Massive boost in numbers for New Zealand's critically endangered kakapo flightless parrot

By Nico Muller

New Zealand and the world's most unusual parrot has just experienced a record-breaking breeding season, producing 34 chicks of the fabulous cute-as but extremely rare and still critically endangered species of land bird.

And, in a world with more than 7 billion people, and fewer than 160 kakapo, that is a big thing.

In the 1970s only 18 kakapo were known to exist, all in Fiordland, and unfortunately all male, their low-frequency mating booms travelling for kilometres and finding no female answering call.

Then, in 1977, a population of male and female kakapo was discovered on Stewart Island, giving new hope.

Since then, a small team of dedicated staff from the Department of Conservation have worked tirelessly to protect, manage and grow their population.

Dr Andrew Digby, DOC's Science Advisor for Kakapo and Takahe talked to the Herald this week about the huge breeding season, a 28 per cent boost in kakapo numbers.

Originally there were 35 chicks, but one died after its femur was injured.

One of Ruth's chicks gets a feeding boost.  Photo / Andrew Digby, DOC
One of Ruth's chicks gets a feeding boost. Photo / Andrew Digby, DOC

The world now has 157 kakapo in total that we know of, nearly the entire population living in the wild on two offshore islands: the 1400 hectare Whenua Hou (Codfish Island), 3km off the wild west coast of Stewart Island, and on the 1300 hectare Anchor Island, in Dusky Sound, southwest Fiordland.

Anchor Island in Dusky Sound, southwest Fiordland, where the  Department of Conservation moved its first kakapo in 2005 following the eradication of the island's stoats.  Photo / Andrew Digby, DOC
Anchor Island in Dusky Sound, southwest Fiordland, where the Department of Conservation moved its first kakapo in 2005 following the eradication of the island's stoats. Photo / Andrew Digby, DOC

Digby, who previously studied astrophysics and was a Nasa JPL Michelson Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History, is currently in the United Kingdom, where he gives a talk today at his alma mater, Cambridge University, about DOC's successes.


The talk will give other scientists a background to kakapo, the recent history of the species and DOC's programme, the conservation management we use, breeding season results, and the big issues still faced.

"We have a lot of ongoing research projects: a supplementary food trial, research into a disease that's a big problem, a study into vitamin D, and a project to sequence the genomes of all living kakapo - the first time that's been done for any species," Digby told the Herald.

Pearl, who hatched in February this year.  Photo / Andrew Digby, DOC
Pearl, who hatched in February this year. Photo / Andrew Digby, DOC

Those who want to learn more can keep up at Kakapo Recovery, or at their Facebook site.

But New Zealand's odd flightless bird has a solid presence on social media where fans from around the world regulary post and comment on the recovery of the lovable species.

Kakapo even have their own conservation spokesbird, Sirocco, who does his bit for his species on both Facebook and Twitter.

But most of all, they have a fan network that stretches across the globe who spread the message about the world's most unique land bird.


- NZ Herald

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