One of the world’s rarest birds, the kakapo, is on the brink of extinction. Found only on some New Zealand sanctuaries, it is the planet’s only flightless parrot. The current population number is at 211, thereby sparking conservation initiatives, especially because the Maori people continue to uphold a strong spiritual connection with the kakapo, whose name translates as “parrot of the night.” One initiative, for instance, is the Predator Free 2050 project to eliminate predators across the New Zealand wilds to help native species thrive again.
The 2019 kakapo breeding season saw record success, according to Andrew Digby, New Zealand’s kakapo science adviser, who said, “Between January and April, 86 chicks were born, of which 70 are still alive.” Nonetheless, nine kakapos succumbed to aspergillosis, a respiratory infection attributed to airborne fungi.
Interestingly, humans did not populate New Zealand until the 1200s. Kakapos were not threatened, having only a couple of bat species to compete with for food. Their natural predators were birds of prey that they could elude, thanks to highly-evolved feathers that camouflage kakapos against the forest floor.
All that changed upon the arrival of the first Polynesians in the 13th century and was exacerbated further five centuries later, when European settlement began.
Tane Davis of the Maori Ngai Tahu tribe’s kakapo conservation team explained that the early Polynesians “ate the kakapo, used their feathers to weave cloaks and carved their bones into fish hooks.” Europeans accelerated kakapo demise with their hunting dogs, cats, English ferrets and weasels, stoats, deer, stowaway rodents and even Australian possums. Plus, extensive forest clearances, to build towns, cities and farmland, led to extreme habitat loss that devastated kakapo populations. By 1995, only 51 birds were left, galvanizing conservation efforts.
Kakapos are even more vulnerable because 40 percent of their eggs are infertile, a consequence of today’s inbreeding. Contemporary success rates are boosted with artificial insemination of pairs genetically matched as compatible.
Meanwhile, the islands of Anchor, Chalky, Hauturu and Whenua Hou have been cleared of predators to become kakapo conservation sanctuaries. A drone transfers sperm between conservation teams working in the different locations. Two new kakapo sanctuaries are being planned for the future.
Other measures taken to ensure kakapo survival rates are that each mother bird is given one chick to raise, while the rest are hand-raised to ensure proper nutrition. Likewise, all kakapos are microchipped and outfitted with a transmitter to maximize tracking efforts.
The birds are so closely monitored because, if left on their own, they only breed once every two to four years, to coincide with when New Zeland’s rimu trees bear fruit. But conservationists “trick” kakapos to breed more often by feeding supplementary food and maintaining bird weights for better egg health.
These efforts contributed to a more successful breeding season in 2019, and conservationists hope to continue boosting those numbers to save this rare and unique bird.