapo.

There are 125 kakapo alive1 on Earth.

Kakapo are very large, flightless, ground-dwelling, green parrots, native and endemic to New Zealand/Aotearoa2 in the south-west Pacific. Once prolific throughout New Zealand, as of May 2006, kakapo are thought to be extinct everywhere except those in breeding programmes on island reserves3. With at one stage no known live birds, kakapo are now on the road to recovery because of the Kakapo Recovery Programme.

Wherever humans interact with kakapo they seem inspired by the birds' unique personalities, leading to kakapo being described as the world's most remarkable parrots.

The kakapo's unique physique and habits have endeared it to naturalists and biologists, as well as the public and the odd celebrity4.

The kakapo are nocturnal, they are cryptically coloured, they are shy. But once you get them in hand, like Richard Henry5, for instance, he was just a cuddly toy. I'd talk to him and scratch him and he'd put his head back and just close his eyes, just like nursing a big Persian cat.
- Don Merton,
National Kakapo Team
NZ Listener 23 April 2005

Kakapo do everything slowly. They 'run with a waddling gait (although they also climb with agility)'6. They breed slowly, taking months to mate. They walk for kilometres every night to feed themselves. They emit a curious and attractive smell, described variously as freesias, honey and lavender, or the inside of a clarinet box. People often describe kakapo as playful, and early European bushmen sometimes kept them as pets.

If naturalists go to heaven (about which there is considerable ecclesiastical doubt), I hope that I will be furnished with a troop of kakapo to amuse me in the evening instead of television.
- Gerald Durrell,
British naturalist, 1989

It is a Dr Seuss kind of bird - a parrot that can't fly, a nocturnal herbivore of the forest floor, a feathered heavyweight that can hop like a sparrow and growl like a dog.
- Andrew Macalister,
Content writer,
Kakapo Recovery Programme website

Description

Kakapo are members of the parrot family, Psittacidae. Like other bird species in New Zealand, the kakapo evolved in relative isolation from the rest of the world. One of six parrot species there7, it is not closely related to other members of the family, being the only member of its subfamily and more closely resembling an owl in appearance. Because of this it has high taxonomical significance.

Kakapo (pronounced kaa kaa paw)8 is a Maori word meaning 'night parrot'. The kakapo was also known by early European settlers as Owl Parrot because of its facial resemblance to an owl. The Latin name Strigops habroptilus means 'owl-faced soft feathers'.

Kakapo range in weight from 1 to 4kg and are up to 60cm in length. As the world's heaviest parrots they have unusually large amounts of energy reserves stored as body fat compared to other land birds. Their dominant colouring varies from mossy-green to olive green depending on their place of origin, with yellow feathering around the face (all known kakapo today are descendants of birds from Fiordland and Stewart Island, which provide two distinct colourings).

The kakapo has a short, strong beak that is prominently hooked, with a moveable upper part. They have 'whiskers' on either side of their beaks (actually bare-shafted feathers). Although kakapo have large wings, their muscles are not strong enough for them to fly. Instead they are ground-dwelling, with feet and legs well adapted for climbing trees and long walks.

Evolutionary History

When New Zealand finally settled into its current archipelago form after splitting off from the Gondwana continent 45 - 80 million years ago, it was unique in having virtually no mammalian life9. Instead, birds, reptiles and insects evolved in isolation and often acquired unique characteristics. The ancestors of the kakapo would have arrived by flight after New Zealand split from Gondwana, and have been in their present form for 15,000 years. Eventually losing their capacity to fly, they are considered to have filled the niche of rabbits and possums ie, ground-dwelling mammals that graze.

A number of kakapo physical features and habits are a direct result of it having no mammalian competition or predators. Because its main predator was airborne (the now extinct massive Haast eagle) one of its primary defences came from the camouflage provided by the kakapo's green colouring. The kakapo also became nocturnal, ground dwelling, and learned to freeze in times of danger.

Breeding

The kakapo is thought to live over 60 years (exact ages are unknown as no individual kakapo has been studied for that long), making it one of the longest-living bird species. They are usually solitary birds, coming together only to mate. They have an unusual mating and breeding behaviour, laying eggs every two to four years. Males start mating at five years old, females at around ten years.

When mating they use the 'lek' system (unknown in other parrots or other New Zealand birds) where males dig a series of bowls in the earth linked by tracks. From these, they call to the females each night for several months. The male kakapo's mating call is a deep, distinctive boom which can be heard up to five kilometres away. They also have a 'ching' call and can make up to 10,000 booms and 15,000 chings per night. Kakapo make a range of other noises - 'humming, bill-clicking, 'scrarking'... 'screech-crowing', pig-like grunts and squeals, duck-like 'warks' and donkey-like braying10 - the purpose of which is unknown.

