New Zealand’s forests are home to a plethora of unique birds. One of the most distinctive of them all is a large, flightless parrot known as the kakapo. Read on to learn more about this fascinating parrot!
The Kakapo is the World’s Largest Parrot
The kakapo, also known as the owl parrot due to its nocturnal behavior and overall appearance, breaks the record for being both the world’s largest and heaviest living parrot. They can be up to around 9 pounds, and males are typically larger than females. They are about as big as a large chicken.
Kakapos are also the only living flightless parrot known today. Its ancestors could fly, but as the kakapo adapted for life on the ground, this seemingly important ability has been lost. Instead, the kakapo sports strong legs that help them travel around the forest floor, as well as climb trees. This phenomenon can be seen in a variety of other flightless birds living on islands with little to no predators. This species is also long-lived, with an average lifespan of around 40-80 years.
This parrot is also nocturnal, being particularly active in the dark of night; in fact, kakapo translates to ‘night parrot’ in Maori. One adaptation for its nighttime lifestyle is the kakapo’s heightened sense of smell, which helps this bird search for berries and other snacks. Its vision is also unique amongst birds, having both traits of nocturnal and diurnal bird species. The ‘whiskers’ of the kakapo also help them sense the ground through the dark.
It is the Only Parrot that Makes Leks
The kakapo is solitary and territorial, unlike most other parrot species. Both males and females hold large territories which they will fiercely defend, usually preemptively announcing themselves with loud warning calls.
During the breeding season, male kakapos gather around a certain area known as a “lek”. Kakapos are the only parrot species known that forms leks, which are areas where multiple males will display in hopes of attracting females. The males will then dig a shallow “bowl” in the ground, clearing the area of any vegetation and debris. After claiming a spot, the males will proceed to produce booming calls of low frequency in hopes of attracting a potential male. The bowls they dig help amplify these calls further, which can resonate up to around three miles away! After around 20 or 30 of these booming noises, they’ll alternate to producing chirping calls. Females will mate with whoever produces the most desirable displays.
They Freeze when Threatened
The kakapo cannot fly, as its ability to do so has been lost through evolution. This is because, before human arrival, the only predators the kakapo had to worry about were flying birds. Birds of prey such as hawks, owls, and even the now-extinct Haast's eagle were the kakapo's only threats. Besides adopting a nocturnal lifestyle to avoid predation (though owls still pose a threat), this parrot also developed a simple defense mechanism to evade them.
Since the kakapo’s predators are visually oriented, it evades them by sitting completely still. Its moss-green plumage is adapted for camouflage through vegetation. This strategy did well with raptors but would also be a major flaw when the species would face invasive predators (which will be explained later).
Kakapos are Great Climbers
One skill the kakapo retained from its ancestors is its exceptional ability to climb trees. This parrot is herbivorous, feeding on berries, seeds, and other plant materials. One of its preferred foods is berries from the rimu tree. Rimu berries provide lots of energy and nutrition, and it is believed that this tree strongly influences the kakapo’s reproductive behaviors.
To obtain such fruits, however, the kakapo must climb up to the trees if it doesn't want to forage on the forest floor. Using their feet and beaks, these birds are surprisingly nimble creatures, climbing through branches to reach the treetops. Its wings aren’t completely useless either; the kakapo uses them to maintain balance. When exiting a tree, the kakapo may also use them to “parachute” down, spreading them about as they leap back to the ground. Kakapos can accumulate a lot more body fat than other birds, especially before the breeding season.
Kakapos Need our Help
Unfortunately, the kakapo is currently listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List as of 2018. This bird once ranged throughout New Zealand, but both overhunting and invasive species have drastically lowered their populations. Early Maori settlers hunted the kakapo for their meat and feathers almost to extinction in some parts of their range, but the parrots were still locally abundant until the British colonized New Zealand. Agriculture further reduced the kakapo’s range, but the introduction of various invasive predators would later bring this species down to endangerment.
As mentioned earlier, the kakapo’s main defensive strategy is to freeze. Though this was effective for native avian predators, this made it much easier to hunt for mammalian predators such as dogs, cats, rats, and stoats. This defense mechanism, along with their strong scent and flightlessness, would make them especially easy targets. Recovery is also difficult as kakapos typically only breed every 2-4 years, and rats will sometimes feast upon eggs and offspring as well.
Fortunately, intensive conservation efforts are underway for the kakapo, and their overall population is slowly increasing. These parrots are fully protected under New Zealand law. The Kakapo Recovery Program works to relocate kakapo parrots onto predator-free islands to allow them to live safely in a wild setting. Eradication programs for predators such as rats have also been established to wipe out invasive species that would otherwise harm kakapos and other endangered fauna. There are currently around 248 known adults living today, and each has its own unique name (the most famous probably being Sirocco).