Animals in Therapy | Deep Dive

You just need to believe

It’s important, especially if you’re a flightless Kākāpō and there are only 250 or so of your kind left. Self-belief, specifically, can be empowering – although knowing you’re at risk of extinction may be just as motivating. Nothing like girding for the daily battle to survive to push you to new heights!

It wasn’t always like this. These gorgeously green and solitary parrots with faces like owls were once among New Zealand’s commonest birds. No ground predators in their lush paradise meant they gradually dispensed with flying. Besides seeming unnecessary, it took energy: better instead to gain a little girth – the extra pounds came in handy for making larger eggs.

Well-adapted terrestrials?

Being the heaviest flightless parrot in the world wasn’t an issue. Kākāpō climbed trees with their beaks to search for food and jumped out of them from elevations of almost 50 feet, barely scraping their knees. Then people arrived…

First the Māori; then, in the 1800s, the Europeans. Along with their cats, dogs, rats, and stoats. Things got dicey. Suddenly, the instinct to freeze to camouflage themselves when being hunted by their traditional sky wheeling predators didn’t work. Let’s just say, it wasn’t effective when trying to flee hairy, four-legged ground mammals with a keen sense of smell. Being naturally sweet-scented as Kākāpō are, made things even worse.

An old story

In the 1970s and early 1980s numbers plummeted, and Kākāpō were listed as Critically Endangered.

It’s a story that’s played out again, and again, all over the globe. Birds fly to an island, discover they aren’t in danger, and, over many generations, shed their ability to soar through the skies. Opting instead for a trait that seems more useful, as Penguins did, for instance, when they too gained weight, to swim better. Then people arrive, bringing with them their taste for hunting, their pets and pests, their desire for LAND. Which must be sub-divided and cleared, of course – little thought for the indigenous feathered inhabitants.

Almost a third of bird species that have gone extinct since humans began to scatter across the globe around 200,000 years ago, have been flightless. 

Flightless birds that are no more

Almost a third of bird species that have gone extinct since humans began to scatter across the globe around 200,000 years ago, have been flightless. Many of these lived on island archipelagos like Hawaii and New Zealand. In the past 500 years alone, it’s estimated that more than 2,000 species have been lost in the tropical Pacific region. No prizes for guessing how many of these birds were flightless Rails …

One past victim of this all-too-familiar pattern was the Great Auk. Last seen alive in 1852, this flightless Penguin lookalike was an easy target for hunters in Newfoundland, Canada, the UK, Greenland, and Iceland. The Dodo from Mauritius went the way of its namesake in 1662 without having the good grace to leave behind a fully intact taxidermy version of itself. Then, in 1850, the Takahe – another flightless bird from New Zealand – vanished.

It was Tibbles, sir

Not long afterwards, David Lyall took up his position as lighthouse keeper on Stephens Island in the country’s Marlborough Sounds. In 1895, his cat Tibbles is said to have finished off the flightless Wren that made its home there, subsequently known as ‘Lyall’s Wren’. In fairness to Tibbles, the cat was likely one of a small army of invasive felines running amok among suddenly imperilled avians.

Kākāpō are on the up

Now, biodiversity – and birds- are under threat everywhere. But that’s not the end of the tale – not yet at least. The Kākāpō is still with us. What’s more, its population is increasing due to the efforts of South Island Indigenous communities working with the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Food supplements, artificial insemination, incubators, brooders and three predator-free islands have all helped. There are more Kākāpō than there have been in 40 years!

Who’s to say things can’t get better? If the results of a study on removing invasive species from islands are credible, there’s an excellent chance native wildlife can recover. As it has on Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific and Redonda in the Caribbean. The Kākāpō and all those who support it haven’t given up: we believe this unique and impressively long-lived bird can hang on.

Support biodiversity

If you’re keen to help these indomitable fighters survive and want to share with friends, please repost this video or infographic. You can stay informed by signing up to our newsletter and checking out organizations that we think are already doing an excellent job:

  • Click here to sign up to our On the Edge newsletter. Once a month we’ll send you remarkable stories about endangered species and the natural world.

  • Play our Kākāpō run game to learn more about the animal.

  • A collaboration between Ngāi Tahu and the Department of Conservation, the Kākāpō Recovery Program encourages support through donations, volunteering and adoption. Follow the recovery journey on social media to see the great work that’s being done.

  • Visit the website of On the Edge grantee Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu to discover more about the Kākāpō and the Kākāpō Recovery Program.

  • If you have a cat, make sure it has a bell or two on its collar to give local birds and other wildlife a chance to escape.

  • Learn more about the work of Island Conservation, an international non-profit dedicated to preventing extinctions by removing invasive species from islands.