The other flightless, night-dwelling bird

First written in March 2015.

New Zealand is well-known for our array of birds-that-are-more-like-mammals (thanks, evolution!). We have long been recognised for our namesake bird, the kiwi, but the roly-poly kākāpō is rising through the ranks of “world famous in NZ” stars. I’d contend the kākāpo is the fourth most popular folk-bird in NZ, seeing as they’re pretty much the avian version of the Flight of the Conchords: awkward but endearing and oh-so-funny. If you haven’t heard of these delightful but eccentric parrots, I can guarantee your life will be all the richer once you get to know them!

Sirocco Kākāpō. Image by Chris Birmingham/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

Sirocco Kākāpō. Image by Chris Birmingham/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

The kākāpo is a rotund parrot with an owlish face and exquisite green mottled feathers. This soft, dappled green is excellent for blending into the lush NZ bush, which is handy for kākāpo who seem opt for “freeze” rather than “fight or flight” when taken by surprise. Kākāpo take the title for “world’s heaviest parrot” so it is no wonder they also take the honour for “world’s only flightless parrot.” These adaptations served them well in pre-human NZ, as they were able to effectively avoid predation by the giant but now extinct Haast’s Eagle that ruled the daylight skies. They may not be able to soar majestically, but kākāpo are great at “controlled falls” out of trees, with the grace and elegance of a flying brick. Despite their limited flight abilities, kākāpo are fantastic climbers and one has even been known to evade capture by Department of Conservation rangers by scaling a rimu tree tens of metres tall. Cheeky as!

Haast’s Eagle was the largest eagle known to have existed. Here it is pictured attacking moa (also extinct). Image by John Megahan/PLoS Biology (CC BY 2.5).

Haast’s Eagle was the largest eagle known to have existed. Here it is pictured attacking moa (also extinct). Image by John Megahan/PLoS Biology (CC BY 2.5).

Kākāpo are largely solitary birds, leaving their home range only to breed. Like many of their other characteristics, the kākāpo’s courtship is rather unusual. Kākāpo are considered “lek” breeders, which means that the males compete with each other to attract the attention of females. The male kākāpo’s “stall” in this “marketplace of seduction” consists of a shallow bowl dug into the ground, cleared of any forest debris, with a couple of tracks leading to it. This “track and bowl”, typically located high up on a hilltop, is the stage for a remarkable performance. Forget milkshakes ‘cause they don’t bring the kākāpo to the yard – these birds are are all about that bass. The male will puff himself up into a fat feathery ball and commence “booming.”

His boom is amplified by the bowl and reverberates across the valleys, attracting females from far and wide. Sometimes he will alternate his bassy booms with a “ching” call that allows females to hone in on his location. Gotta get dat boom-boom-ching!

What happens next? This video featuring Spokesbird for Conservation Sirocco Kākāpo may give you an idea…

The female will then typically lay one to four eggs, that will hatch after 30 days. You can see a kākāpo hatchling in this video (they aren’t the most attractive baby birds, hey).

This bizarre breeding display only occurs once every couple of years – only when there’s sufficient rimu fruit around. Ordinarily for kākāpo, this slow pace would be all good, as they can live for 90 years, and maybe even 120 years. However, human settlement, habitat destruction and introduced pests such as stoats and cats have led to a significant decline in kākāpo numbers. Fossil records indicate that the kākāpo were once widespread throughout NZ and were our third most common bird, but today, they are considered critically endangered.

Kākāpō chicks. Image by Dianne Mason/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

Kākāpō chicks. Image by Dianne Mason/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

Conservation efforts began as early as the 1890s, with conservationist Richard Henry transporting 200 kākāpo in his dinghy from Fiordland to Resolution Island in an attempt to save them. Sadly, stoats soon swum to Resolution Island and wiped out Richard Henry’s endeavours within just six years. Today, only 126 kākāpo remain, and each is individually named – a stark reminder of the species’ precarious situation. These survivors live on offshore, predator-free islands, with about half calling Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) home.

The good folk at the Kākāpo Recovery programme intensely manage the kākāpo population and have overseen an increase in their population from just 86 individuals in 2005. Each bird is fitted with a radio transmitter and supplementary food is provided to encourage successful breeding. The kākāpo are trained to use their food hoppers with “Hansel & Gretel” style trails of kumara. Some hoppers are even fitted with devices able to identify specific kākāpo via their radio transmitter – this prevents naughty kākāpo from raiding their neighbours’ tucker!

Kākāpō at a feeding station. Image by Josie Beruldsen/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

Kākāpō at a feeding station. Image by Josie Beruldsen/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

One particularly mischievous kākāpo is Sirocco, who I have already mentioned is the Spokesbird for Conservation and star of “Last Chance to See” with Stephen Fry. Sirocco had a rocky start to life, suffering from a respiratory illness at three weeks old. In order to improve his chances of survival, Sirocco was handraised and returned to the wild once he was healthy, after a few months in human care. However this stint in the company of humans had a lasting effect, as it soon became clear Sirocco believed he was Homo sapiens and not Strigops habroptilus. Sirocco was so enamoured with his human saviours that he built his “track and bowl” on the path between the ranger hut and toilet on Codfish Island, and attempted to mate with any unsuspecting volunteer or ranger who ventured out for a midnight pee. Due to his imprinting on humans, Sirocco was deemed unsuitable for breeding but he had a natural affinity for the limelight. He spends most of his time living peacefully in the wild, but does “go on tour” like any rockstar, visiting various locations around NZ.

Sirocco Kākāpō is full of character. Image by Darren Scott (CC BY 2.0).

Sirocco Kākāpō is full of character. Image by Darren Scott (CC BY 2.0).

Kākāpo are intelligent, curious and have distinct personalities – they are an extraordinary species, precious taonga (treasure), that we cannot afford to lose. With charismatic advocates like Sirocco, a well-funded breeding programme and the procurement of predator-free habitat, there is hope for our fascinating feathered friends.

This post was inspired by a recent talk given at Forest & Bird.

You can visit Sirocco Kākāpo on Facebook here.

You can visit Kākāpo Recovery on their website or on Facebook.