It’s as plump as a goose, has the face of an owl and waddles like a duck. It sleeps in the day and is active at night. And it can climb just about anything but can’t fly anywhere.
No wonder people call the kakapo the strangest parrot on Earth.
Once found in large numbers all over New Zealand, kakapo (pronounced caw-caw-poe) have been perched on the
edge of disappearing for more than a century. What humans started, by reducing the birds’ habitat and food supply, predators such as cats, rats and weasel-like stoats nearly finished.
As of 1977, trackers counted just 18 kakapo left in the entire country — all of them males. The end seemed in sight.
Then something amazing happened. A previously unknown kakapo population was found. It included the first females seen in more than 60 years. This exciting discovery stirred government-led efforts to help the parrots by moving them to three small, predator-free islands.
New Zealand is an isolated island nation in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Many of its plants and animals — like the kakapo — are found nowhere else. Protecting them is a matter of national pride as well as urgency.
“As the largest parrot on Earth, [they are] quite the sight in person,” said Wes Sechrest of Global Wildlife Conservation, which is helping the kakapo recovery program. “They have a teddy-bear quality to them with their soft feathers, wide eyes and owllike expressions.”
Today the recovery program counts 147 adult birds, nearly triple the number since its start in 1995. And that number will soon grow, as the current breeding season is expected to set a record and add 30 to 50 healthy chicks.
A breed apart
In New Zealand’s native Maori language, “kaka” means parrot and “po” is night. The Maori (rhymes with cow-ree) people could have added “old,” because kakapo can live 60 to 90 years.
And no two are alike. “Some are quiet, some noisy. Some are bold, some timid. Some run away from us, some approach us,” said Andrew Digby, the recovery team’s science adviser. “There’s no other bird — or animal — like them.”
Kakapo breed when rimu and other trees bear lots of fruit to eat. Some years that doesn’t happen, which means no breeding. But when conditions are right, male kakapo dig and sit in shallow bowls, puff out their chests and boom like bullfrogs. The din can be heard three miles away. Curious females come to watch the males boom, strut and dance in a courting ritual called a lek.
If nature fails, scientists can try assisted (artificial) breeding, much as Washington’s zookeepers do with giant panda Mei Xiang.
Females lay one to four eggs per season, and chicks hatch in about 30 days. Males play no role in raising them.
To improve kakapo breeding, recovery team members watch and track the parrots using nest cameras, infrared beams, microchips and radio transmitters in small “backpacks” fitted snugly under the birds’ wings.
Individual feeding stations supply extra pellet food and clean water. The stations have electronic scales to check weight and are programmed to open only for the target bird, automatically locking if a parrot wearing the “wrong” transmitter tries to poach from another parrot’s station.
Eggs are often removed from the nest and put in incubators, machines that help them develop. In their place, team members leave 3-D-printed “smart eggs” that make noise and get the moms ready to raise their chicks once they hatch and are brought back.
Digby recalled one female that left her nest with a fake egg in it and returned to find a fluffy chick. She had never seen a chick before and was “very clumsy” with it, he said, “dragging it upside down around the nest. I was worried she’d kill it. But fortunately she tucked it under her, and an hour later fed it well. Phew!”
Recovery team caretakers are very dedicated. They hike the forest all day with equipment and supplies weighing nearly 50 pounds, then curl up at night in tents near the birds. Like new parents, they awake several times each night to tend to their assigned nest.
Every new chick is celebrated. A few years ago, when a female accidentally crushed her egg, team members patched it with tape and glue. Days later, they watched excitedly as the first kakapo chick in three years hatched. Success!
Scientific name: Strigops habroptilus (Latin-to-English translation: owl-face, soft-feathered)
Where they live: New Zealand
Size: 22-25 inches long; adult males weigh nine pounds or more
How many are left: 147 adults
Status: Critically endangered
Fun fact: Kakapo can’t fly. They are the world’s only flightless parrot.
Readers 10 and older will enjoy “Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot,” by Sy Montgomery. The author and photographer Nic Bishop spent 10 days on Codfish Island during breeding season and then turned their adventure into an award-winning book.
The government of New Zealand posts kakapo news at doc.govt.nz/our-work/kakapo-recovery. Find out how to support recovery work by clicking on “Get involved.” But remember to get an adult’s permission before going online.
“Kakapo are amazing birds, unlike anything else on Earth,” said scientist Andrew Digby. “But there are lots of other endangered species, including some near where you live. Once these species are gone, we’ll never get them back. . . .
“If you’re interested, get involved in conservation. The best way to start is to volunteer at a reserve or sanctuary near where you live” and to join or learn about conservation groups.