The parrot that can’t fly
The kākāpō is the world’s only flightless parrot.
Its mating call is a long, deep BOOM that mates can hear up to five kilometres away.
The kakapo story
The fluffy kākāpō has lived in New Zealand for thousands of years. It has an owl-like face (even though it is actually a parrot) and soft, mossy-green feathers that help to camouflage it in its native forests. It uses its muscular legs to hike long distances, its strong beak to climb as high as 20 metres up into the trees and its stubby little wings to flap as far as 15 metres from the branches of trees to the ground. Unlike other parrots, the kākāpō can’t fly – it just never needed to because it has never had any natural ground predators. It is a solitary, herbivorous animal, which means it lives on its own and only eats plants. You can tell if a kākāpō has been eating nearby because you will see little moon-shaped nibbles in the leaves!
The kākāpō is also a nocturnal bird, foraging for food at night and sleeping in the ground or tree-top roosts during the day. In fact, kākāpō is Maori for ‘night parrot’. Kākāpōs build their nests out of rocks and roots in hollow trees or caves. Conservationists say that each kākāpō has its own personality: some are cheeky and playful; some are adventurous and love to explore their habitat; some just like to eat and eat!
The kākāpō is also the world's only ‘lekking’ parrot. This means males group together for three months each year to show off and attract females to breed. Yet, kākāpōs need a lot of available food to breed, so they only mate when the rimu and pink pine trees produce plenty of fruit – something that only tends to happen every two to five years. During this time, kākāpōs can put on a kilogram in fat – they are the world’s heaviest parrot, after all!
When kākāpōs are ready to breed, the male will make a bowl-shaped dent in the shrubs and grass. He will then mark out some tracks leading to the bowl before getting comfy in the middle of it and making a special ‘boom’ to attract females. Female kākāpōs can hear this mating call up to five kilometres away! The male will then make a ‘ching’ sound to help any interested female find her way to his bowl. Female kākāpōs lay between one and four eggs, which hatch after about 30 days. They then raise their young alone, keeping the chicks with them for some time. Kākāpōs live for an average of 60 years, but can live for up to 90 years!
Once, the kākāpō was the third most-common bird in New Zealand and could be found all over New Zealand’s North and South Islands, as well as on Stewart Island. When the first humans arrived in New Zealand roughly 800 years ago, followed by Europeans 500 years later, they brought with them introduced species, such as dogs, cats, stoats and rats. While the kākāpō’s beautiful green feathers camouflage it from flying predators at night, these introduced predators use their noses to hunt and can easily sniff out a kākāpō’s strong scent. Humans also began to clear the forests for farming. This combination of unfamiliar ground predators and habitat loss put the kākāpō at immediate risk. The kākāpō has sadly been wiped out on mainland New Zealand. Since then, the remaining small population has been troubled by disease, inbreeding and infertility, meaning just 211 kākāpōs exist today.
What's being done?
People realised that they needed to try to help the kākāpō as long ago as 1894. Even so, it was almost extinct by the middle of the 20th century. Nowadays, the Kākāpō survives only thanks to the dedicated efforts of New Zealand's Department of Conservation and their Kakapo recovery programme, which protects, manages, and increases the species’ tiny population. Three islands have been cleared of predators and are now home to breeding groups: Little Barrier Island (Te Hauturu-o-Toi); Anchor Island; and Codfish Island (Whenua Hou). These island homes allowed the kākāpō population to reach 213 in September 2019. Though the population is now sadly down to 211, this was the highest population for 70 years! In fact, their parrot paradises produced so much rimu fruit in 2018–19 that a record 71 chicks made it to juvenile age – almost double the previous record!
The Recovery Programme has been so successful that the population has grown by 70% in five years and conservationists need to look for new habitats free of introduced predators – a nice problem to have! Some conservationists hope that, by 2050, New Zealand will be free of introduced predators and the kākāpō, along with other endangered species, will be able to move back to the mainland.