The Kakapo: A Survivor

There are few places on earth that could provide hospitable habitat for a nocturnal, flightless parrot that weighs nine pounds (in the bird world, that’s a lot). But until the first humans arrived in New Zealand some 800 years ago, the Kakapo, whose name means “night parrot” in Maori, thrived there, alongside many other exceptional bird species. In the absence of mammalian predators, the food chain that evolved had feathers at every level, and the Kakapo's primary concern became avoiding gigantic Haast’s Eagles soaring overhead. To escape these sharp-eyed aerial hunters, the Kakapo evolved stunning emerald green plumage to blend in with the foliage, and it held off on feeding and breeding until the sun had set. It was a system that worked.

Then we humans showed up, in our boats full of cats, rats, and a host of other furry, fanged invaders, and more or less flushed hundreds of thousands of years of finely tuned evolutionary work down the drain. The so-called “Land of Birds” quickly became a land of sheep, pastures, and a stupidly high number of rodents that decimated endemic birds—including the Kakapo, whose eagle-defense systems were pretty much useless against hungry mammals. Many bird species went extinct altogether, and the last remaining Kakapo retreated to the remotest mountaintops in southern New Zealand, where stoats and feral cats couldn’t follow.

It took hundreds of years for humans to start responding to their impact on the Kakapo population. In 1894, Richard Henry, one of New Zealand's earliest naturalists, was appointed caretaker and curator of the Resolution Island reserve. There, he launched the world’s first systematic bird transfer program when he relocated 572 Kakapo to the island in an effort to save the species. But despite his efforts, the plan backfired—Resolution Island was too close to the mainland, and the parrot’s predators swam across the channel and killed every last one.

After Henry’s effort failed, the Kakapo essentially disappeared for some 70 years. But then, in 1974, scientists got wind of reports of strange parrot-like tracks in the Fiordland mountains. They followed the lead to the high slopes where the tracks had been found, and began broadcasting recordings of the Kakapo call. To their delight, a male parrot responded.

The scientists eventually discovered a small population of 14 Kakapos, some of which could have been survivors from Richard Henry's day, since the Kakapo is one of the longest living birds on earth, with a potential lifespan of 90 years or more. But a new challenge quickly emerged: All 14 birds were sex-starved males, with no females to carry the population into the next generation. Finding a female Kakapo became the researchers' primary objective for the next four years, until they finally found a breeding population of Kakapo on Stewart Island. They relocated 38 males and 21 females to a sanctuary, where after decades of rigorous protection and monitoring, the population has slowly climbed to 126. (Emphasis on “slow”— the Kakapo have a lek breeding system, which means females generally mate with only one male every few years.)

Even if progress has come at a rather glacial pace, the Kakapo’s return has played a vital role in restoring birds’ place at the center of New Zealand’s natural heritage. They’ve become a cultural touchstone for national identity, appearing everywhere from public murals to the nation’s currency, and they're a rallying point for politicians and activists who campaign for the preservation and restoration of bird habitats. Kakapo reared in captivity even tour the nation as ambassadors for the species, raising awareness and promoting conservation. So for every bird that makes a comeback in New Zealand, some credit goes to the Kakapo.