Kākāpō: Flightless Parrot From New Zealand

Read the amazing story of the kākāpō: the only flightless parrot in the world whose population has come back from the brink of extinction due to the tireless efforts of conservationists.

Kākāpō is an unusual species of parrot. In fact, kākāpō is a parrot that defies all the laws of parrots – flightless, nocturnal, large (and that’s just the beginning!)

These strange parrots are native birds of New Zealand, where they were once widespread before humans arrived in this isolated country.

Habitat loss and introduced mammalian predators have led to a dramatic decline in kākāpō numbers, and today there are only around 250 left in the wild.

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    Although the kākāpō is critically endangered, an incredible story of conservation efforts is helping this unique bird to recover, slowly bringing them back from the brink of extinction.

    The Unique Kākāpō

    The kākāpō is an incredibly rare bird native to New Zealand – a nocturnal parrot that has adapted to the harsh conditions of the country’s temperate and sub-Antarctic climates.

    It is perhaps best known for being one of the rarest flightless parrots in the world, unable to perch due to its sturdy body and powerful legs which make it look more like an owl than a typical parrot.

    Despite this limitation, the kākāpō is surprisingly agile on land – capable of fantastic jumps and amazing speed. Let’s get into some more fun facts about the kākāpō

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      Common nameKākāpō
      Scientific nameStrigops habroptilus
      Lifespan60–100 years
      WeightMales: 1.5–3kg (3.3–6.6 lb)Females: 0.950–1.6 kilograms (2.09–3.53 lb)
      DietHerbivores: native plants, seeds, fruits, pollen and sapwood
      DistributionCodfish Island and Anchor Island (New Zealand)
      Population size~250
      Conservation statusCritically endangered (IUCN red list)

      Flightless Bird

      Kākāpō are a unique species of parrot, which is the only known flightless member of its family. Although they have wings, the kākāpō cannot fly due to their small size and heavy weight.

      The kākāpō evolved with no ground-based predators on their native New Zealand archipelago, so they never needed to fly away from danger.

      This is why their wings are much weaker than other parrots, and they can’t use them for flight.

      Kākāpō
      Kākāpō is the only flightless parrot in the world

      Low Metabolic Rate

      The lack of predators on its islands also led to the evolution of several other unique features that make kākāpōs stand out among other parrots.

      For instance, kākāpōs have a low metabolic rate, making them one of the slowest-moving birds in the world.

      They also produce much less heat than other birds and spend most of their lives on the ground rather than in trees or nests like most other birds do.

      As a result, kākāpōs tend to be much quieter than other parrots and often go unnoticed during daylight hours when they venture out looking for food or mates.

      Nocturnal

      Kākāpōs are nocturnal birds, meaning they are mostly active at night. This is because the lack of predators from the islands caused them to evolve a unique behavior pattern.

      They spend most of their lives in burrows or other secluded places during the day and come out during the night looking for food.

      This makes them very difficult to observe in the wild and is one of the reasons why kākāpōs are so rare.

      Huge Size

      Kākāpōs are also very large, weighing up to 4 kg (8.8 lbs). This is much bigger than most other birds and makes them the heaviest parrot in the world.

      It also helps them to store fat easily in order to survive during tough times or long winters when food sources become scarce.

      Kākāpō
      It is one of the biggest birds in the world by weight

      Longest Living Bird?

      Kākāpōs have been found to live longer than any other bird species, with an average lifespan of between 95 and 105 years old!

      Such impressive lifespans could be attributed to their low metabolic rates, allowing them to conserve energy over extended periods, leading them to live more slowly but for much longer periods than shorter-lived species like chickens or pigeons.

      Complicated Breeding System

      Courtship – Lek Mating

      Kākāpōs are also unique because they have evolved to mate polygynously, meaning each male mates with multiple females during the mating season, called Lek mating or ‘lekking’.

      Kākāpō breeding is a unique process, unlike any other breed of parrot in the world. All mating activity is conducted within the male’s home range, extending up to 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) from his usual territory.

      During this time, males established their own courts, known as leks, located on hilltops and ridges at an average distance of 50 meters (~165 ft) apart.

      The males construct bowls within the court with a complicated track splay. They meticulously tend to these tracks, clearing away any debris.

      In fact, researchers can tell if the court is in active use by placing some twigs within the bowl, and if they are gone the next day, they know a male is currently tending to the territory.

      The male will then perform a vocal display, called a ‘boom’ for any potential female suitors to attract them to his court.

      The boom is amplified through the shape and design of the bowl and its surrounding tracks. Females tend to select their mates based on the strength of their display rather than being pursued by them.

      Kākāpō
      The female Kākāpō perching

      Copulation

      Once a pairing has been made, copulation does not last long – usually around 15 minutes – before the male moves on to find another mate.

      The breeding season tends to be short-lived and depends on food availability; females will often lay eggs when there is an abundance of fruit or flowers to have enough sustenance for their chicks once they hatch.

      For this reason, kākāpō tends to only breed every 3 to 4 years when the native Rimu tree is in fruit. This slow breeding is yet another challenge for the ongoing recovery of this critically endangered bird.

      Nesting

      The female kākāpō lays two or three eggs in a nest that she builds herself out of grasses, mosses, and leaves in hollow logs or tree stumps.

      She then lines it with feathers plucked from her own breast.

      The eggs take about 25 days to incubate, and once hatched, both parents play an active role in caring for the chicks until they can fend for themselves after four weeks.

      Kākāpō chicks grow quickly and reach full size by three months old but remain dependent on adults until they reach independence at the age of about six months.

