Plight of the kakapo

By: Lyn Wade

The kakapo or night parrot is one of New Zealand’s unique species. It is the world’s heaviest parrot. It is long-lived, climbs trees but can’t fly. It is solitary, goes out and about at night, is vegetarian and has an unusual mating system known as ‘lek breeding’. Males congregate, boom and display to attract female favours. By 1915, kakapo were still found in the Kaimanawa Range near Taupo, though were rare in the rest of the North Island.  As late as early 1940s they were considered to be in good numbers in Fiordland, but by 1950 they were hard to find anywhere. Stoats had depleted smaller species of birds and appeared to have started on kakapo.  In the 1990s, kakapo were considered to be New Zealand’s most critically endangered bird, numbering only 51.

After the eradication of cats from Hauturu by 1980 and only kiore (Polynesian rat) remaining, the island was considered a safe place to home 22 of these precious birds – nine females and 13 males. Over the next 14 years these birds boomed and bred (though not entirely successfully). Over many of these years a gallant band of volunteers, rangers and others supplied them with supplementary feed, as it was deemed necessary for aiding breeding. This was not an easy task due to the size and ruggedness of the island.

Between 1996 and 1999, the birds were removed from Hauturu. My understanding is that this was in preparation for a planned eradication of kiore that took place in 2004. But may also have been due to the difficulty of continuing supplementary feeding. One of the last birds to come off the island was Lisa, who was found on a nest of three eggs – resulting in three female kakapo, a very important boost to kakapo numbers at the time.

In 2006, Hauturu was declared pest free. Yay! Now free from predators the Kakapo Recovery Team wanted to establish a population of kakapo there to determine whether they could breed on their own without supplementary food. So between 2012-2014, 10 kakapo were released onto Hauturu and this winter four more were released. It is fascinating to note that those birds that had been on the island during the 80s and 90s all returned to their old home ranges within a week or two.

In 2014, two female chicks resulted from mating on Hauturu though both required assistance to survive. The timing of Cyclone Lusi did not help. In 2016 there was another successful mating on the island but unfortunately no chicks survived. Each kakapo wears a transmitter and is able to be monitored with little human interference. They require handling just once a year to have the transmitter changed, get weighed and have blood samples taken. Who knows what we will be able to do with technology in another few years to help these precious birds. Total Kakapo numbers stand at 153 at present.

If you are privileged to visit Hauturu the chances of seeing a kakapo are very slim, though if you are lucky you may see signs of kakapo chew, kakapo poo or maybe a feather.

Lyn Wade, Little Barrier Island Supporters Trust


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