The kakapo (Māori: kākāpō) or night parrot, also called owl parrot
(Strigops habroptila), is a species of large, flightless, nocturnal,
ground-dwelling parrot of the super-family Strigopoidea, endemic to
It has finely blotched yellow-green plumage, a distinct facial disc of
sensory, vibrissa-like feathers, a large grey beak, short legs, large
feet, and wings and a tail of relatively short length. A combination
of traits make it unique among its kind; it is the world's only
flightless parrot, the heaviest parrot, nocturnal, herbivorous,
visibly sexually dimorphic in body size, has a low basal metabolic
rate and no male parental care, and is the only parrot to have a
polygynous lek breeding system. It is also possibly one of the world's
longest-living birds. Its anatomy typifies the tendency of bird
evolution on oceanic islands, with few predators and abundant food: a
generally robust physique, with accretion of thermodynamic efficiency
at the expense of flight abilities, reduced wing muscles, and a
diminished keel on the sternum. Like many other
New Zealand bird
species, the kakapo was historically important to the Māori, the
indigenous people of New Zealand, appearing in many of their
traditional legends and folklore; however it was also heavily hunted
and used as a resource by Māori, both for its meat as a food source
and for its feathers, which were used to make highly valued pieces of
clothing. Kakapos were also occasionally kept as pets.
The kakapo is critically endangered; as of December 2016, the total
known adult population was 149 living individuals, as reported by
Kakapo Recovery programme, most of which have been given names.
Because of Polynesian and European colonisation and the introduction
of predators such as cats, rats, ferrets, and stoats, the kakapo was
almost wiped out. Conservation efforts began in the 1890s, but they
were not very successful until the implementation of the Kakapo
Recovery plan in the 1980s. As of April 2012, surviving kakapo are
kept on three predator-free islands, Codfish (Whenua Hou), Anchor, and
Little Barrier islands, where they are closely monitored. Two
Fiordland islands, Resolution and Secretary, have been the
subject of large-scale ecological restoration activities to create
self-sustaining ecosystems with suitable habitats for the kakapo.
1 Taxonomy, systematics and naming
2.1 Internal anatomy
3 Ecology and behaviour
4.1 Human impact
4.2 Early protection efforts
4.3 1950–89 conservation efforts
Kakapo Recovery programme
5 In Māori culture
5.1 Use for food and clothing
6 In the media
7 See also
9 Further reading
10 External links
Taxonomy, systematics and naming
Illustration of a kakapo from the book "A History of the Birds of New
Zealand" by Walter Lawry Buller, published in 1873.
The kakapo was originally described by English ornithologist George
Robert Gray in 1845. The name "kakapo" is the English transliteration
of "kākāpō" which is derived from the Māori terms kākā
("parrot") + pō ("night"). Its generic name is derived from the
Ancient Greek strix, genitive strigos "owl", and ops "face", while its
specific epithet comes from habros "soft", and ptilon "feather". It
has so many unusual features that it was initially placed in its own
tribe, Strigopini. Recent phylogenetic studies have confirmed the
unique position of this genus as well as the closeness to the kākā
and the kea, both belonging to the
New Zealand parrot
New Zealand parrot genus
Nestor. Together, they are now considered a separate
superfamily within the parrots, Strigopoidea. Within the
Strigopoidea, the kakapo is placed in its own family, Strigopidae. The
common ancestor of the kakapo and the genus Nestor became isolated
from the remaining parrot species when
New Zealand broke off from
Gondwana, around 82 million years ago. Around 70 million years
ago, the kakapo diverged from the genus Nestor.
Earlier ornithologists felt that the kakapo might be related to the
ground parrots and night parrot of Australia due to their similar
colouration, but this is contradicted by recent studies; rather,
the cryptic colour seems to be adaptation to terrestrial habits that
evolved twice convergently.
A year-old kakapo on Codfish Island.
The kakapo is a large, rotund parrot; the adult can measure from 58 to
64 cm (23 to 25 in) in length, and weight can vary from 0.95
to 4 kg (2 to 9 lb) at maturity. Males are larger
than females. Twenty-eight males were found to average 2 kg
(4.4 lb) in one study, and 39 males were found to average
2.06 kg (4.5 lb) in another. In the same studies, 28 females
were found to average 1.5 kg (3.3 lb) and 18 females were
found to average 1.28 kg (2.8 lb); respectively.
Kakapos are the heaviest living species of parrot and on average weigh
about 400 g (14 oz) more than the largest flying parrot, the
hyacinth macaw. The kakapo cannot fly, having relatively short
wings for its size and lacking the keel on the sternum (breastbone),
where the flight muscles of other birds attach. It uses its wings for
balance and to break its fall when leaping from trees. Unlike many
other land birds, the kakapo can accumulate large amounts of body
The upper parts of the kakapo have yellowish moss-green feathers
barred or mottled with black or dark brownish grey, blending well with
native vegetation. Individuals may have strongly varying degrees of
mottling and colour tone and intensity – museum specimens show that
some birds had completely yellow colouring. The breast and flank are
yellowish-green streaked with yellow. The belly, undertail, neck, and
face are predominantly yellowish streaked with pale green and weakly
mottled with brownish-grey. Because the feathers do not need the
strength and stiffness required for flight, they are exceptionally
soft, giving rise to the specific epithet habroptilus. The kakapo has
a conspicuous facial disc of fine feathers resembling the face of an
owl; thus, early European settlers called it the "owl parrot". The
beak is surrounded by delicate vibrissae or "whiskers", which the bird
uses to sense the ground for navigation as it walks with its head
lowered. The mandible is mostly ivory-coloured, with part of the upper
mandible being bluish-grey. The eyes are dark brown.