Males compete with each other, the females travelling several kilometres if necessary.

Once the females have laid eggs, they take care of the chicks themselves, leaving the nest and ranging long distances to find food each night. Eggs hatch at four weeks, and chicks leave the nest after three months, sometimes being fed by the mother for up to six months.

Kakapo are herbivores, using their specially-adapted beaks to strip vegetation like browsing mammals and grind it finely. They eat a wide range of plants and plant parts (leaves, roots, seeds, etc) and will often feed more exclusively on preferred foodstuffs when available, such as the fruit of the rimu tree. Rimu and other food sources play an important part in kakapo breeding as peak fruiting years prompt a mating season. An important way of finding kakapo is to identify their 'chews' - crescent-shaped wads of fibrous material left behind after eating leaves.

The Decline of the Kakapo

Kakapo once inhabited most parts of New Zealand. Their habitat included a variety of ecosystems, ranging from sub-alpine, through differing kinds of forest, to lowland tussock. The major factors to bring on the decline of the kakapo were: predation by humans, the loss of habitat as native ecosystems were cleared for farming, the introduction of predatory mammals (stoats, ferrets, rats and cats), and the introduction of browsing mammals (deer and Australian possums) that competed for and changed the vegetation.

Human Impact

The first major impact on their survival came with the arrival of migratory humans to New Zealand - Maori settlers around 1,000 years ago. Kakapo were an important resource for Maori, providing both food and clothing. They were hunted, by humans using dogs, especially in the summer when the kakapo mating behaviour made them easier to capture. Kakapo meat was eaten and also preserved for later use. Both the skins and feathers of the kakapo were used to make clothing.

A saying from Kai Tahu (a Maori tribe from the South Island of NZ) in response to someone feeling the cold goes:

Me kauhi Ranei koe ki te huruhuru Kakapo, pu mai o te taonga?

Shall I cover you with the feathers of the Kakapo, heaped up here from the south?

Kakapo are a taonga (treasure) of Kai Tahu (Ngai Tahu) and other Maori iwi (tribes) because of their connection to their ancestors, and their cultural and spiritual significance.

The 1800s saw early Europeans also favouring the kakapo as a food source because of its high nutrient content and because it was so easy to catch. The accounts of many early explorers in the New Zealand bush include reference to kakapo breakfasts. Gold prospectors, surveyors, tourists, and bird collectors all used kakapo as a food source, as did the dogs they took with them. Scientists also played a part - the European attitude to species decline was to get as many specimens preserved as possible while there were still birds available.

Both Maori and Europeans cleared land as a way of utilising resources. The majority of the changes to kakapo ecosystems happened in a relatively short space of time - the 1800s and 1900s when land was cleared for farming.

Kakapo became a fully protected species at the turn of the 20th Century.

Introduced Predators

When Maori arrived in NZ, they brought with them the first ground predators of the kakapo - the kiore rat (Rattus exulans). Kiore soon became naturalised and had a major impact on the NZ ecology, including that of the kakapo. However it was the arrival of Europeans that brought catastrophic changes, including the introduction of two further rat species: Rattus norvegicus (the Norway or 'lab' rat) which arrived with Captain James Cook and later with whalers in the 1700s, and Rattus rattus (the black, ship or roof rat) which arrived between 1860 and 1890.

Later came stoats, ferrets, and cats. Stoats in particular are thought to have had a major impact as early accounts report the sudden decline of ground bird species in any area when stoats first arrived there. Originally introduced in 1867 to control the previously-introduced rabbits, they quickly spread beyond farmland and into the bush.

The kakapo's flightless, ground-dwelling habits, its strong distinctive smell, and its instinct to freeze when in danger - all its evolutionary adaptations - made it an easy target for the new predators. Eggs and chicks are particularly vulnerable as the mother leaves them each night to find food. Dan McKenzie, a pioneer settler in south west NZ described the impact of stoats:

When I was 16 years old (in 1887) I carried a swag...a distance of 19 and-a-half miles between huts, and on the track I counted 20 dead kakapo, all freshly killed by stoats, which merely sucked the blood and left them.

Because these predators expanded within New Zealand slowly, further impact on kakapo was still happening throughout the 1900s. However, once they reached a new area the impact on bird life was often swift and severe.

Loss of Numbers

While initially Europeans in the bush reported being kept awake at night by kakapo booming, and that ridges were covered in mating tracks, kakapo were already in decline by the early 1800s, being restricted to the central North Island and bush areas in the South Island.

