The future of the large, plump, and enigmatic kākāpō parrot has just got a little brighter. This year, conservationists working to save the species are celebrating its most successful breeding season since they were first rescued from the clutches of extinction in the 1970s. This year has seen a total of 38 new chicks survive, giving an impressive boost to the critically endangered birds, of which only 123 adults remain.
The kākāpō is an oddity in many ways. Once widespread across much of New Zealand, they were hunted by the early Polynesian settlers for their meat and plumage, which is a beautiful mossy green that makes for good camouflage. When European settlers arrived, however, they brought with them rats and cats and stoats, which made an easy meal of the heaviest and only flightless parrot in the world. Eventually, they were reduced to a small population on the isolated Stewart Island. From here, the birds were then removed and placed onto three other islands – Codfish, Anchor, and Little Barrier – that were free of cats in a bid to save them from extinction.
The poor birds, however, aren’t helped by their notoriously complicated and drawn out mating habits. The females will only come into breeding season when certain plants, such as the rimu and beech tree, are fruiting – and it can be years between events. But apparently the females are yet to tell the males this, as each year they endeavor to attract a mate by way of a behavior known as “lekking.” A few other bird species display in this way, but the kākāpō is the only known parrot to do so.
The males will start by taking position at a high point – on ridges, rocks, or hill tops, for example – where they will fight over prominent “bowls” scraped into the ground with a path of neatly manicured tracks emanating from it. From here, they begin to inflate an air sac and emit a low-frequency “sonic” boom that reverberates across the forest, and can be heard up to 5 kilometers (3 miles) away, followed by a high frequency metallic “ching.” Then he sits and waits, calling each night until a female appears.
Unfortunately for him, that could be a wait of up to four years until the female comes into season. Until then, as I’m sure you can image, he gets very frustrated, which Douglas Adams brilliantly describes when he went to visit the podgy birds for himself. “When one of the rangers who was working in an area where kākāpōs were booming happened to leave his hat on the ground, he came back later to find a kakapo attempting to ravish it. On another occasion the discovery of some ruffled possum fur in the mating area suggested that a kākāpō had made another alarming mistake, an experience which is unlikely to have been satisfying to either party.”
This year’s exceptional crop of chicks is the first time in two years that they’ve managed to breed, with only six being successfully raised in 2014. This is also the first year in which the birds have successfully bred on all three islands on which they survive, and the conservationists were even able to use a technique in which they allow a female to lay eggs before removing them and artificially incubating them, inducing the parrot to then lay a second batch.
Main image: jidanchaomian/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Body image: Department of Conservation