Long ago, the newborn world was exclusively filled with secrets begging to be understood. Little by little the mysteries of the natural world began to be solved. But as the tides of the sea passed on and on, many of those secrets remained sealed for future naturalists and scientists to discover while a subset of those forever remained forgotten. Imagine a species once so abundant it was disregarded until it grew so scarce it almost disappeared unnoticed. Such a species, with fewer than 130 left, is the kakapo parrot- a secret we have discovered and one that we must protect.
The kakapo are from the island landmass of New Zealand. This land, once with no mammals except three species of bat, was filled only with birds, reptiles, and insects, allowing those creatures to take the niches that mammals normally would have occupied. Therefore, as Kakapo Recovery describes it, “Instead of mice, New Zealand had bush wrens. Instead of giraffes or kangaroos, New Zealand had the giant moa. And instead of rabbits or possums, New Zealand had the kakapo.” But what really is a kakapo?
The kakapo parrot is considered one of the oldest species of birds and perhaps the oldest species of parrot. Not only it is the largest and heaviest parrot in the world, but the kakapo is also the only flightless parrot. Furthermore, this is the only nocturnal parrot on the planet. It is also the only parrot that has a “lek” breeding system, whereby males gather in a type of competitive mating display. Kakapo males do this by inflating their thorax up like a balloon and emitting a low boom that can be heard up to five kilometres away. They begin booming in December: first they find some prime real estate such as on a comfy ridge, luxurious rock, or seductive hilltop with low-growing vegetation. Then they emit 20-30 booms followed by a high-frequencied “metallic” call known as a “ching”. They do this for up to 8 hours a night (without a break) and will continue doing so every single night for 2-3 months during the breeding season. How could we lose such a species? Well, the fault would be, as most often, human-induced.
Once abundant on the island of New Zealand, these birds found a tragic fate for them the moment humans first began inhabiting. The first Polynesian colonists of New Zealand were the Maori, who preyed on the birds for meet and their plumage. With these settlers, came invasive species- Polynesian dog and rat, which naturally also found the birds and their eggs a tasty treat.
In the early 1880’s the situation for the kakapo, existing only in the central North Island and tree-dense parts of the South Island, worsened when European settlers arrived. Not only did they bring other invasive species, which included predators such as two more rat species, cats, and stoats, and food competitors such as possums and deer, but they also deforested the territory and hunted down the kakapo.
By 1894, the government attempted to save the species from extinction. Under the direction of Richard Henry, hundreds of kakapo were taken to the predator-free territory, Resolution Island in Fiordland. Within 6 years, capable-swimming stoats arrived and decimated the kakapo population.
By the mid 1950’s, the kakapo conservation movement was deemed hopeless, as few birds were rarely ever sighted anywhere across New Zealand. Then something wonderful happened: the New Zealand Wildlife Service formed, a government agency created with the exclusive purpose of tending to New Zealand’s wildlife.
60 rescue missions to Fiordland were made between 1949-1973, and only 6 were found. Each one was male, and all but one survived a few months of captivity. The rescue of the kakapo seemed evidently bleak. By 1974, it was thought that the kakapo could be officially extinct, but a glimmer of hope remained, resulting in a new initiative to save them.
From 1974-1977, 18 males were found, but not a single female. The hope seemed to be fading until later that year 200 kakapo- including females- were found on Stewart Island, which miraculously remained free from stoats, ferrets, and weasels.
Scarily, many of these birds were killed off by the wild cats still co-inhabiting Stewart Island. The choice remained clear: either leave the birds on Stewart Island to die or clear them to an offshore island free from predation. The latter is precisely what they chose to do, and conservation success seemed glimmering on the horizon. Although the problems of the kakapo seemed obliterated to smithereens, they appeared to had only just begun.
The few kakapo that were breeding were unable to have viable chicks: of the 12 hatchlings, only 3 survived. (Females typically lay 1-4 eggs, which hatch ~1 month after). More birds were dying off than were being born, and the three surviving chicks born in 1995 made the total kakapo population a meagre total of 51.
That imminently fading glimmer of hope compelled the National Kakapo Team to create a 10-year plan for increased funding in addition to orchestration of the Kakapo Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee. The new organization found remarkable success. Five new female chicks were born, there were 13 breeding attempts, and the overall population size had increased by 11 birds by 2000. In fact, from 1995-2003, there has been a 68% increase in the number of kakapo, an incredible feat of fearlessness, courage, and tenacity on the part not only of the Kakapo Recovery team but also those sex-obsessed kakapo.
Although it is possible that kakapo remain in some areas of New Zealand such as Stewart Island and Fiordland, most kakapo are now thought to be exclusively located on Codfish Island and Anchor Island now. The Kakapo Recovery team has spent ~22 years making this island habitable for the kakapo. They track each of these precious birds via small transmitters on their backs, and they are extremely dedicated to this species of bird. Without a doubt, they have done work that has influenced captive breeding programs internationally.
The incredible kakapo can live an average of 90 years, though some have been found up to 120 years old. These green-feathered, rimu-fruit-loving, large-clawed, thick-thighed, peregrinning parrots deserve the chance to live, and more of their secrets deserve to be discovered. Help us on this mission to save the last kakapo, one of the most unique species on the planet, from extinction. For the kakapo!