The observant among you will have noticed that last Wednesday passed by without any wildlife, at least on this blog. I was back in NZ to celebrate my sister’s wedding and dodgy internet coverage meant blog posts weren’t going to happen. My conservationist sister and her takahē relationship manager husband met over a bowl of meal worms while handraising takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri) with puppets. I also played Mum to takahē chicks back in the dark dim past but unfortunately before the advent of digital cameras. So instead I thought I’d share a photo of another threatened NZ bird that our conservation-orientated family have worked with, the kakapo (Strigops habroptila).
The name kakapo comes from the Māori for night parrot and describes an unusual creature. Kakapo are a nocturnal, flightless and ground-nesting species of parrot unique to New Zealand. They weigh in at up to 4 kilograms, are herbivorous and, being exceptionally good climbers, can often be found lurking at the top of trees over 30 metres tall. Kakapo are extremely long-lived, with the oldest living kakapo recently passing away at the ripe old age of 80.
Kakapo have a breeding strategy that is unusual for two reasons: 1) it is linked to the synchronous but sporadic fruiting of rimu trees and 2) it is a lek breeding system. When rimu trees start to produce fruit every three – six years, male kakapo find a high point within their territory and dig out a small bowl in the ground. They use this bowl as an avian form of amplifier from which they produce a low booming sound that can be heard up to five kilometres away to attract females. Males will boom from their bowl for several months and mate with anything that comes close enough – this is not necessarily only female kakapo and has been known to include fieldworker’s jerseys, unwitting seabirds and Mark Carwadine’s head. Female kakapo seek out the male with the sexiest voice and travel from their own territories to mate at the male’s bowl. However, they aren’t really that picky and will often stop off and visit other males along the way. The females then do all the hard work – excavating a nest in a hollow tree or under a log, laying up to three eggs and raising their chicks – while the males continue to strut about on the hillside.
Now, like most NZ birds, things haven’t gone that well for the kakapo. Being flightless and ground-nesting, having a pleasant musky scent and a defensive strategy that involves camouflage and freezing – “if I don’t move, you can’t see me” – is not very effective when it comes to dealing with mammalian predators. So, while they were once widespread throughout most of the country, the last remaining 126 are now confined to just a handful of predator-free offshore islands. The first conservation efforts for kakapo were in the 1890s when forward-thinking Richard Henry transferred more than 200 individuals to Resolution Island. Unfortunately this island was within the swimming distance of stoats and they wiped out the newly founded population of kakapo in just six years. By the 1950s, conservationists were starting to realise that kakapo were rapidly declining. By the 1970s, it was feared that they might functionally extinct with expeditions finding only males confined to high isolated mountain slopes in Fiordland National Park that had not yet been colonised by predators. One male, Richard Henry, was captured from this area in 1977 and transferred to an offshore island. Then, in 1977, a population of ~100-200 kakapo was discovered on Stewart Island but was severely threatened by cat predation. Due to the persistence of Don Merton and his team, 65 were successfully transferred to a number of offshore islands and, along with Richard Henry, became the founders of the current population.
The current management of kakapo is quite intensive, with all 126 individuals named and identified by microchip and radio-transmitter. Breeding is heavily manipulated, with staff on the Kakapo Recovery Team acting as dietitians, relationship managers, nest architects, fertility consultants, kakapo sperm collectors and dispersers, egg sitters, chick watchers, childcare consultants, surrogate parents, teenage counsellors and nurse maids. Such intensive management and much scientific research has led to some innovative and highly amusing methodologies, including the somewhat unsuccessful use of Chloe the remote-controlled kakapo and the ejaculation helmet for collecting kakapo sperm.
Unfortunately 2013 hasn’t turned out to be a breeding year for kakapo. But you can keep updated with how things are going by following Sirocco, the Spokesbird for Conservation (and shagger of Mark Carawadine’s head), on Twitter or Facebook. Or sign up to as a volunteer and join the conservation effort to save the kakapo.
Whitehead, J., Case, B., Wilson, K. & Molles, L. (2012) Breeding variation in female kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) on Codfish Island in a year of low food supply. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 36, 64–74.
Clout, M. N., Elliott, G. P., & Robertson, B. C. (2002). Effects of supplementary feeding on the offspring sex ratio of kakapo: a dilemma for the conservation of a polygynous parrot. Biological Conservation, 107(1), 13-18.