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The Unique, Critically Threatened Kakapo

Updated: Dec 21, 2023


Kakapo
The unique parrot, the Kakapo. Photo credit: nzbirdsonline.org.nz

What is a Kakapo and why is it unique?

Good questions! The Kakapo is a flightless bird like the ostrich and is the world’s heaviest extant nocturnal parrot! Endemic to New Zealand, it exhibits all the characteristics of species that evolved in isolation on oceanic islands that have no natural predators but have abundant food supply; just like the incredible, unique creatures of the isolated island, Madagascar.


So, what are some of its uncommon features? Let’s explore them!


Facts about the Kakapo

· The Kakapo cannot fly due to its small wings, reduced muscle mass, and smaller keel (extension of the breastbone where the wing muscles are attached). Its wings are used for balancing and support instead.


· The feathers of this charming bird are soft and somewhat frail because it does not fly. Its face is covered with a disc of fine feathers like that of an owl. Hence, it is also called an “owl parrot” or a “night parrot”.


· The Kakapo has strong legs and therefore an extraordinary climber and hiker. On the ground, it jogs around, but also climbs tall trees seeking food, or roosting during the day. It can hop from branch to branch or tree to tree and uses its short wings as a parachute to land on the ground effortlessly.


· The always alert Kakapo freezes when confronted by danger. How did this characteristic come about? Initially, when the islands were devoid of humans, the only danger to the Kakapo were the eagles. Staying motionless to avoid being detected was their best defense. Later, when humans started invading their lands with their dogs, cats, and stoats, this defense mechanism did not work because these mammals sniffed them out. This is the sole reason for their massive decline.


· The Kakapo sleeps in trees during the day and ventures out at night, and therefore nocturnal.


· The Kakapo has a keen sense of smell which is needed for its nocturnal lifestyle. It emits a somewhat musty-sweet odor which helps other Kakapos keep track of it. Unfortunately, this also helps mammalian predators to find them.


 

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The Kakapo and the Rimu tree: One of Nature’s Astonishing Partnerships


Kakapo and Rimu tree
The Kakapo and Rimu trees are partners for life. Photo Credit: Wikipedia CC

The unique parrot Kakapo and the unique rimu tree are made for each other. The rimu trees are native to New Zealand, can grow to a whopping 164-197 feet (50-60m) tall, and live more than 1,000 years! They belong to the podocarp family which are a type of conifer and include evergreen shrubs and trees and they produce cones to reproduce. Astonishingly, the male and female cones grow on separate trees! When the pollen from the male cones is windblown to another tree with female cones, they get fertilized. The resulting seeds are only produced once in 3-5 years! The rimu trees are found in the lowland and mountain forests of the islands called the North, South, and Stewart Islands. With beautiful reddish-brown trunks, these trees have been used in building homes for a long time.


The Kakapo’s reproductive and breeding cycle starts with the flowering and fruit bearing times of the rimu tree. Since the rimu tree germinates and bears fruit only once in 3 years or more, the parrot also breeds once in about 3 years or so! The Kakapo is the slowest reproducing bird in the world. The red rimu tree fruit, rich in Vitamin C, and other nutrients is the life blood of Kakapo.

Rimu tree
The unique Rimu tree. Photo credit: sciencelearn.org.nz.com

Rimu tree fruit
Rimu tree fruit. Photo Credit: nzgeo.com / Andrew Digby

How is the Kakapo critically threatened and what is their current situation?

Time was when the parrot inhabited the New Zealand mainland wilderness in the thousands. It also lived in a wide range of habitats. Around 1200 AD, a group of explorers from Polynesian islands in the south Pacific Ocean, called the Māori, landed in New Zealand. The Māori found many exotic flora and fauna, including the Kakapo in the new land. The Māori hunted the Kakapo for food but not to the extent of driving them into extinction. That started happening after the arrival of Europeans on the islands in 1642. Not only was the bird hunted for food, the newcomers had brought dogs, rats, and stoats with them which also hunted the birds. Prior to that, these mammals did not exist on the islands. Because these birds were ground-dwelling species, they became easy prey to these new predators. But mercifully, while the dodo became extinct, the Kakapo was just saved from being annihilated mainly due to the extraordinary passion and work of the people of New Zealand. Today, the current population in the wild is ~202 and thankfully, increasing gradually. They live on three predator-free, very well managed island sanctuaries: Codfish Island/Whenua Hou, Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island, and Anchor Island.



Māori
The enterprising Māori. Photo Credit: nzsj.sch.id

If you want to help save the Kakapos, then please visit: Adopt a kākāpō: Kākāpō Recovery (doc.govt.nz)

Mother Kakapo and chick
.Mama Kakapo with her beautiful chick. Photo Credit: nzbirdsonline.org.nz

Did you know?

· The Kakapo’s length is about 3”-25” (58-64cm) and it’s weight is around 2-9 lbs (0.95-4.0 Kg

· The Kakapo Recovery Programme of the Department of Conservation in New Zealand has been giving the Kakapo names and tags to uniquely identify them. Please check out: https://www.doc.govt.nz/our-work/kakapo-recovery/.

· Kakapos live up to as many as 100 years, the longest for any living birds.


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