Think of an eminent Victorian gentleman in a green frock coat with his serious face framed by bushy sideburns and forward looking large round eyes - lacking only a pair of spectacles delicately balanced on his large nose. Now transplant that image on to a bird and welcome to the Kākāpō (meaning night parrot), one of New Zealand’s most loved but critically endangered birds.
Pronounced kah-kuh-poh, this most beguiling of birds has evolved in a country that itself has spent the last 85 million years in semi-complete isolation and thus the Kākāpō has evolved in an extraordinary way into what it is today. The so-called ‘Victorian gentleman’ comparison was taken from an absolutely hilarious film clip with Stephen Fry commenting on a Kākāpō, as it makes frantic flapping love to his cameraman’s head, having mistaken it for an extremely attractive female.
Sadly, the Kākāpō is also one of NZ’s most endangered birds with just 147 left (doc.govt.nz) in the world. Once endemic in the the deep lush forests of NZ it became extinct on the North island in the 1930’s and survived until the early 1980’s in small pockets of the South with the last colony being found on Stewart Island, south of the South Island. In the 1990’s the only surviving 50 birds were left and scientists, ornithologists, conservationists and the general public went on the warpath to save this magnificent and strange species of giant flightless nocturnal parrot that has no close species relatives, despite its technically inaccurate nickname as the ‘Owl-parrot’. It has now been recently discovered that today’s bird had an even bigger ancestor who stood nearly 1.5 meters tall!
Kākāpō are intensely intelligent with each one having its own unique personality. They are pathologically curious, constantly playful and unfortunately too friendly. However evolution hasn't done them many favours. Whilst they have a relatively well camouflaged coat of blotched yellow-green, they have short legs that do run fast but climb trees dreadfully and short wings that can only flap. When threatened one of their defence strategies is to stand absolutely still which once worked with sight only predator birds - but it’s not a successful strategy when confronted by the non-indigenous rat, ferret, cat or the worst of the worst, an aggressive stoat, all attracted by scent and the Kākāpō’s ground-built nest of eggs and chicks that is notoriously smelly.
There are soon going to be 160 plus Kākāpō living on just three isolated and predator free islands off the coast of the South Island. Last year 32 chicks were hatched and each bird is tagged, its diet supplemented and its habitat monitored 24 hours a day.
This year (2019) we had a critically serious Kākāpō health scare. They were contracting a type of respiratory disease (Aspergillosis) that has killed a number of adults and chicks and when numbers are so very low, we just cannot afford to lose anymore. It looks like the new threat has passed for the moment but everything that can be done is urgently being done.
This is intense conservation on a major scale and a race against time - and ironically the Kākāpō don’t make it easy for us to save them. The males are lonesome and somewhat selfishly don’t help the females look after the chicks (think of Penguins as an opposite example here!) and the boys have disappointingly low fertility rates and are infrequent in mating, despite their impressive deep booming mating calls for 3 months a year, it literally tends to be just that; hot air.
It’s said the beautiful Kākāpō can live for 100 years and today’s chicks could easily outlive most of us. So let’s hope this super special, unique and cheeky bird can flourish once more and not be lost to perpetual extinction like so many other species mankind has so carelessly lost from planet earth.
For more information about the Kākāpō recovery take a look at https://www.doc.govt.nz/our-work/kakapo-recovery/get-involved