Kakapo feet are
large, scaly, and, as in all parrots, zygodactyl (two toes face
forward and two backward). The pronounced claws are particularly
useful for climbing. The ends of the tail feathers often become worn
from being continually dragged on the ground.
The "whiskers" around the beak.
Females are easily distinguished from males as they have a narrower
and less domed head, narrower and proportionally longer beak, smaller
cere and nostrils, more slender and pinkish grey legs and feet, and
proportionally longer tail. While their plumage colour is not very
different from that of the male, the toning is more subtle, with less
yellow and mottling. They tend to resist more and be more aggressive
than the male when handled. Nesting females also have a brood patch on
the bare skin of the belly.
The kakapo's altricial young are first covered with greyish white
down, through which their pink skin can be easily seen. They then
become fully feathered at approximately 70 days of age, when they
fledge. Juvenile individuals tend to have duller green coloration,
more uniform black barring, and less yellow present in their feathers.
They are additionally distinguishable because of their shorter tails,
wings, and beaks. At this stage, they have a ring of short feathers
surrounding their irises that resemble eyelashes.
Like many other parrots, kakapos have a variety of calls. As well as
the booms (see below for a recording) and chings of their mating
calls, they will often loudly skraark to announce their location to
The kakapo has a well-developed sense of smell, which complements its
nocturnal lifestyle. It can distinguish between odours while
foraging, a behaviour reported in only one other parrot species.
The kakapo has a large olfactory bulb ratio (longest diameter of the
olfactory bulb/longest diameter of the brain) indicating that it does,
indeed, have a more developed sense of smell than other parrots.
One of the most striking characteristics of the kakapo is its distinct
musty-sweet odour. Given their well-developed sense of smell, this
odour may be a pheromone. The smell often alerts predators to the
presence of kakapos.
As a nocturnal species, the kakapo has adapted its senses to living in
darkness. Its optic tectum, nucleus rotundus, and entopallium are
smaller in relation to its overall brain size than those of diurnal
parrots. Its retina shares some qualities with that of other nocturnal
birds but also has some qualities typical of diurnal birds, lending to
best function around twilight. These modifications allow the kakapo to
have enhanced light sensitivity but with poor visual acuity.
The skeleton of the kakapo differs from other parrots in several
features associated with flightlessness. Firstly, it has the smallest
relative wing size of any parrot. Its wing feathers are shorter, more
rounded, less asymmetrical, and have fewer distal barbules to lock the
feathers together. The sternum is small and has a low, vestigial keel
and a shortened spina externa. As in other flightless birds and some
flighted parrots, the furcula is not fused but consists of a pair of
clavicles lying in contact with each coracoid. As in other flightless
birds, the angle between the coracoid and sternum is enlarged. The
kakapo has a larger pelvis than other parrots. The proximal bones of
the leg and arm are disproportionately long and the distal elements
are disproportionately short.
The pectoral musculature of the kakapo is also modified by
flightlessness. The pectoralis and supracoracoideus muscles are
greatly reduced. The propatagialis tendo longus has no distinct muscle
belly. The sternocoracoideus is tendinous. There is an extensive
cucularis capitis clavicularis muscle that is associated with the
Ecology and behaviour
Historic distribution of the kakapo.
Maximum distribution since 1840
It seems that the kakapo – like many of New Zealand's bird species
– has evolved to occupy an ecological niche normally filled by
various species of mammal (the only non-marine mammals native to New
Zealand are three species of small bats). Before the arrival of
humans, the kakapo was distributed throughout the three main islands
of New Zealand. It lived in a variety of habitats, including
tussocklands, scrublands and coastal areas. It also inhabited forests
dominated by podocarps (rimu, matai, kahikatea, totara), beeches,
tawa, and rata. In Fiordland, areas of avalanche and slip debris with
regenerating and heavily fruiting vegetation – such as five finger,
wineberry, bush lawyer, tutu, hebes, and coprosmas – became known as
The kakapo is considered to be a "habitat generalist". Though they
are now confined to islands free of predation, they were once able to
live in nearly any climate present on the islands of New Zealand. They
survived dry, hot summers on the
North Island as well as cold winter
temperatures in the sub-alpine areas of Fjordland. Kakapos were mostly
found in the areas adjacent to dense, temperate rainforests, but the
species was not exclusively forest-dwelling. All kakapo that were
transferred to predator-free islands in the last decades have adapted
well to any changes in environment and food plants.
