For two weeks over the New Zealand 2018/2019 summer, Tom and I volunteered with kākāpō on Whenua Hou Island. You can read about the trip and some of the other species we encountered in our blog post, here.
Whilst we were on the island, we were extremely lucky to have a couple of kākāpō sightings. We also saw plenty of kākāpō sign. Today, we want to introduce you to this charismatic critter and to share a few of our own observations.
The Kākāpō (Strigops habroptilus)
Kākāpō (Strigops habroptilus) are a critically endangered nocturnal, flightless parrot endemic to New Zealand. They are a very unique species with no close relatives.
The name kākāpō literally translates to ‘night parrot’ in Māori, with ‘kākā’ meaning ‘parrot’ and ‘pō’ meaning ‘darkness’ or ‘night’. They are sometimes known in English as the ‘owl parrot’.
On the Brink of Extinction
Kākāpō used to be common throughout New Zealand’s forests before humans arrived. The 19th-century West Coast explorer, Charlie Douglas, wrote of the kākāpō saying,
“The birds used to be in dozens round the camp, screeching and yelling like a lot of demons, and at times it was impossable [sic] to sleep for the noise.”
“…At other times they could be caught in the moonlight, when on the low scrub, by simply shaking the tree or bush till they tumbled on the ground, something like shaking down apples. I have seen as many as half a dozen Kakapos knocked off one tutu bush this way.”
But, by the mid 1990s, their population reached a low point of only 51 birds. This devastating drop in population was primarily caused by introduced mammals which preyed on them. Rats will eat the eggs and chicks, whilst adult birds can easily be killed by larger predators such as stoats, cats and dogs.
In order to try and conserve the species, many of the birds were translocated to predator-free offshore islands, such as Whenua Hou. To read more about the conservation history of kākāpō, visit here.
With only 213 kākāpō alive as of 17th September 2019, every individual is of great importance. So much so that every bird has a name. There is a fascinating website in which you can see the names and details of almost all of the birds here.
Kākāpō: A World Title Holder
The world’s heaviest parrot
Kākāpō are the heaviest parrot species in the world. On average, the females weigh 1.4 kg and males 2.2 kg. They can gain 1 kg of fat prior to a breeding season.
The world’s only flightless parrot
Kākāpō are the world’s only flightless parrot. The reason for this is that they evolved without the presence of mammalian predators (New Zealand’s only native land mammals are bats). They gained weight and lost their ability to fly. Now, their wings are used for balance and graceful falls. Although they can’t fly, lighter females can glide short distances across gaps of 3–4 m.
Being flightless doesn’t mean that you won’t find them high up in a tree though! Using their strong claws, kākāpō can climb 20m up trees. They also have large, strong legs and can walk several kilometres at a time. They can also run pretty fast in short bursts when they need to.
The world’s only lek-breeding parrot
Lek-breeding is when males put on displays at fixed locations to attract female attention. The males don’t help to raise any offspring either. Kākāpō are the world’s only known parrot species to lek-breed. They are also the only lek-breeding bird in New Zealand.
Several male kākāpō will build “track and bowl” systems to form a communal display area. From these bowls, they will puff up their chests and make loud, deep booming calls throughout the night. These dug out bowls (such as the one pictured below) act to amplify the call, sending it out into all the surrounding hills and valleys. Females are attracted for kilometres around and spend a long time choosing a mate from amongst the competing boomers. Sometimes the males also make a ‘chinging’ call which, by it’s nature, is easier to pinpoint.
Perhaps the world’s longest-lived bird species
Kākāpō are long-lived and estimated to reach 90 years of age. They don’t start breeding until they’re about five years old.
Our Search for Kākāpō
Being on an island inhabited by kākāpō does in no way guarantee you will see one. When disturbed, their defence tactic is to freeze. They are masters of camouflage and blend in so perfectly to the surrounding vegetation, that unless you see movement, you probably won’t see them.
As a side note, this defence mechanism worked very well in protecting kākāpō from aerial predators who rely on sight, such as the now-extinct native Haast’s eagle and large Eyles harrier. But, they are sitting “ducks” when it comes to any predator that uses their sense of smell to hunt, i.e. all of the introduced mammalian predators.
Tom and I spent just about every daylight hour for two weeks tramping around in kākāpō territory, and it wasn’t until near the end of our trip that we first saw a glimpse of one. All in all, we were both lucky enough to have two sightings each.
All of our hundreds of other “kākāpō’ sightings ended with a disappointed sigh of, “Oh, it’s just a ball of moss…” No offence to any bryologists out there!
Whilst you might not see a kākāpō in the flesh, you’ll likely have a good chance of seeing some kākāpō sign.
We spotted a few feathers on our walks. They were quite exciting to pick up and examine as it’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to a kākāpō! When looking at the patterning and colours, you can see why they blend in so well with the New Zealand bush.
Perhaps not quite as endearing, but equally as telling, is finding kākāpō poo. Their droppings are actually really valuable to scientists who have analysed them to learn many things, from figuring out which gut-microbes the birds have, to whether there are dietary triggers to kākāpō breeding.
“Shagged by a Rare Parrot”
I couldn’t finish the post without sharing this clip from the BBC’s “Last Chance to See” with Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine. Watch it and you’ll understand why.
Tom is currently writing the next post in our Whenua Hou series. He’ll be introducing you all to the gorgeous, yellow songbird, the mōhua. Until then!
References and Further Reading
Department of Conservation – Kākāpō – https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kakapo/
Department of Conservation – Kākāpō Behaviour – https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kakapo/behaviour/
Department of Conservation – Kākāpō Recovery – https://www.doc.govt.nz/our-work/kakapo-recovery/
Department of Conservation Blog – Nuggets from our Natives – https://blog.doc.govt.nz/2017/12/28/nuggets-from-our-natives/
IUCN Red List – Kakapo – https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22685245/129751169
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa – Lek Mating System of the Kākāpō – https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/topic/1010
New Zealand Birds – Kakapo – https://www.nzbirds.com/birds/kakapo.html
New Zealand Birds Online – Kakapo – http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/kakapo