When nearly every surviving member of a species has been given its own name, it means two things. On one hand, humans have taken an active and affectionate role in ensuring the species' future existence. On the other hand, the species is on the brink of extinction. Such is the case for the Kakapo, the world's largest, heaviest, and only flightless parrot, endemic to the avian haven that is New Zealand.
Since 1989, the Kakapo Recovery Programme has assumed the heavy and sole responsibility of keeping one of Earth's rarest creatures from disappearing forever. When founded, the world's last 65 Kakapo - 43 males and 22 females - were strategically allotted to five separate translocations, small islands off of South Island's coastline. Initially, the rebreeding program experienced debilitating setbacks. The infestation of rats, which preyed upon helpless Kakapo hatchlings, forced several emergency island evacuations. Despite the high risk of these operations, all specimens were transferred successfully to two locations: Anchor Island and Te Kakahu, or Chalky Island. Two decades later - thanks to intensive monitoring, intricate nest security systems, and sophisticated incubation and hand-raising techniques - the survival rate of hatchlings has increased from 29% to 75% and the total population has surpassed 100.
The Kakapo did not always hover at the precipice of extinction. For millions of years, it thrived in tussock and forests throughout New Zealand's main islands. With its only natural predators - raptors such as the now extinct Haast's Eagle - soaring the skies during daylight, the Kakapo adapted and became nocturnal. From dusk until dawn, it foraged for food, scouring the forest floor for herbivorous treats: plants, seeds, and fruits, particularly of the rimu tree. Cognizant of what it could and could not consume, the clever creature grasped leaves and fern fronds with its claws, tore off the nutritious parts with its beak, and left behind a ball of indigestible fibers.
Only when fruit was plentiful would the Kakapo mate, and that only occurred once every few years. For males, the preparation for courtship was extensive and elaborate. Participating in a lek breeding system, males often traveled several kilometers from their personal territories and congregated in a singular location to compete for females. In these makeshift arenas, males excavated shallow bowls in the ground, strategically placed near rock faces that would reflect and amplify the booming calls they made to attract potential mates.
For eight hours every night, males inflated their thoracic sac and boomed repeatedly; depending on the wind, these calls could be heard anywhere within a five-kilometer radius. Once a female was successfully lured, the male emerged from his bowl to seduce her through performance: pacing backward toward his visitor, he rocked from side to side, clicked his beak, and displayed his outspread wings. If the female conveyed satisfaction with his routine, the male would attempt copulation, after which the former would leave to lay her eggs - generally between 1 and 3 - and the latter resumed his pursuit of more mates.
While Kakapo hatchlings depended completely on their mothers for food and protection, they developed quickly. Fluffy gray plumage was soon replaced by an assortment of mottled and barred feathers that served as ideal camouflage - primarily yellow in color on the undersides, and moss green on the breast, flanks, and wings. Around the beak, a beard of whiskers enhanced the sense of touch; known as vibrassa, these hairs were often employed in navigating the forest floor at night. While the Kakapo ultimately grew to about 60 centimeters (2 feet) and between 2 and 4 kilograms (4.4-8.8 pounds) - with females measuring slightly smaller - fledglings left their mother before being fully developed, usually within six months of birth.
Having eliminated the threat of predation with their nocturnal lifestyle, the Kakapo's ancient ancestors lost their ability to fly; while wing muscles degenerated, the exclusively terrestrial birds developed strong legs and a robust figure. Only with the arrival of the Maori, their dogs, and invasive rats from Polynesia during the 12th and 13th centuries did the species encounter intense adversity. Defenseless, naturally curious, and not intimidated by its new island inhabitants, the plentiful Kakapo made for an easy catch. The Maori left nothing to waste: the meat - resembling the flavor and consistency of lamb - was cooked in oil and served as a delicacy, the skins and feathers were used to make elegant capes and cloaks, and the heads were dried up and worn as decorative ornaments. The birds that had their lives spared were kept as pets.
The European settlers that arrived in the wake of British explorer James Cook throughout the 18th and 19th centuries only aggravated an already precarious situation. The Kakapo had already disappeared from much of its historical habitats, and the vast deforestation for grazing grounds drastically reduced the ranges of suitable living space. In the late 1800s, colonists released several species of mustelids on the islands to manage a rampant rabbit population, which only led to further decimation of the flightless parrot. Deer, another recent invasive introduction, plagued numerous native plants, resulting in the extinction of some of the Kakapo's favorite foods.
The realization that the Kakapo was on the edge of extinction provoked starkly contrasting reactions. Museum curators and personal collectors, keen on adding such an intriguing and curious specimen while it was still available, captured and killed thousands of birds in the 1880s for their exhibits. Zookeepers around the world tried to host the rare creature to no avail, as most died soon after relocation.
Meanwhile, some humans answered the call for conservation. In 1891 - the eleventh hour by the Kakapo's standards - New Zealand declared Fiordland's Resolution Island a nature reservation, a sanctuary safe from predators and human destruction. Three years later, an avid conservationist named Richard Henry began boating birds to the island, successfully transferring two hundred to safety within six years. When weasels invaded Resolution Island in 1900 by swimming across the water from the mainland, however, years of hard work was negated. The entire colony of Kakapo was wiped out.
Over the next seventy years, despite numerous searches, so few Kakapo were found that the species fate seemed all but sealed. Between 1974 and 1976, only fourteen birds were discovered - all males. In 1977, an expedition into the most inaccessible regions of Stewart Island proved the turning point in Kakapo conservation, revealing an isolated colony of between 100 and 200 birds. For the first time ever, humans observed the unique lek breeding system, and hopes of rehabilitating the species were reignited.
Once again, offshore island sanctuaries were established, and translocations were carefully conducted. When strategic rebreeding began, scientists attempted to mate the newfound females with a male they had captured earlier in Fiordland. In 1998, this male finally delivered by fathering three chicks. By providing essential genetic variation to a dangerously incestuous group, this male has given his species a second chance at survival. Appropriately, his name is Richard Henry.
An adult Kakapo is feeding on fruits of a plant in the Nightshade family called Solanum laciniatum. Our scene is at night but it depicts what a Kakapo might look like if detected by conservation officers with headlamps. Ground ferns cover some of the nearby ground.
60 centimeters (2 feet)
2-4 kilograms (4.4-8.8 pounds)
Tussock, scrublands, forests
Limited ranges in southern New Zealand
Plants, seeds, fruits, pollens, and sapwood
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A resourceful bird, the Kakapo will drop its berries in water to preserve them until the summer months when food becomes scarcer. Upon observing this, the Maori did the same.
"You have a Kakapo cape and you still complain of the cold," is an old Maori adage for insatiable greed.
Kakapo have an incredible life expectancy, and are believed to survive an average of 95 years.
During mating season, the male Kakapo's booming can result in it losing half of its weight.
Without the ability to fly, Kakapo have developed exceptional climbing skills. To get back to solid ground, they parachute down the tree - leaping from branch to branch spreading their wings to slow the fall.
Mating males will sometimes engage in direct combat, using their beaks and claws to inflict severe injury or death.