The kakapo is primarily nocturnal; it roosts under cover in trees or
on the ground during the day and moves around its territories at
Though the kakapo cannot fly, it is an excellent climber, ascending to
the crowns of the tallest trees. It can also "parachute" –
descending by leaping and spreading its wings. In this way it may
travel a few metres at an angle of less than 45 degrees. With only
3.3% of its mass made up of pectoral muscle, it is no surprise that
the kakapo cannot use its wings to lift its heavy body off the ground.
Because of its flightlessness, it has very low metabolic demands in
comparison to flighted birds. It is able to survive easily on very
little or on very low quality food sources. Unlike most other bird
species, the kakapo is entirely herbivorous, feeding on fruits, seeds,
leaves, stems, and rhizomes. The sex ratio of kakapo offspring is
dependent on the diet of the mother. Higher protein diets tend to lead
to higher percentages of males among the offspring. When foraging,
kakapo tend to leave crescent-shaped wads of fiber in the vegetation
behind them, called "browse signs".
Having lost the ability to fly, it has developed strong legs.
Locomotion is often by way of a rapid "jog-like" gait by which it can
move several kilometres. A female has been observed making two
return trips each night during nesting from her nest to a food source
up to 1 km (0.6 mi) away and the male may walk from its
home range to a mating arena up to 5 km (3 mi) away during
the mating season (October–January).
Feeding on poroporo fruits, Maud Island
Young birds indulge in play fighting, and one bird will often lock the
neck of another under its chin. The kakapo is curious by nature
and has been known to interact with humans. Conservation staff and
volunteers have engaged extensively with some kakapo, which have
distinct personalities. While they are curious toward humans,
kakapos are extremely asocial around one another. If two individuals
encounter one another along their track while searching for food, a
fight will inevitably ensue. Even during mating, the male is only
hospitable toward the female in that he will not bite her to death
during their interaction. After mating, the two mated individuals
separate to continue on alone.
The kakapo was a very successful species in pre-human New Zealand,
and one of the reasons for this was their set of adaptations to
effectively avoid predation from native birds of prey, which were
their only predators in the past. However, these same behaviours have
been of no use to them when faced with the mammalian predators which
were introduced to
New Zealand after human settlement, because these
hunt in different ways. As hunters, birds behave very differently from
mammals, relying on their powerful vision to find prey, and thus they
usually (with the exception of owls) hunt by day. Apart from the
New Zealand raptors, the
New Zealand falcon and swamp
harrier, there were two other birds of prey in pre-human New Zealand:
Haast's eagle and Eyles' harrier. All four species soared overhead
searching for prey in daylight, and to avoid these avian predators,
the kakapo's ancestors adopted camouflaged plumage and became
nocturnal. In addition, when the kakapo feels threatened, it freezes,
so that it is more effectively camouflaged in the forest vegetation
which their plumage resembles. It was not entirely safe at night, when
the laughing owl was active, and it is apparent from their nest
deposits on Canterbury limestone cliffs that the kakapo was among
The sound of a kakapo booming
Mammalian predators, in contrast to birds, rely on their sense of
smell and hearing to find prey and often hunt by night. The
kakapo's adaptations to avoid avian predation have thus been useless
against its new enemies – this is one of the reasons for its massive
decline since the introduction of dogs, cats and mustelids – see
Conservation: Human impact. A typical way for humans to hunt down the
kakapo is by releasing trained dogs.
The kakapo is the only species of flightless parrot in the world,
and the only flightless bird that has a lek breeding system. Males
loosely gather in an arena and compete with each other to attract
females. Females listen to the males as they display, or "lek".
They choose a mate based on the quality of his display; they are not
pursued by the males in any overt way. No pair bond is formed; males
and females meet only to mate.
During the courting season, males leave their home ranges for hilltops
and ridges where they establish their own mating courts. These leks
can be up to 7 kilometres (4 mi) from a kakapo's usual territory
and are an average of 50 metres (160 ft) apart within the lek
arena. Males remain in the region of their court throughout the
courting season. At the start of the breeding season, males will fight
to try to secure the best courts. They confront each other with raised
feathers, spread wings, open beaks, raised claws and loud screeching
and growling. Fighting may leave birds with injuries or even kill
them. Mating occurs only approximately every five years, with the
ripening of the Rimu fruit. In mating years, males making "booming"
calls for 6–8 hours every night for more than four months.
Each court consists of one or more saucer-shaped depressions or
"bowls" dug in the ground by the male, up to 10 centimetres
(4 in) deep and long enough to fit the half-metre length of the
bird. The kakapo is one of only a handful of birds in the world which
actually constructs its leks. Bowls are often created next to rock
faces, banks, or tree trunks to help reflect sound - the bowls
themselves function as amplifiers to enhance the projection of the
males' booming mating calls. Each male's bowls are connected by a
network of trails or tracks which may extend 50 metres (160 ft)
along a ridge or 20 metres (70 ft) in diameter around a
hilltop. Males meticulously clear their bowls and tracks of
debris. One way researchers check whether bowls are visited at night
is to place a few twigs in the bowl; if the male visits overnight, he
will pick them up in his beak and toss them away.
