It looks like something from a child's drawing.
A flightless, ten pound parrot with feathers of lime green tipped with white and black; its face feathery, almost furry, and an isosceles beak protruding from a strangely round face. It's eyes are near black, nothing like the beady eyes of a songbird or the intelligent, canny ones of a hawk.
It is also critically endangered, loves humans, and was made famous trying to mate with a zoologist's head as Stephen Fry narrates with undisguised hilarity. But the struggle of the kakapo, a wholly unique species found only on a few islands off New Zealand, has been centuries in the making. Once proliferous across New Zealand, there are only over 200 of these birds remaining, and each hatching of a kakapo chick is celebrated by researchers and scientists who study these incredible animals.
Let's backup for a bit of a history lesson:
New Zealand was largely left alone until the late 18th century, when English explorer Captain James Cook traveled through the area and wrote detailed accounts of New Zealand.
Whalers, missionaries, and traders followed, and in 1840 Britain formally annexed the islands and established New Zealand's first permanent European settlement at Wellington. That year, the Maori signed the Treaty of Waitangi, by which they recognized British sovereignty in exchange for guaranteed possession of their land. However, armed territorial conflict between the Maori and white settlers continued until 1870, when there were few Maori left to resist the European encroachment.
Originally part of the Australian colony of New South Wales, New Zealand became a separate colony in 1841 and was made self-governing in 1852. Dominion status was attained in 1907, and full independence was granted in 1931 and ratified by New Zealand in 1947.
Kākāpō, which are sacred to Māori (Kakapo were very important to the Maori. They were eaten, used for clothing and wealth, and made pets.), were once so common that European colonists complained that their screeching mating calls kept them up at night.
"They'd shake a tree, and six kākāpō would fall out, like apples"
says Andrew Digby, a science advisor on the kākāpō recovery team
As the world discovered the natural beauty of NZ and brought with them cats on their ships, these felines began to hunt the flightless, nocturnal parrots, dwindling their numbers rapidly. They also became a favorite prey of stoats, and the rats that came onboard ships fed on kakapo eggs and defenseless chicks.
But we can't just blame cats, stoats, and rats for the dangers to the kakapo. Not to bird-shame, but the kakapo have some of the fault as well.
First of all, they're rather long lived for birds. Easily reaching life expectancy of roughly 90 years old, the longest lived of them are around 120 years old. They're slow to age to breed and slow to age into breeding. Kakapo don't begin breeding until around age 4 or 5. Kakapo breed in summer and autumn, but only in years of good fruit abundance. On islands in southern New Zealand they breed when the rimu trees fruit, which is once every 2 to 4 years. Elsewhere in New Zealand they probably nested when southern beech seeded, but the triggers for breeding in some northern places, including Hauturu, are unknown.
Kakapo are also the only parrots in the world that are lek-breeders. Males call from track-and-bowl systems to attract females for mating.
In breeding years, adult male kākāpō take to the stage in about December. Each male finds a prominent ridge, rock or hilltop with low-growing vegetation - all the better to call from. Then he forms a track-and-bowl system: a network of tracks radiating from a shallow bowl-like depression in the earth.
The primary bowl usually has a clear area of ground around it and the neatly trimmed tracks connecting two or three additional bowls, but sometimes up to ten.
Settled in his bowl, the male inflates his thoracic air sac. Then he emits a deep, low-frequency 'boom' every 1-2 seconds. It can be heard 300-400 m away on flat ground, or up to 5 km away in the mountains.
After 20-30 booms he makes a high-pitched metallic 'ching'. It helps any interested females pinpoint his position.
His serenade can last for eight hours without any break, every night for two or three months.
Males play no part in incubation or chick-rearing. The nests are on or under the ground in natural cavities or under dense vegetation. The 1-4 eggs are laid in a shallow depression in the soil or rotten wood, which is repeatedly turned-over before and during incubation.
We're not sure which qualities make a male kākāpō more attractive. Some are clear favorites and will attract many females, while others are not selected at all.
Females can travel long distances to mate with their preferred male or males, often walking past other males in the process
Nests are made in good shelters: hollow trees, or caves made by rocks and roots. Female kākāpō lay between one and four eggs, slightly smaller than chicken eggs. The eggs hatch after about 30 days.
As a solo parent, the female must leave her nest unattended at night to find food. Chicks fledge after about 10 weeks. The mother may keep feeding her chicks for up to six months.
So as the mother kakapo leaves the nest unattended every night, this leaves the chicks defenseless. And kakapo nests are notoriously smelly, so while she may hide her babies well, there's no covering the smell.
Strangely enough, adult kakapo are said to smell like honey. So apparently they're weird in lots of ways and not just the whole flightless big parrot booming thing.
If it hadn't been for researchers and scientists fighting to keep them alive and breeding, the kakapo would have likely become extinct.
Since 1995, workers with the Kakapo Recovery Program have been carefully monitoring population levels, providing the birds with supplemental feed, ensuring the islands where the Kakapo remain are free of invasive predators, and at times hand-raising chicks that are underweight or sick. In 1995, researchers counted only 51 surviving kākāpō, which humans cared for on predator-free islands.
And now the beloved birds have a spokesmodel - Sirocco, the most famous kakapo. As of 2020, Sirocco was 25 years old.
Yet the precarious population numbers have grown threefold in Sirocco's lifetime-thanks, in part, to his successful ambassadorship. 2017 witnessed a 24 percent increase in numbers, making for the best breeding season yet until 2020, when a record 46 chicks were hatched, and 43 of them survived. (The 3 chicks lost were swept away in a flash flood). Awareness of the kakapo, thanks to Sirocco and his handlers and kakapo researchers, have made these birds beloved.
Other fun kakapo facts:
Kakapos are sturdy birds. Unlike other land birds, the kakapo can store large amounts of energy as body fat. It's the world's heaviest parrot: at about 24 inches tall, it weighs between 4 and 9 lbs.
Sirocco may be the oddest kākāpō of all. Hand-raised by rangers due to respiratory issues, he imprinted on humans at an early age, and swore off mating with his own kind. (Hence his session with Carwardine, who was far from the first or last to be, as Stephen Fry quipped in that video, "shagged by a rare parrot.")
Male kākāpō who are ready to mate dig bowls in the ground, where they sit and inflate themselves, like footballs, as they boom all night to attract females. Sirocco builds bowls and booms near humans. When he resided on Codfish Island (his current island home must remain unnamed, to protect the sanctuary) he settled near an outhouse and chased people en route to relieve themselves. Researchers erected a fence by the hut to stop him from crawling up legs to get to their heads.
Head-mating is a common theme with Sirocco. He has tried to mate with heads so often that scientists once fashioned an "ejaculation helmet" for volunteers to don. The rubber headgear features an array of dimples to collect semen-essentially, a hat of condoms. It never worked, as kākāpō are intense at intercourse, doing it for close to an hour while most birds require just a few seconds. The helmet now resides in Wellington's Te Papa Museum, next to "Chloe," a motorized, decoy female kākāpō who was another failed breeding booster.
Sirocco's popularity has inspired more interest in the kakapo and conservation - he even has his own emojis!
Because of his station, an insurance policy has been taken out that insures Sirocco the kakapo for an astonishing $79,500. (Arrival at this figure considers food, care, housing, and travel on an annual basis.)
In 2013, an award-winning documentary film was created called Sirocco - How a Dud Became A Stud (by Indian filmmaker, Ashwika Kapur)
The story of the kakapo is one of tentative success through years of dedicated hard work and conservation. If we could apply that focus and resources to other species in decline, and fix climate change, we could preserve the kakapo and so many others to be respected and enjoyed by future generations.
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