Bird Profile: Kakapo

Bird Profile: Kakapo

There are many species of bird that have some level of claim to being my favorite. I adore all kinds of birds: nuthatches, loons, sarus cranes. Only one bird is my desktop background: the Kakapo. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I think it would take a cold dead heart not to love these absurd creatures.

The Kakapo (technically the Kākāpō) is a species of parrot found exclusively on the islands of New Zealand. Once an abundant presence in New Zealand, the poor creatures were unprepared for human settlement and the dangers we would bring, and it’s population began to plummet. Perhaps most notably, it took over a hundred years of active conservation efforts before we started seeing progress. In the United States, conservation stories are usually about experts begging the government to care about a bird for decades before anyone bothers to do anything about it, at which point we start to see progress. The government of New Zealand however set aside an island for the bird’s population to be safe in the 1890s! That’s as shocking as it is wonderful, and it’s hilarious that this bird was so stubborn that it kept struggling for so long.

Why is that? What’s so special about the Kakapo? To understand this incredible bird, we have to understand island syndrome. This is an ecological term for the special ways species evolve when their only habitats are on insular islands. Islands are very special places to live because they’re much smaller than continents: there’s less biodiversity, often fewer changes in climate, less need to migrate or even travel from one area to another. Birds are built entirely on the ability to overcome astronomical odds: flying across entire oceans, working non-stop to compete for food and survive numerous predators. But if you’re a bird who lives on a little island all the time, and the island has everything you need, why would you go anywhere else? It certainly seems logical that you’d just stay and chill.

Staying and chilling is exactly what the kakapo did for centuries. New Zealand had no real predators that posed a risk to them. All of their food was readily available. They lived safe and comfy lives for a very long time. As a result, they got fatter. They got slower. Now they are the heaviest species of parrot on Earth, and the only flightless parrot. They simply run from place to place, two feet tall and weighing a few pounds. In case this isn’t already delighting you, you should know that sometimes they still require the safety of a treetop. So without the ability to fly, what do they do? They climb.

Using their beaks and feet, they climb up and down trees.  Oh and when they run, they bound up and down excitedly and adorably.

They make goofy noises, they inflate like a balloon to call for mates. They’re a strange bird with strange habits. Due to the fact that they’re nocturnal, they were given the Māori name Kakapo, meaning “night parrot”, although they’re also often called owl parrots due to their similar face shape.

That BBC video has lots of the other basic information about kakapo mating and biology. So I’ll talk more about their population troubles instead. About 700 years ago, the Māori landed in New Zealand and immediately started causing problems for our overweight parrots. Māori traditions valued the Kakapo greatly, but largely because of their use as a source of meat and feathers. Without the ability to flee or fight back, it was a pretty uneven fight and the bird suddenly had a true predator for the first time in a long time. The Māori however were only doing what they had to, and their damage wasn’t enough that it would send these climbing chubsters on a path to extinction.

That problem, predictably, began with European colonization. Even though the Kakapo had gone extinct on some small islands, it was still abundant in many parts of the region. European settlers however cleared far more forests (destroying far more habitats) than the Māori and introduced a number of uncontrolled invasive predators to the islands: dogs, cats, rats, and stoats. Suddenly far more birds were dying than was necessary to sustain the food supply. It only got worse when they decided there were too many rabbits, and started intentionally releasing large amounts of stoats, ferrets and weasels to take care of it. Caught in the crossfire, the Kakapo population started shrinking at a frightening rate.

Luckily, this is when New Zealand did the incredible and established an island nature reserve for the birds in the 1890s. Unluckily, this is also when that 100 years of unsuccessful conservation work began. Despite the Kakapo’s lovability it just doesn’t seem like a bird very capable of overcoming anything. When a naturalist moved 200 of them to their refuge island, the stoat population swam, yes swam, over to the island and colonized it, ravaging the local birds in six years. Then, a handful of birds were moved to a more remote island but feral cats were already there and the three kakapo were never seen again.

This is basically how it went for decades. The New Zealand government would seek out Kakapo, find some, take them somewhere safe, and then they’d die almost immediately. One could blame the fact that they’re being moved at all, but it certainly seemed like the population was falling fast whether we interfered or not. When the New Zealand Wildlife Service was founded, they regularly searched for Kakapo and found fewer and fewer overtime, indicating that even in native habitats they weren’t doing so hot. Maybe the damage had already gone too far, and the predators we’d introduced had wounded these adorable dopes beyond repair.

Until a spark of hope came. Reports on Stewart Island of Kakapo sightings started surfacing, and the Wildlife Service searched the area in the 70s to find 100-200 Kakapo hanging out, alive and well. Half of the population were dying every year to feral cat attacks, so I guess they weren’t that well, but this was the largest population of the species found in a long time. After instilling a strict cat control measure on the island and keeping out those persistent stoats, the government decided to go even further and transfer the birds to islands that are confirmed as predator-free. New Zealand’s leaders deserve a lot of credit for taking this so seriously. By 1997 all of Stewart Island’s resident Kakapo had been transferred. It wasn’t perfect, with a few misfire islands causing some deaths, but in the end they’d found habitats for the birds and a Kakapo Recovery Programme was formed to oversee the efforts.

Supplementary feeding of breeding females, the controlling of all predators, and adding GPS trackers and cameras to the islands have done wonders for their survival. At this point, the Kakapo’s small numbers have led to other difficulties: due to being so endangered, they’re extremely inbred and lack the genetic diversity necessary to fight off disease or evolve against new threats (of which they’ve had many). There’s no real possibility of them living well on their own anytime soon. However their population has been rebounding due to the wonderful work of these conservationists and hope is on the rise for the first time.

This past summer, four male kakapo were reintroduced to the New Zealand mainland (North Island). It's mostly an experiment to see how they can handle it, but it marks the first time that island has had Kakapos since the 1960s, so it's been rightfully celebrated. The Māori people, who have played a crucial role in this bird's legacy and conservation, held welcoming dances and treasured the breakthrough.

What’s next for them? Hopefully, a fully independent population on Resolution Island, which is being prepared as a perfect habitat. This is the stated primary goal of the Kakapo Recovery Programme, but it still seems a little unrealistic right now as a team of professionals struggle to even keep the monitored birds alive through fungal infections and breeding difficulties. Honestly, having a monitored population at all is a great feat given the rate at which they were moving towards extinction.

In some ways the Kakapo is an unbelievably weird bird: instead of being an efficient creature built for competition and danger, it is a bumbling ball of feathers that is constantly at risk from any number of creatures and illnesses. Yet its story is a tragically familiar one for birds: a species that thrived until humans and the animals we brought with us came along. Cats and other small mammals kill 1-4 billion birds a year around the world, and our destruction of habitats and changing of the Earth’s atmosphere impact species in every biome. Is it really the fault of the owl parrot that their island lifestyle isn’t conducive to adaptation?

I hope to see a Kakapo in person someday. While I can’t rule out a trip to New Zealand, visiting these islands is incredibly difficult even for a local. What I hope to see is a population rebound so dramatic that an independent population succeeds and maybe small offshoots can be sent to a few Western zoos. It’s so important that we see and know these creatures and the struggles they’ve faced. What a triumph it would be if American kids could watch a fat flightless parrot climb up a tree. This is a species that’s so delightful, it spurned a national conservation effort decades before the US did anything of the sort. Surely if the whole world could see them, everyone would understand how important it is that we keep these strange gorgeous creatures safe. Maybe I’d even see more Kakapo desktop wallpapers.