To attract females, males make loud, low-frequency (below 100 Hz)
booming calls from their bowls by inflating a thoracic sac.
They start with low grunts, which increase in volume as the sac
inflates. After a sequence of about 20 loud booms, the male kakapo
emits a high-frequency, metallic "ching" sound. He stands for a
short while before again lowering his head, inflating his chest and
starting another sequence of booms. The booms can be heard at least 1
kilometre (0.62 mi) away on a still night; wind can carry the
sound at least 5 kilometres (3.1 mi). Males boom for an
average of eight hours a night; each male may produce thousands of
booms in this time. This may continue every night for three or four
months during which time the male may lose half his body weight. Each
male moves around the bowls in his court so that the booms are sent
out in different directions. These booms are also notorious for
attracting predators, because of the long range at which they can be
Females are attracted by the booms of the competing males; they too
may need to walk several kilometres from their territories to the
arena. Once a female enters the court of one of the males, the male
performs a display in which he rocks from side to side and makes
clicking noises with his beak. He turns his back to the female,
spreads his wings in display and walks backwards towards her. He will
then attempt copulation for 2 to 14 minutes. Once the birds
have mated, the female returns to her home territory to lay eggs and
raise the chicks. The male continues booming in the hope of attracting
The female kakapo lays 1 or 2 eggs (rarely 3) per breeding cycle, with
long intervals between laying of first and second eggs. She
nests on the ground under the cover of plants or in cavities such as
hollow tree trunks. The female incubates the eggs faithfully, but is
forced to leave them every night in search of food. Predators are
known to eat the eggs and the embryos inside can also die of cold in
the mother's absence.
Kakapo eggs usually hatch within
30 days, bearing fluffy grey chicks that are quite helpless.
After the eggs hatch, the female feeds the chicks for three months,
and the chicks remain with the female for some months after
fledging. The young chicks are just as vulnerable to predators as
the eggs, and young have been killed by many of the same predators
that attack adults. Chicks leave the nest at approximately 10 to
12 weeks of age. As they gain greater independence, their mothers
may feed the chicks sporadically for up to 6 months.
Because the kakapo is long-lived, with an average life expectancy of
58 years and the maximum at about 90 years, it tends to have an
adolescence before it starts breeding. Males start booming at
about 5 years of age. It was thought that females reached
sexual maturity at 9 years of age, but this idea was debunked in the
2008 breeding season when two 6-year-old females named Apirama and
Rakiura laid eggs. Generally females do not seek out males until
they are between 9 and 11 years old. The kakapo does not breed
every year and has one of the lowest rates of reproduction among
birds. Breeding occurs only in years when trees mast (fruit heavily),
providing a plentiful food supply. Rimu mast occurs only every three
to five years, so in rimu-dominant forests such as those on Codfish
Island, kakapo breeding occurs as infrequently.
Another aspect of the kakapo's breeding system is that a female can
alter the sex ratio of her offspring depending on her condition. A
female who eats protein-rich foods produces more male offspring (males
have 30%–40% more body weight than females). Females produce
offspring biased towards the dispersive sex when competition for
resources (such as food) is high and towards the non-dispersive sex
when food is plentiful. A female kakapo will likely be able to produce
eggs even when there are few resources, while a male kakapo will be
more capable of perpetuating the species when there are plenty, by
mating with several females. This supports the Trivers–Willard
hypothesis. The relationship between clutch sex ratio and maternal
diet has conservation implications, because a captive population
maintained on a high quality diet will produce fewer females and
therefore fewer individuals valuable to the recovery of the
The beak of the kakapo is adapted for grinding food finely. For this
reason, the kakapo has a very small gizzard compared to other birds of
their size. It is generally herbivorous, eating native plants, seeds,
fruits, pollen and even the sapwood of trees. A study in 1984
identified 25 plant species as kakapo food. It is particularly fond
of the fruit of the rimu tree, and will feed on it exclusively during
seasons when it is abundant. The kakapo has a distinctive habit of
grabbing a leaf or frond with a foot and stripping the nutritious
parts of the plant out with its beak, leaving a ball of indigestible
fibre. These little clumps of plant fibres are a distinctive sign of
the presence of the bird. The kakapo is believed to employ
bacteria in the fore-gut to ferment and help digest plant matter.
Kakapo diet changes according to the season. The plants eaten most
frequently during the year include some species of Lycopodium
ramulosum, Lycopodium fastigium, Schizaea fistulosa, Blechnum minus,
Blechnum procerum, Cyathodes juniperina, Dracophyllum longifolium,
Olearia colensoi and Thelymitra venosa. Individual plants of the same
species are often treated differently.
