Key Points:

An alluring aftershave for male kakapo could be developed from new research into why some of the critically endangered parrots attract females more than others.

American expertise is being called on to investigate the unique smell of male kakapo feathers, and how the sweet and vegetative odour may influence mating behaviour.

Massey University biologists are researching the role of the native parrot's sense of smell on breeding, raising the possibility of developing a synthetic kakapo perfume.

Associate Professor Dianne Brunton said it was likely body odour played a significant role in female kakapo mate choice.

"Some males do extremely well ... females queue up and wait for them even when other males are available."

Dr Brunton said although it was known kakapo males smelt strongly, the unique characteristics of the scents were not understood.

About 60 feathers clipped off live kakapo during health checks would be sent for analysis to animal olfactory chemist Professor Tom Goodwin at the Hendrix College in Arkansas.

Professor Goodwin would analyse the samples using a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, a machine that could measure the volatile chemicals of kakapo feathers.

Dr Brunton and PhD student Anna Gsell would then compare the results to the feathery fragrances of other native parrots such as kaka, kea and kakariki to try to identify the unique characteristics of male kakapo feather odour.

Dr Brunton said while it was a "a bit of a long shot", the research could pave the way to creating a synthetic kakapo perfume to encourage more diverse breeding.

And that would help to expand the kakapo gene pool and its immune level, an important issue because the total kakapo population stood at just 91 birds.

Dr Brunton said the work into developing a perfume would depend on the complexity of the chemical compounds which could be isolated.

"Anyone who designs perfumes knows how hard they are to copy."

The researchers had organised CT scans of kakapo skulls to study the kakapo brain and by observing the contours hoped to find out more about the region associated with smell.

Dr Brunton said because kakapo were nocturnal birds they were thought to have a more sophisticated sense of smell than diurnal parrots.

She had also recruited University of California scientists to do analysis of the chemical compounds of historic feather samples of kakapo in a separate project to find out more about kakapo diet and how it had changed over time.

Kakapo, now only found in two protected offshore islands near Stewart Island, fed on rimu and pink pine fruit when available and supplementary food developed by Massey's veterinary department.

Dr Brunton obtained feather samples from Vienna's Museum of Natural History during a recent trip. The museum had an extensive collection of skins and skeletons of New Zealand bird species collected by Austrian naturalist and collector Andreas Reischek between 1877 and 1889.