The kakapo, also known as an “owl parrot” because of its owl-like face, has become famous in the recent years following a few documentaries including the BBC TV series Last Chance to See hosted by Stephen Fry and zoologist Mark Carwardine. The word “kakapo” was derived from the Maori words kākā (parrot) + pō (night). The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand to whom the bird, like many other flightless birds, was culturally important for centuries. Their near extinction during the late 19th century started an extensive recovery program that is now helping the species survive and multiply. Here is more about the bird.
A kakapo is a species of a large, flightless parrot measuring an average two feet long and weighing up to two kilograms. It is endemic to New Zealand and possibly one of the longest-living birds in the world.
The average life expectancy of a kakapo is 58 years, the longest being about 90 years. During the pre-human New Zealand era, the kakapo was a successful bird. As there were no land predators, they developed green plumage for camouflage and became nocturnal to avoid detection by birds of prey such as the Haast’s eagle, Eyles’ harrier, raptors and the New Zealand falcon. In consequence, they lost the ability to fly but developed strong legs and a rapid, jog-like gait that help them be able to run several kilometers. They also became very adept at climbing trees to feed. Unlike most birds, the kakapo has a well-developed sense of smell that lets them forage during the nights.
The arrival of Maori people in the late 13th century, and later the Europeans, had a substantial impact on New Zealand’s endemic wildlife as they brought with them predatory mammals.
The Maori hunted the kakapo for food and for their skin and feathers. They also brought with them dogs which caught the kakapo quite easily because they could not fly and Polynesian rats which preyed on their chicks and eggs. During the mid-19th century, the European settlers arrived and brought with them stoats, ferrets, and weasels to control rabbits, and also dogs and cats which hunted the kakapo for food. Another contributing factor for driving the birds to the brink of extinction was the loss of habitat when the humans cleared land for grazing and farming.
As of December 2017, there are only 154 living kakapos left, and their species is considered critically endangered. To preserve them, all the known birds are kept on three predator-free islands and closely monitored.
Though conservation efforts for kakapo had started as early as the 1890s, it wasn’t until the implementation of the Kakapo Recovery Plan in the 1980s that there was any real success. Although 65 kakapos found at that time were relocated to four islands, they had to be evacuated a few times while the conservationists dealt with wild cats, rats, or stoats. Despite these efforts, between 1981 and 1994, nine of the 21 chicks were killed by rats.
By 1995, vigorous efforts were made to kill the rats using traps or poison stations. Small cameras were also mounted near the nests for monitoring and to scare off the rats with flashlights or popping sounds. By April 2012, the three predator-free islands of Codfish, Anchor, and Little Barrier became home to the current living population of kakapo. The birds are now continuously monitored as each of them is equipped with a radio transmitter.
The kakapo breeds only once every two to five years when a plant called “rimu” produces protein-rich fruit and seeds. So, the biologists devised a supplementary diet to increase breeding and control sex ratio.
One of the key steps in Kakapo Recovery Plan was introducing supplementary diet for females. In 1989, after observing the relationship between the rimu plant’s mast year and the kakapo breeding frequency, the biologists chose six foods as supplements: apples, sweet potatoes, Brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds, and sunflower seeds. When the kakapo were relocated to the islands, their sex ratio was very skewed with only 22 females for 43 males. By November 2005, their population rose to 41 females and 45 males.
The next year, there was a new management plan which was to be implemented between 2006 and 2016 to increase female population and genetic diversity in the population. To accomplish this, two large Fiordland islands, Reservation and Secretary, were restored ecologically and the birds were re-introduced. By 2016, the population finally reached to 154, with 116 adults.
All the known kakapos, except a few young chicks, were given a name by the Kakapo Recovery Program officials to show their affection and also to remind themselves how few of these rare birds now remain. On a funny note, in 2010, as part of the International Year of Biodiversity, an adult male kakapo named Sirocco was appointed the “Official Spokesbird” for New Zealand wildlife after a video of him trying to mate with the head of zoologist Mark Carwardine went viral.