Kakapo leave conspicuous
evidence of their feeding activities, over feeding areas that range
between 10 by 10 metres (30 ft × 30 ft) and 50 by 100
metres (160 ft × 330 ft) per individual. Kakapo
feeding grounds almost always host manuka and yellow silver pine
Fossil records indicate that in pre-Polynesian times, the kakapo was
New Zealand's third most common bird and it was widespread on all
three main islands. However, the kakapo population in
New Zealand has
declined massively since human settlement of the country. Since 1891,
conservation efforts have been made to prevent extinction. The most
successful scheme has been the
Kakapo Recovery Programme; this was
implemented in 1989 and continues.
Specimens at the Vienna Museum of Natural History; thousands of kakapo
were collected for museums across the world
The first factor in the decline of the kakapo was the arrival of
humans. Māori folklore suggests that the kakapo was found throughout
the country when the
Polynesians first arrived in
Aotearoa 700 years
Subfossil and midden deposits show that the bird was present
throughout the North Island,
South Island and Stewart Island/Rakiura
before and during early Māori times. Māori hunted the kakapo for
food and for their skins and feathers, which were made into
cloaks. They used the dried heads as ear ornaments. Due to its
flightlessness, strong scent and habit of freezing when threatened,
the kakapo was easy prey for the Māori and their dogs. Its eggs and
chicks were also preyed upon by the
Polynesian rat or kiore, which the
Māori brought to New Zealand. Furthermore, the deliberate
clearing of vegetation by Māori reduced the habitable range for
kakapo. Although the kakapo was extinct in many parts of the islands
by the time Europeans arrived, including the Tararua and Aorangi
Ranges, it was still present in the central part of the North
Island and forested parts of the South Island.
Beginning in the 1840s, European settlers cleared vast tracts of land
for farming and grazing, further reducing kakapo habitat. They brought
more dogs and other mammalian predators, including domestic cats,
black rats and stoats. Europeans knew little of the kakapo until
George Gray of the
British Museum described it from a skin in 1845. As
the Māori had done, early European explorers and their dogs ate
kakapo. In the late 19th century, the kakapo became well known as a
scientific curiosity, and thousands were captured or killed for zoos,
museums and collectors. Most captured specimens died within months.
From at least the 1870s, collectors knew the kakapo population was
declining; their prime concern was to collect as many as possible
before the bird became extinct.
In the 1880s, large numbers of mustelids (stoats, ferrets and weasels)
were released in
New Zealand to reduce rabbit numbers, but they
also preyed heavily on many native species including the kakapo. Other
browsing animals, such as introduced deer, competed with the kakapo
for food, and caused the extinction of some of its preferred plant
species. The kakapo was reportedly still present near the head of the
Whanganui River as late as 1894, with one of the last records of a
kakapo in the
North Island being a single bird caught in the Kaimanawa
Ranges by Te Kepa Puawheawhe in 1895.
Early protection efforts
In 1891, the
New Zealand government set aside Resolution Island in
Fiordland as a nature reserve. In 1894, the government appointed
Richard Henry as caretaker. A keen naturalist, Henry was aware that
native birds were declining, and began catching and moving kakapo and
kiwi from the mainland to the predator-free Resolution Island. In six
years, he moved more than 200 kakapo to Resolution Island. By 1900,
however, stoats had swum to Resolution Island and colonised it; they
wiped out the nascent kakapo population within 6 years.
In 1903, three kakapo were moved from Resolution Island to the nature
Little Barrier Island north-east of Auckland, but feral
cats were present and the kakapo were never seen again. In 1912, three
kakapo were moved to another reserve, Kapiti Island, north-west of
Wellington. One of them survived until at least 1936, despite the
presence of feral cats for part of the intervening period.
By the 1920s, the kakapo was extinct in the
North Island and its range
and numbers in the
South Island were declining. One of its last
refuges was rugged Fiordland. There, during the 1930s, it was often
seen or heard, and occasionally eaten, by hunters or roadworkers. By
the 1940s, reports of kakapo were becoming scarce.
1950–89 conservation efforts
Sinbad Gully in Fiordland, seen between the mountains on the far side
of a fjord, was one of the last strongholds of the kakapo on mainland
In the 1950s, the
New Zealand Wildlife Service was established and
began making regular expeditions to search for the kakapo, mostly in
Fiordland and what is now the
Kahurangi National Park
Kahurangi National Park in the northwest
of the South Island. Seven
Fiordland expeditions between 1951 and 1956
found only a few recent signs. Finally, in 1958 a kakapo was caught
and released in the
Milford Sound catchment area in Fiordland. Six
more kakapo were captured in 1961; one was released and the other five
were transferred to the aviaries of the Mount Bruce
Bird Reserve near
Masterton in the North Island. Within months, four of the birds had
died and the fifth died after about four years. In the next 12 years,
regular expeditions found few signs of the kakapo, indicating that
numbers were continuing to decline. Only one bird was captured in
1967; it died the following year.