In the 1840s there were so few kakapo seen in the North Island that any sightings were considered significant. The decline in the South Island was slower because of the steepness of the bush and the scarcity of human population. By 1890 chief surveyor George Mueller reported that some nights in the bush were without any kakapo calls, and that more provisions needed to be carried because of the lack of birds.

By the 1890s kakapo were extinct in the North Island and radically restricted in the South. They were eventually believed to only exist in Fiordland. By 1974, despite extensive searching, no birds were known to exist.

Conservation History and Kakapo Recovery

The first European attempt to halt the decline of the kakapo came from Irish/Australian immigrant Richard Henry in the late 1800s. One of New Zealand's first conservationists and largely uneducated, Henry had been particularly influenced by Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. He pioneered bird species preservation in New Zealand by transferring kakapo and other ground birds at risk from predation to remote Resolution Island in the fiords of South West New Zealand in 1894.

It was hoped that this island would remain free from stoats and rats and allow bird species to thrive. Unfortunately Resolution Island was too close to the mainland and within six years stoats had swum the distance and eventually exterminated the ground birds there. However Henry spent 12 years living on Resolution Island studying kakapo and his meticulous observations and records of the kakapo were to prove invaluable for the eventual last ditch conservation efforts at the end of the 20th Century.

Over the next 50 years, other sporadic attempts at saving the kakapo, including transfer to other islands, were also ultimately unsuccessful. However, a reprieve came in the 1950s with the creation of the New Zealand Wildlife Service (later the Department of Conservation) and the intention to try to save the kakapo. Initial attempts focussed on searching for any remaining birds. Sixty expeditions were made between 1949 and 1974 into the most remote parts of New Zealand to search for kakapo. Six male birds were recovered but only one lived beyond a month and it did not survive.

Between 1974 and 1977 expeditions in Fiordland yielded 18 birds, but they were all males. However a breakthrough occurred later in 1977 with the discovery of around 200 birds, including females, on Stewart Island. While Stewart Island was free of other ground predators, it did have a major feral cat population that were decimating the last of the kakapo, so all birds were shifted to predator-free island sanctuaries.

The focus then became on getting the kakapo to breed. Although there was some success, getting kakapo to reproduce proved difficult and by 1995 the population had dropped to 51. The seriousness of this situation led to increased public awareness, increased government funding, and corporate sponsorship. In 1995 the Department of Conservation set up the National Kakapo Team and established a ten-year recovery plan, and by 2003 there were a total of 86 kakapo.

The Future for the Kakapo

The current focus of the Kakapo Recovery Plan is:

  • To increase the breeding frequency of the existing population.

  • To increase the productivity of nesting attempts.

  • To determine why kakapo breed infrequently.

The KRP's recovery strategy includes predator control on island sanctuaries, fertility interventions, incubating and hatching eggs artificially, raising chicks in captivity, and research into related areas such as feeding and breeding patterns. The recovery programme uses a combination of high-tech research and on the ground fieldwork. Its success is also due to cutting edge, innovative conservation techniques and the high committment of the people involved.

However the long-term goal of the programme is:

To establish at least one viable, self-sustaining, unmanaged population of kakapo... and to establish two or more other populations which may require on-going management.

Such populations would currently have to be on large island reserves. Beyond that, New Zealand faces some tough decisions. The ultimate goal of reintroducing kakapo onto the mainland raises the wider issue of the ongoing decline of a range of native birds within an already depleted native ecosystem, and what New Zealand is prepared to do about it.

1As of October 2015. When this Entry was first written in 2005, there were only 86 kakapo alive. The kakapo population usually changes each year, and you can follow the news here: Kakapo count.2New Zealand is also known as Aotearoa, a Maori word meaning 'land of the long white cloud'.3It is possible, though unlikely, that some isolated kakapo still exist on the mainland or on Stewart Island (a search in Fiordland in early 2006 yielded no birds or recent signs). Population updates can be found at the Kakapo Recovery Programme.4Douglas Adams visited New Zealand to observe kakapo in the late 1980s as part of a radio series and book on endangered species: Last Chance to See.5The bird, not the conservationist. The first live kakapo successfully taken into the breeding programme in the 1980s was named after the kakapo conservationist of the 1880s.6New Zealand Birds and How to Identify Them, Perrine Moncrieff.7Kakapo, kaka, kea, and three parakeets.8In Maori the 'a' is pronounced as in the English 'far', not the 'a' in 'hat'. The 'o' is pronounced like the English 'awe', not 'oh'. All vowels in 'kakapo' are long. 'Kakapo' is both singular and plural.9New Zealand's only known land mammals were three species of bats, two of which currently survive.10Last Chance to See, Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine.

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