"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
, 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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
. 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
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
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
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
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
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.
Douglas Adams & Mark Carwardine, Last Chance to See (Ballantine, 1990)