By the early 1970s, it was uncertain whether the kakapo was still an
extant species. At the end of 1974, scientists located several more
male kakapo and made the first scientific observations of kakapo
booming. These observations led
Don Merton to speculate for the first
time that the kakapo had a lek breeding system. From 1974 to 1976,
14 kakapo were discovered but all appeared to be males. This raised
the possibility that the species would become extinct, because there
might be no surviving females. One male bird was captured in the
Milford area in 1975, christened "Richard Henry", and transferred to
Maud Island. All the birds the Wildlife Service discovered from 1951
to 1976 were in U-shaped glaciated valleys flanked by almost-vertical
cliffs and surrounded by high mountains. Such extreme terrain had
slowed colonisation by browsing mammals, leaving islands of virtually
unmodified native vegetation. However, even here, stoats were present
and by 1976 the kakapo was gone from the valley floors and only a few
males survived high on the most inaccessible parts of the cliffs.
Before 1977, no expedition had been to
Stewart Island/Rakiura to
search for the bird. In 1977, sightings of kakapo were reported on
Stewart Island. An expedition to the island found a track and bowl
system on its first day; soon after, it located several dozen kakapo.
The finding in an 8,000-hectare area of fire-modified scrubland and
forest raised hope that the population would include females. The
total population was estimated at 100 to 200 birds.
Mustelids have never colonised Stewart Island/Rakiura, but feral cats
were present. During a survey, it was apparent that cats killed kakapo
at a rate of 56% per year. At this rate, the birds could not
survive on the island and therefore an intensive cat control was
introduced in 1982, after which no cat-killed kakapo were found.
However, to ensure the survival of the remaining birds, scientists
decided later that this population should be transferred to
predator-free islands; this operation was carried out between 1982 and
Kakapo Recovery programme
Sirocco, an adult male on Maud Island
Kakapo Translocations 1974–1992
Number of kakapo
Deaths < 6 months
Survived as of November 1992
Maud Island (1974–81)
9 (6♂, 3♀)
3 (2♂, 1♀)
4 (2♂, 2♀)
Little Barrier Island (1982)
22 (13♂, 9♀)
2 (1♂, 1♀)
15–19 (10–12♂, 5–7♀)
Codfish Island (1987–92)
30 (20♂, 10♀)
20–30 (13–20♂, 7–10♀)
Maud Island (1989–91)
6 (4♂, 2♀)
5 (3♂, 2♀)
Mana Island (1992)
65 (43♂, 22♀)
6 (3♂, 3♀)
41–55 (27–36♂, 14–19♀)
Note: ♂ = males, ♀ = females.
In 1989, a
Kakapo Recovery programme was developed and a Kakapo
Recovery Group established to implement it. The New Zealand
Department of Conservation replaced the Wildlife Service for this
task. The first action of the plan was to relocate all the remaining
kakapo to suitable islands for them to breed. None of the New Zealand
islands were ideal to establish kakapo without rehabilitation by
extensive re-vegetation and the eradication of introduced mammalian
predators and competitors. Four islands were finally chosen: Maud,
Hauturu/Little Barrier, Codfish and Mana. Sixty-five kakapo (43
males, 22 females) were successfully transferred onto the four islands
in five translocations. Some islands had to be rehabilitated
several times when feral cats, stoats and weka kept appearing. Little
Barrier Island was eventually viewed as unsuitable due to the rugged
landscape, the thick forest and the continued presence of rats, and
its birds were evacuated in 1998. Along with Mana Island, it was
replaced with two new kakapo sanctuaries, Chalky Island (Te Kakahu)
and Anchor Island. The entire kakapo population of Codfish Island
was temporarily relocated in 1999 to Pearl Island in Port Pegasus
while rats were being eliminated from Codfish. All kakapo on Pearl
and Chalky Islands were moved to
Anchor Island in 2005.
Cat control in 1982 arrested a sharp decline in kakapo numbers, and
they have recently increased under the
Kakapo Recovery plan. Red
arrows indicate breeding years. Numbers become less precise before
1995, with the 1977 figure perhaps out by 50 birds.
A key part of the Recovery Plan is the supplementary feeding of
females. The kakapo breeds only once every two to five years, when a
certain type of plant species, primarily
Dacrydium cupressinum (rimu),
produces protein-rich fruit and seeds. Observations of the
relationship between intermittent breeding and the plant's mast year
help biologists choose which suitable supplementary foods to increase
kakapo breeding frequency. In 1989, six preferred foods (apples,
sweet potatoes, almonds, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds and walnuts)
were supplied ad libitum each night to 12 feeding stations. Males and
females ate the supplied foods, and females nested on Little Barrier
Island in the summers of 1989–91 for the first time since 1982,
although nesting success was low.
Supplementary feeding not only increases kakapo breeding frequency,
but also affects the sex ratio of kakapo offspring, as maternal
conditions influence this ratio. (See section "Reproduction".)
