A Block Buster: the Kakapo

Well it’s been a long time since my last post (sorry to all my loyal reader).  I had trouble starting this one, and the longer I went the harder it got.  It’s like I had some kind of mental block, pertaining specifically to writing.  I wonder if there’s a term for that.

Do you ever feel like your entire life is being held up by the one little thing you can’t finish?  Well I know how you feel.  For me, lately, that one little thing is this article.  I’m not sure of the reason for my difficulty, as today’s one-word-bird should really be complete gimme – it’s bizarre, peculiar, outlandish…weird even.  There’s no shortage of strangeness to write about, and that should be all I need.  So in the interest of getting my life back on track, I give you the low-hanging fruit: the Kakapo.

Perhaps my problem with the Kakapo is that it has so many quirks, it’s hard to know where to start.  I suppose a cursory introduction is in order.  First and foremost, the Kakapo is a parrot.  But before we go any further I want you to stop thinking about everything you know about parrots, because the Kakapo is not those things.  It is not brightly colored.  It is not beautiful.  It does not fly.  It does not live in the trees.  It is not particularly sociable.  It does not come out in the day.

kakapo
Just a perfectly normal parrot out for a walk at night. Nothing weird happening here.

What the Kakapo is, is a parrot that has evolved in New Zealand, a place where there are no hungry, ground-dwelling carnivores to eat it1.  With no snapping jaws to force it into the air the Kakapo has been free to let itself go in an evolutionary sense, becoming both the world’s heaviest, and only flightless parrot.  It thereby spends its time waddling about on the forest floor, or occasionally clambering awkwardly into the branches in search of fruit before returning to the comfort of the ground.

While it has no predators of the furry or scaly variety, the Kakapo is hunted by other birds.  To avoid these aerial, primarily visual hunters the Kakapo has adapted to a nocturnal lifestyle, using its moss-green camouflage to hide during the day and becoming active after dark when all the hawks and eagles are safely asleep.  To aid in getting around after sunset the Kakapo has developed a facial disc, giving it a rather usual appearance.  These sensory feathers act like whiskers, allowing the Kakapo to feel its way along like a sort of slow, awkward, bipedal cat.

The Kakapo may seem a bit backwards in many ways, but it does have a rather progressive approach to the act of reproduction.  Male birds of most species find their mates using some combination of incessant harassment and shameless begging (or in the case of ducks, wanton violence), but the male Kakapo puts the ball entirely in the female’s court.  When the time is right, the males spread out along a hillside and each digs himself a shallow depression.  He then parks himself at the bottom of it and begins “booming”, with his bowl-shaped stage amplifying his unusual calls.  The females simply sit back and decide who booms the best, and they’re off to the races.  Unfortunately the male’s 21st century attitude stops at copulation though, and when the eggs are laid he’s nowhere to be found.

The Kakapo’s atypical adaptations have served it well for much of its history, but like many flightless, island-dwelling birds it did not fare well when humans arrived in its native habitat.  The early Polynesian settlers to New Zealand respected the Kakapo, and they showed that respect by hunting it, eating it,and using its various body parts for clothing and jewelry.  European settlers hunted it too, and altered the habitat where it lived.  But humans brought something far more dangerous to the Kakapo than their appetites and their vanity.

The very adaptations that protected the Kakapo from its natural predators made it especially vulnerable to introduced ones.  People brought dogs, cats, rats and stoats, and flightless Kakapos relying on camouflage to hide while they slept were easy prey.  Making matters worse, Kakapos have a distinct odour – not easily detected by hawks flying overhead, but an alluring signal to any mammal with a working nose.

These challenges have made the Kakapo one of the rarest birds in the entire world, with the population dipping well into the double-digits.  There is a sliver of hope for the Kakapo though, in the form of the Kakapo Recovery Programme run by the New Zealand government.  This pioneering program protects the Kakapo through continuous monitoring and the control of predators, but most interestingly it capitalizes on a few more of the Kakapo’s unusual traits.

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Hand-rearing of Kakapo babies is also part of the Programme. Lucky bastard.

Kakapo don’t breed every year like most birds2, but instead reproduce only when there is a bumper crop of their favourite foods.  This results in a frequency of every 2-5 years or so, and that makes recovery slow.  The Programme solves this problem by simply offering additional food, kicking the Kakapos’ bodies into gear and allowing them to breed more frequently.

Here’s where it gets really cool though.  The sex of a baby Kakapo is determined by what its mother eats during the reproductive period, with females on protein-rich diets producing more male babies.  Because of their unusual breeding system, it is particularly unimportant for there to be lots of Kakapo males, and extremely valuable to have lots of Kakapo females3.  By carefully manipulating the supplementary feedings, the Recovery Programme can produce a higher ratio of females and increase subsequent reproduction.

The ongoing Kakapo Recovery Programme has been largely successful thus far, and as of 2016 over 150 Kakapo exist in the wild.  Nearly their entire population is isolated to three islands off the coast of New Zealand where terrestrial predators can be controlled, and the Programme intends to secure larger islands as sanctuaries for the now-growing population.  Mainland reintroduction may never occur, but only time will tell what the future holds.

The list of one-word-birds contains some of the most unusual and specialized bird species, many of which have adapted to rare and particular conditions.  Being a specialist puts you at risk when conditions change.  The Kakapo stands as a glaring example of the impact people can have on these vulnerable species.  With continued conservation effort and a little luck, it may someday also symbolize our power to reverse the damage.

To learn more about the Kakapo Recovery Programme, visit: http://kakaporecovery.org.nz/


1New Zealand: home to birds and apparently nothing else.
2Kakapo don’t do anything like most birds.
3In a polygynous lek breeding system like that of the Kakapo, the male’s only job is to fertilize the female, and there is essentially no limit to how many females he can fertilize.  One male goes a long way, so to speak.

Photos:
Above: By Department of Conservation – Kakapo Sirocco, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46968015
Below: By Department of Conservation – https://www.flickr.com/photos/docnz/8528544109/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48029995

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