Kakapo – a big green parrot

In 1981, Ed Keeble became possibly the first person (and certainly the first Suffolk student) to witness a Kakapo chick being fed by its mother.  His talk to SOG members on Thursday November 24th gave an entertaining account of the events leading up to this experience.

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Photo:  With grateful thanks to Kakapo Recovery and the late Don Merton

His journey started with a letter to Don Merton (one of the leading conservationists in New Zealand) – written by Bert Axell and dictated by Derek Moore – and finished with a hairy helicopter ride with Bill Black, a legendary pilot who sometimes alarmed his passengers (including Ed) by flying his helicopter using only his knees whilst lighting his pipe.  In between, Ed drove from the north of New Zealand to the south, picking up a few rarities such as Black Stilt on the way.

In fact, Ed’s talk started with even earlier events, covering the history of New Zealand’s split from Gondwanaland millions of years ago which ensured that no mammalian predators were around in New Zealand to kill off flightless parrots.  Of course, eventually a mammalian predator did arrive – humans from Polynesia and Europe – and as these parrots have wonderfully soft feathers (their latin name means ‘soft feathers’) they were sought after trophies for hunters.  However it is thought that the arrival of the stoat was the event that really sounded the death knell for the majority of the Kakapo populations.

For those of us who had never seen a Kakapo in the flesh (i.e. all of us), Ed helpfully described it as a “big parrot”, although he later extended this description to a “big green parrot”.  Fortunately he had also brought along a life-size replica which was even of the correct weight, which a member of the audience kindly volunteered to hold up for the camera.

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Photo:  Gi Grieco

In order to bring us the full Kakapo experience however, Ed went even further – playing their amazing calls through a pair of speakers.  I had no idea that a Kakapo booms like a bittern (and looks a bit like a fluffy football whilst doing so).  He did stop short of bringing the smell of a Kakapo with him though – they apparently have a very distinctive smell with the scent being reminiscent of the inside of a clarinet case.

In the 1970s, it was believed that only a small population of exclusively male Kakapo existed in an area of mainland New Zealand known as Fiordland.  Although attempts were made to bring these birds into captivity, all but one of the captured birds quickly died, probably because of their specialised diet requirements (Kakapo only breed in years where the rimu tree has an abundance of fruit).  Then a small population which included females was found on Stewart Island.  This island was free from stoats, but unfortunately did contain feral cats.  This is where Ed spent time in 1981 – sitting in a hide for 14 hours a day monitoring one of the first Kakapo nests to be discovered in modern times.

Since then, the Kakapo have been flown to other islands in an attempt to save them from extinction and as Ed pointed out, have racked up an impressive number of air miles for a flightless bird!  The good news is that last year a record-breaking 35 chicks fledged, bringing the population up to 155 birds.  This still sounds like a small number, but a good percentage of these are females, and as Kakapo are thought to live for up to 100 years, there is a real chance now that, if predator-free habitat can be maintained, they will survive.

It is hard to do justice to such an informative talk in a short review.  Suffice to say that everyone there enjoyed it, and anyone who wasn’t there missed an opportunity to learn about what is surely one of the most amazing birds on the planet.

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Photo:  Gi Grieco