This finding was subsequently used to increase the number of female
chicks by deliberately manipulating maternal conditions. During
the winter of 1981, only females lighter than 1.5 kg
(3.3 lb) were given supplementary feeding to avoid raising their
body condition, and the sex ratio results in 1982 were close to
parity, eliminating the male-biased sex ratios in the unrestricted
Though breeding can be improved by supplementary feeding, the survival
of young kakapo is hampered by the presence of Polynesian rats. Of 21
chicks that hatched between 1981 and 1994, nine were either killed by
rats or died and were subsequently eaten by rats. Nest protection
has been intensified since 1995 by using traps and poison stations as
soon as a nest had been detected. A small video camera and infra-red
light source watch the nest continuously, and will scare approaching
rats with flashing lights and loud popping sounds. To increase the
success rate of nesting, a nest watcher places a small
thermostatically controlled electric blanket over the eggs or chicks,
whenever the female leaves the nest for food. The survival rate of
chicks has increased from 29% in unprotected nests to 75% in protected
To monitor the kakapo population continuously, each bird is equipped
with a radio transmitter. Every known kakapo, barring some young
chicks, has been given a name by
Kakapo Recovery Programme officials.
It is an affectionate way for conservation staff to refer to
individual birds, and a stark reminder of how few remain. Artificial
incubation of eggs and hand-raising of chicks have often been used to
improve the condition of the eggs and chicks. In November 2005,
the population comprised 41 females and 45 males, including four
fledglings (3 females and 1 male) bred in 2005. The oldest known
kakapo, "Richard Henry", was thought to be 80 years old at the time of
his death in December 2010.
Department of Conservation worker with chicks
In 2006, the
Kakapo Recovery Programme presented a new management plan
that would run from 2006 to 2016. The key goals of this plan were
to increase the female population to at least 60 by 2016, increase
genetic diversity (since the low number of individuals can be expected
to result in inbreeding depression), maintain or restore a
sufficiently large habitat to accommodate the expected increase in the
kakapo population, and maintain public awareness and support.
Kakapo Recovery programme has been successful, with the numbers of
kakapo increasing steadily. Adult survival rate and productivity have
both improved significantly since the programme's inception. However,
the main goal is to establish at least one viable, self-sustaining,
unmanaged population of kakapo as a functional component of the
ecosystem in a protected habitat. To help meet this conservation
challenge, two large
Fiordland islands, Resolution (20,860 ha)
and Secretary (8,140 ha), have been prepared for re-introduction
of the kakapo with large-scale ecological restoration activities.
Kakapo Recovery vision for the species is to restore
the "mauri" (Maori for "life-force") of the kakapo by breeding 150
During the 2008–2009 summer breeding season, the total population of
kakapo rose to over 100 for the first time since monitoring began,
reaching 149 by 2016, with 116 adults. Twenty two of the 34 chicks
had to be hand-reared because of a shortage of food on Codfish
In 2012, seven kakapo were transferred to Little Barrier Island, in an
attempt to establish a successful breeding programme.
Kakapo were last
on the island in 1999.
In March 2014, with the kakapo population having increased to 126, the
bird's recovery was used by
Melbourne artist Sayraphim Lothian as a
metaphor for the recovery of Christchurch, parallelling the
"indomitable spirit of these two communities and their determination
In Māori culture
The kakapo is associated with a rich tradition of Māori folklore and
beliefs. The bird's irregular breeding cycle was understood to be
associated with heavy fruiting or "masting" events of particular plant
species such as the Rimu which led Māori to credit the bird with the
ability to tell the future. Used to substantiate this claim were
reported observations of these birds dropping the berries of the Hinau
and Tawa trees (when they were in season) into secluded pools of water
to preserve them as a food supply for the summer ahead; in legend this
became the origin of the Māori practice of immersing food in water
for the same purpose.
Use for food and clothing
The meat of kakapo made good eating and was considered by Māori to be
a delicacy and it was hunted for food when it was still
widespread. One source states that its flesh "resembles lamb in
taste and texture", although European settlers have described the
bird as having a "strong and slightly stringent [sic] flavour".
In breeding years, the loud booming calls of the males at their mating
arenas made it easy for Māori hunting parties to track the kakapo
down, and it was also hunted while feeding or when dust-bathing in dry
weather. The bird was caught, generally at night, using snares,
pitfall traps, or by groups of domesticated Polynesian dogs which
accompanied hunting parties – sometimes they would use fire sticks
of various sorts to dazzle a bird in the darkness, stopping it in
their tracks and making the capture easier. Cooking was done in a
hāngi or in gourds of boiling oil. The flesh of the bird could be
preserved in its own fat and stored in containers for later
consumption – hunters of the
Ngāi Tahu tribe would pack the flesh
in baskets made from the inner bark of totara tree or in containers
constructed from kelp. Bundles of kakapo tail feathers were
attached to the sides of these containers to provide decoration and a
way to identify their contents. Also taken by the Māori were
the bird's eggs, which are described as whitish "but not pure white",
and about the same size as a kererū egg.
As well as eating the meat of the kakapo, Māori would use kakapo
skins with the feathers still attached or individually weave in kakapo
feathers with flax fibre to create cloaks and capes. Each
one required up to 11,000 feathers to make. Not only were these
garments considered very beautiful, they also kept the wearer very
warm. They were highly valued, and the few still in existence
today are considered taonga (treasures) – indeed, the old Māori
adage "You have a kākāpō cape and you still complain of the cold"
was used to describe someone who is never satisfied. Kakapo
feathers were also used to decorate the heads of taiaha, but were
removed before use in combat.
