The Kakapo Parrot
Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

I’ve always been a sucker for endangered species—especially cute and comical endangered species. There aren’t that many of them—at least not anymore. But you’ve got to feel for an animal that spent many happy millennia peacefully minding its own business until humans came along. In this case, we’re talking about a silly-looking bird that had the misfortune of evolving in such a safe area that it lost (or never developed) most of the traits that could have enabled it to defend itself. It’s called the kakapo, and apart from being silly-looking and endangered, it’s unique in a long list of other ways.

Look, Down on the Ground! It’s a Bird…

A native of New Zealand, the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus, or “owl-faced soft feathers”) is a type of parrot, but only distantly related to other parrots. As its scientific name suggests, it looks somewhat like an owl (albeit with green or yellow plumage) and has exceptionally soft feathers. For decades, the world’s kakapo population has hovered near extinction, and that’s the only sort of hovering this flightless bird can manage. Besides having feathers that are poorly suited to flight, its bone and muscle structure have developed in such a way as to make flying infeasible. It’s also heavy for its size and wingspan; a full-grown kakapo is about two feet (60cm) long and weighs up to 9 pounds (about 4kg). Nevertheless, kakapos are good climbers, and can use their wings as a sort of parachute, to help them glide safely to the ground.

The kakapo’s list of unusual attributes goes on. For example, it’s mainly nocturnal; each night, it walks (or even runs) for great distances—sometimes several kilometers—in search of food, which it locates with its highly advanced sense of smell. But what’s particularly striking is how poorly adapted the bird is to deal with enemies. The kakapo spends nearly all its time alone, gathering with other adults only to mate. It has a strong odor, usually described as “musty” but apparently pleasant to humans and similar to that of the freesia flower. The odor attracts dogs, cats, and other predators. But when a kakapo senses danger, it doesn’t attempt to run or attack; instead, it simply holds perfectly still. While its feathers may have served as effective camouflage against certain kinds of predators, such as eagles, long ago, this behavior merely makes it easier for almost any other animal to catch and kill it. And yet the kakapo, when protected from predators, has been known to live as long as 60 years, making it one of the world’s longest-lived birds.

We Like the Birds with the Calls that Go Boom

Yet another unusual behavior—unique among parrots and rare in any bird—is the kakapo’s mating system. The males go to a prominent location, such as a hilltop, and create a courtship area known as a lek—a group of bowl-like indentations dug into the ground, connected by a network of well-maintained tracks. When the males gather (the gathering is also known as a lek), they compete for the best spots, and then begin calling for the females.

Although kakapos have a wide variety of calls, the male mating call is quite unusual: he puffs up a thoracic air sac and emits a very loud, low booming sound that vaguely resembles that of timpani. The sound can be heard for several kilometers, and the males continue their booming all night, every night, for as long as several months. At the same time, the males spread their wings and do a sort of hopping dance. When females show up, they pick out the best boomers for a one-night stand; the males continue their call and display for the remainder of the mating season, hoping to get lucky again. (Males don’t bond with particular females or participate in the raising of young.)

All this goes on, at most, once a year—sometimes as infrequently as every four years—further limiting the rate at which the kakapo population can replenish itself. The frequency appears to be tied to the availability of food; greater resources encourage more mating.

To the Brink and Back

At one time, the kakapo population may have reached hundreds of thousands or even millions, all across New Zealand. By 1995, that number had dropped to just 50. Problems first arose when the first human settlers—Māori from Polynesia—arrived around a thousand years ago. Although the Māori killed some kakapos for their food and their skins, a more serious problem was posed by the kiore, or Polynesian Rat they brought with them: it fed on both the kakapo eggs and their young. In the 1840s, an even bigger problem arose. European settlers posed a triple threat: they destroyed much of the kakapo’s habitat, hunted them for meat (and captured many more for museums and zoos), and brought still more animals that preyed on the birds. Within a few decades, the kakapo population was severely depleted and the first conservation attempts were made—though they did little good.

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation initiated a Kakapo Recovery Plan in 1989. All surviving kakapos have been relocated to two small, predator-free islands, and are monitored closely. Work is underway to encourage breeding, protect the birds’ habitat, ensure adequate food supplies, and safeguard the health of the surviving population. So far, the program has enjoyed significant success: as of 2006, the population had increased to 86. They’re still a long way from being self-sustaining, and some people fear that the gene pool is now too small to keep the species viable. But there is at least reason for optimism. Even without flight, the kakapo may yet rise again. —Joe Kissell

More Information

Thanks to reader John Allie for suggesting today’s topic!

This article was featured on Another Chance to See, Mendel’s garden #3, and I and the Bird #28.

The best place to go for up-to-date info on the Kakapo is the official Kakapo Recovery Programme site. For some fantastic movies and photos of the birds, see Kakapo page at ARKive.

Other sources of information include:

cover art

The Kakapo was featured in Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine.

The illustration is by Walter Larry Buller, from his 1873 book Birds of New Zealand.