      The offspring stay close to their parents afterward until a young age when they disperse and try to find their own mates – completing the cycle anew!

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        Kākāpō
        Newborn Kākāpō chicks

        Kākāpō Recovery & Conservation

        An Eco-System Under Attack

        New Zealand (also known as Aotearoa) has an incredibly unique ecosystem. Due to its isolated locale and rugged terrain, the country was inhabited by humans only recently, with European settlers arriving there less than 400 years ago.

        The country was also geographically isolated early in the supercontinent’s geological breakup, Gondwanaland.

        This isolation led to the evolution of strange and wonderful creatures, particularly a raft of bird species that adapted to fit the niches of mammals within the ecosystem.

        Without any mammals occupying the ground of forests, a range of flightless birds evolved to fill this role – including the kākāpō and the famous kiwi.

        When Europeans arrived on this new land, they brought a range of mammals, including mice, rats, cats, dogs, mustelids, possums, and hedgehogs (just to name a few).

        These mammals are adept predators and prey upon endemic species of insects, reptiles, and birds.

        Unfortunately, all of these indigenous species are adapted to life without any mammalian predators, leaving them hugely vulnerable to these newcomers.

        Kākāpō
        Kākāpō feeding. These birds are herbivores

        Species Decline – Kākāpō on the Brink of Extinction

        Fossil records tell scientists that kāpāpo was the third most common bird in New Zealand before the arrival of humans (including Polynesians).

        They were widespread over the three main islands and were even separated into distinct sub-species.

        The decline of the kāpāpo began with the first human arrival, Polynesian settlers now known as Māori.

        The kāpāpo’s lack of flight, strong scent, and tendency to freeze when startled made the bird an easy target for Māori and their hunting dogs.

        Their large size made for a favored feast, and their beautiful plumage adorned clothing.

        By the time Europeans arrived, kāpāpo were locally extinct in multiple places but were still abundant throughout other ranges of Aotearoa.

        Kākāpō
        The Kākāpō species decline started with the arrival of the Polynesians, and continued when the Europeans came to New Zealand

        European impact led to a much more dramatic decline in kāpāpo number from introduced predators such as stoats and cats, extensive habitat loss, and collection of wild birds for off-shore collections such as zoos.

        In the 1970s, it was unsure whether the kāpāpo species still existed. Surveys found small remnant populations, which were promptly relocated to multiple off-shore predator-free islands.

        Today these populations are still intensively managed on these islands. In the next section, we cover the truly amazing story of how conservation efforts have helped the kākāpō population to spring back.

        The Future of Kākāpo

        The future of kākāpō conservation is looking brighter than ever before. Thanks to the dedication of many conservationists and scientists, the population has increased from 20 individuals to 250 in the last 50 years – a remarkable achievement. 

        However, this low population size caused a genetic bottleneck, reducing fertility in some populations. As such, researchers are continually finding new ways to ensure that these birds will continue to flourish.

        One such research project focuses on artificially inseminating kākāpō eggs with sperm from multiple males, thus creating genetically diverse offspring with higher fertility rates. 

        Artificial insemination can also be used for conservation purposes – allowing eggs from endangered or threatened kākāpō pairs to be combined with sperm from multiple males for the purpose of saving their species’ genetic diversity. 

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          Kākāpō
          Conservation efforts have helped bring back the populations of the bird to some extent, though it still remains critically endangered

          Additionally, hormone therapy has been proposed as an effective way of improving fertility rates among kākāpō and preserving their long-term reproductive success.

          Another method being explored is focused on supplementing food sources for adult kākāpō. 

          By providing supplemental feeding during key times, researchers hope to increase juvenile survival and enable more successful breeding seasons over time. 

          Finally, stimulating the fruiting of rimu trees—a vital food source for the birds—has been suggested as an additional means of restoring and protecting kākāpō breeding habitats and populations. 

          It is clear that proactive measures must be taken if we want the beloved kākāpō bird species to survive in the future. 

          With so much effort being put towards its protection and recovery by passionate individuals who care deeply about these unique creatures, it is hopeful that they will continue to thrive in New Zealand’s forests for generations to come.

          Frequently Asked Questions

          Which Is the World’s Only Flightless Parrot?

          The kākāpō is the world’s only flightless parrot species.

          Can a kākāpō be a pet?

          No, kākāpō cannot legally be kept as pets. They are an endangered species and need to be protected in the wild.

          Can a kākāpō parrot talk?

          No, kākāpō parrots cannot talk. They are a flightless species and have evolved to communicate differently than their flying relatives.

          What is killing the kākāpō?

          The main threats to the kākāpō are predation from introduced mammals, habitat loss and fragmentation, and introduced diseases.

          Wrap Up

          The kākāpō is an incredibly unique bird species that has survived against all odds. Conservation efforts have allowed its population to increase steadily, but the species remains critically endangered and vulnerable.

          To ensure a long-term future for this beloved New Zealand native, ongoing protection of the remaining habitat is key, as continued management of predator threats.

          If we can keep up the hard work that has been done so far, there is hope for kākāpō yet!

          Photo of author

          Sophie Jeffares

          After an early start in the veterinary industry and as a conservation educator at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida, Sophie has since been a successful Zookeeper and Conservationist, specializing in native New Zealand species. She now works in a unique wildlife sanctuary in New Zealand.

          When she’s not bird-watching in native forests or crawling through the underbrush searching for rare species, she can be found with her farmer husband and labrador, Jellybean, on their sheep and beef station, far from civilization.

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