"The kakapo is a bird out of time. If you look one in its large, round, greeny- brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right, though you know that it probably will not be." - Douglas Adams.

There is no other bird in the world even remotely like a kakapo. Its Latin name (Strigops habroptilus), means owl-faced, soft-feathered parrot and the common Maori name, kakapo means night parrot.

It is different from other parrots in a multiplicity of ways. It's the largest of the species, for a start. It's the only nocturnal member of the parrot family, and the only flightless member. (Webster's short distance flights are really just hops or glides). The kakapo is also the rarest species of parrot in the world.

The flightless nature of the kakapo is a common evolutionary trait amongst New Zealand native birds – Aotearoa's island nature provided a unique and isolated evolutionary habitat, with no land-based mammals (the only native mammals in New Zealand are winged – bats – or marine – seals). With no competition for food and no predation by mammals, bird species were able to forage freely for food on the ground, and many, including the moa, the kiwi and the kakapo lost the ability to use their wings for flight.

Appearance:

Kakapo (the Maori language has no letter S, indicating plurality by the pronoun used, and in bicultural New Zealand it is considered very bad manners to pluralise Maori words by adding an S) have round, owl-like faces on sturdy legs and bulky frames. They can measure up to 2 feet in length and weigh up to 8lbs. Though primarily ground-dwelling birds, they can climb trees, and use their wings as a kind of parachute-cum-braking system to facilitate their descent. Unlike some other flightless birds, it is not wing-structure, but the structure of the kakapo sternum that makes it incapable of flying – it has almost no keel, and cannot therefore steer properly within air currents. Plumage (brighter in the male) is a soft moss green with black bars along the back and pale yellow, soft feathers on breast and belly. In addition there is a layer of down, and the birds have a uniquely structured ivory and pale blue beak which they use to grind their food. Kakapo have grey "whiskers" on their faces, and they walk almost horizontal, so that these touch the ground. Once, pure yellow varieties existed, but these are now extinct.

Breeding:

Kakapo are the only "lek" breeding birds in New Zealand, and the only parrot species worldwide to breed in this manner. This means that at the beginning of the breeding season (December) the males gather together in a small area and begin a competitive display to attract mates. Once gathered, they draw in huge quantities of air to inflate a sac in their thorax, swelling like porcupine frogs, and then use it to emit low, resonant booming sounds – the announcement that they are ready to mate.
Douglas Adams describes the sound as:
"like a heartbeat: a deep powerful throb that echoed through the dark ravines. It was so deep that some people will tell you that they felt it stirring in their gut before they could discern the actual sound, a sort of wump, a heavy wobble of air."
The ritual is usually enacted on a hilltop, with low vegetation, where each bird constructs a bowl in the earth with tracks radiating from it – this track and bowl system is also unique among parrots - the male settles in the bowl, and begins to broadcast his booms, interspersed with an occasional high metallic call (known, dear noders, as a ching). The females, who roam widely during the summer will often travel for miles to mate with the most impressive boomer. After mating, the female incubates her clutch of two-three eggs and raises the chicks alone until they fledge.

The males continue their display throughout the breeding season, seeking as many mates as possible. It is possible for females to lay two clutches within a season, but breeding is still very slow, since seasons are not annual but take place every two to four years, depending largely on availability of food. Kakapo are strict herbivores, eating only fruits, seeds, leaves, stems and roots, primarily of native plants.

Habitat

Kakapo are solitary, wandering birds with large ranges that they travel across alone (up to 30 miles for a female bird with young to feed) in lowland forests and grasslands. They have a warning skraaark noise where ranges overlap to indicate their presence, and steer clear of each other, except during the mating season.

Life Cycle

Kakapo are the longest lived of any known bird, with lifespans of up to 60 years - or maybe longer: no known kakapo have died of old age, despite having been discovered up to 25 years ago. They hatch after 30 days and leave the nest at three months, but do not reach breeding age until six or eight years old.

Endangered status

Currently there are only 86 known kakapo in existence. Every one of them has a name.

Since the arrival of the Maori, the kakapo population has been in decline. Maori hunted the birds, destroyed their habitat and introduced predators like the kiore (the Polynesian rat). The situation worsened considerably with the arrival of European settlers who not only increased the decimation of habitat, but brought even more dangerous predators along with them - ferrets, cats, stoats, rats, and dogs. Kakapo, evolved to protect themselves from the sight-oriented birds of prey which were their only predators before the arrival of humans, have only one self-preservation strategy: camouflage. When threatened, they become absolutely still, and can merge into their background. This was effective for thousands of years, but is useless against predators who hunt by smell – especially considering that the kakapo have a very strong, sweet, musky odour clearly identifiable even to human noses.

Kakapo were prized as a delicacy, being a tasty and full-flavoured meat. Their feathers were used for Maori cloaks, down stuffed pillows and mattresses, and being large, previously unknown and hailed as the oldest form of parrot they were frequently hunted as trophies by European settlers and tourists alike. The kakapo was simply too good a target, and by the 1930s (less than a century after European settlement) they were extinct on New Zealand's North Island. Human predation stopped soon after this, but the feral cats, stoats and other animals the Europeans had brought with them continued to annihilate the population.

From the 1950s, active protection measures have been put in place, with the Departmant of Conservation, The Royal Forest and Bird Society and Comalco New Zealand (an aluminium producer) working in partnership to establish the Kakapo Recovery program.

This has involved moving the kakapo to predator-free islands off the coast of mainland New Zealand, from Fjordland in the South Island and Stewart Island. There has been an intensive breeding program undertaken, including heavy supplementing of food to encourage more regular breeding seasons. Breeding of the last remaining Fjordland kakapo, known Robert Henry, has been particularly concentrated on, to try to maintain the diversity of the species (Fjordland birds are marked differently from Stewart Island birds). Luckily, despite being, at 38, the oldest known male, Robert Henry appears to continue to be a desirable mate and has sired several surviving chicks.

Since 1999 the kakapo population has risen from 62 to 86, a positive step on the route to establish a self-sustaining, unmanaged population of the bird – but that is still a long way off.



Sources:
http:/www.kakaporecovery.org.nz
http:/www.doc.govt.nzConservation
http:
/www.kakapo.net/
Douglas Adams & Mark Carwardine, Last Chance to See (Ballantine, 1990)

Ka`ka*po" (?), n. Zool.

A singular nocturnal parrot (Strigops habroptilus), native of New Zealand. It lives in holes during the day, but is active at night. It resembles an owl in its colors and general appearance. It has large wings, but can fly only a short distance. Called also owl parrot, night parrot, and night kaka.

 

© Webster 1913.

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