Despite this, the kakapo was also regarded as an affectionate pet by
the Māori. This was corroborated by European settlers in New Zealand
in the 19th century, among them George Edward Grey, who once wrote in
a letter to an associate that his pet kakapo's behaviour towards him
and his friends was "more like that of a dog than a bird".
In the media
The conservation of the kakapo has made the species well known. Many
books and documentaries detailing the plight of the kakapo have been
produced in recent years, one of the earliest being Two in the Bush,
Gerald Durrell for the
BBC in 1962. A feature-length
documentary, The Unnatural History of the Kakapo won two major
awards at the Reel Earth Environmental Film Festival. Two of the most
significant documentaries, both made by NHNZ, are
Kakapo – Night
Parrot (1982) and To Save the kakapo (1997). The BBC's Natural History
Unit also featured the kakapo, including a sequence with Sir David
Attenborough in The Life of Birds. It was also one of the endangered
Douglas Adams and
Mark Carwardine set out to find for the
radio series and book Last Chance to See. An updated version of the
series has been produced for
BBC TV, in which
Stephen Fry and
Carwardine revisit the animals to see how they are getting on almost
20 years later, and in January 2009, they spent time filming the
kakapo on Codfish Island. Footage of a kakapo named Sirocco
attempting to mate with Carwardine's head was viewed by millions
worldwide, leading to Sirocco becoming "spokes-bird" for New Zealand
wildlife conservation in 2010, as part of the International Year of
Biodiversity. The kakapo was featured in the episode "Strange
Islands" of the documentary series South Pacific, originally aired on
13 June 2009, in the episode "Worlds Apart" of the series The
Living Planet, and in episode 3 of the BBC's
New Zealand Earth's
Conservation in New Zealand
Cats in New Zealand
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Rod Morris, Hal Smith: Wild South. Saving New Zealand's Endangered
Birds. TVNZ and Century Hutchinson,
Philip Temple, Chris Gaskin: The Story of the kakapo.
Parrot of the
Auckland 1988. (Pricewinner: Children's
Picture Book of the Year Award 1990). ISBN 0-340-51967-3
Kakapo Recovery Plan 1989–1994. Published by The
Department of Conservation (DoC),
R. G. Powlesland, A. Roberts, B. D. Lloyd, D. Merton: rsnz.org:
Number, fate, and distribution of
Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) found
on Stewart Island,
New Zealand 1979–1992. in:
New Zealand Journal of
Wellington 22.1995, 239–248. ISSN 0301-4223
Kakapo Management Group: kakaporecovery.org.nz: KAKAPO
RECOVERY PLAN 1996–2005. Threatened
Species Recovery Plan No. 21.
Department of Conservation (DoC),
Don Merton: Kakapo. in: P. J. Higgins (Hrsg.): Handbook of Australian,
New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Bd 4. RAOU. Oxford University Press,
Melbourne 1999, 633–646. ISBN 0-19-553071-3
Tim Higham: The kakapo of Codfish Island. in:
New Zealand Geographic
Auckland 1992,15 (July–Sept.), 30–38.
Derek Grzelewski: Kakapo.
Bird on the brink. in: New Zealand
Geographic Magazine. Ohakune 2002, 56 (March–April).
Gerard Hutching: Back from the Brink. The Fight to Save our Endangered
Penguin Books Publisher,
Auckland 2004. ISBN 0-14-301948-1
A celebration of kakapo.
Special Issue of Notornis. Ornithological
Society of New Zealand,
Wellington 53.2006,1. ISSN 0029-4470
Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
Strigops habroptila (category)
Wikispecies has information related to Kakapo
Parrot Encyclopedia –
TerraNature page on Kakapo
New Zealand Department of Conservation
Rare parrot receives special care – article from
Start of the Breeding season 2009
ARKive – images and movies of the kakapo
Kakapo in successful return journey (Archived by WebCite at
Saving Kakapo: an illustrated history by Murray Williams and Don
Merton, in: 'Notornis (Journal), vol. 53/1, 2006' Abstract provided by
the Ornithological Society of New Zealand.
BBC Wildlife Finder News stories, and clips from the
Interview with NZ conservationists Alison Ballance and the late Don
Mission Kākāpō Copulation – a video on the Te Papa Channel
Kakapo information on NZ Birds Online
Video footage from the
Last Chance to See
Last Chance to See and Wild Down
Kakapo- Video from April 2003, with footage of Richard-Henry (Kakapo)
and Chalky Island, from YouTube
New Zealand – A Rare View" by Rob Morris & Rod Hayden.
About 3 Birds: Takahe, Kakapo, Black Robin. Wild South/Natural History
Series. TV NZ Enterprises,
Auckland /Dunedin 1990. 98 minutes (Kakapo
footage from 1982; with rare pictures of
Fiordland and Stewart Island)
"To Save the kakapo" by Alison Ballance. Wild South Videos, Natural
New Zealand Ltd. Dunedin 1998. (60 minutes, during the 1997
breeding season on Codfish Island)
Kea, kaka and kakapo (family: Strigopidae)
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