The Cost of Eighty Million Years in Paradise
Common Name: The Kakapo, The Owl Parrot
A.K.A.: Strigops habroptila
- Males can grow up to 60cm (24”) long and weigh up to 4kg (8.8lbs.)
- Average life expectancy of a healthy kakapo is 95 years
- Breeding begins around age 9; females lay 1-3 eggs per clutch
- Main mammalian predators are rats, cats, ferrets, and weasels
Found: Traditionally, across large areas of both major islands of New Zealand; today, mostly on small, protected island reserves nearby
It Does What?!
Strange things happen when you leave a few species alone on a distant island for a few million years. Places like New Zealand, Australia, Madagascar, and Hawaii are (or were) full of plants and animals that seem alien compared to rest-of-the-world standards. This is often due to a set of conditions and evolutionary challenges unlike those seen on the continent. Life on New Zealand is particularly interesting, having been heavily shaped by the fact that the only terrestrial mammals there are bats. Every animal that evolved there did so without the pressure of having to avoid toothy predators stalking them through the forest. Ever wonder what birds would be like without anything on the ground trying to kill them?
If so, meet the kakapo, the world’s largest, fattest parrot. And the only one that can’t fly. Isolated in New Zealand when the islands separated from the continent over eighty million years ago, the native parrots eventually lost their strong flight muscles and stiff, rigid wing feathers, trading them for greater size and the ability to store a half inch thick layer of fat under their skin to sustain them in lean times. This change also slowed their metabolism, resulting in their being one of the longest-lived birds out there, with a maximum recorded age of 120 years. Slothlike, these peaceful, nocturnal creatures spend most of their waking hours climbing (yes, climbing) from tree to tree, eating fruit and foliage. Unlike sloths, however, they can take a quicker route down, simply leaping from the tree and spreading their stumpy wings in what’s probably a very amusing imitation of a parachute. Unsurprisingly, they’ve developed quite strong legs, and can cover distances of several kilometres at a jog.
The most fascinating aspect of the kakapo lifestyle, though, has to be its mating routine. Unlike most parrots, kakapos aren’t monogamous and don’t share parenting duties. Every three to six years, when fruit crops are particularly good, male kakapos will stake out a small territory on high ground, fighting with other males for the best spots. The “best spots” in this case being those with the best acoustic qualities, such as those backed by a rock wall which can reflect sound outward over the land. Having obtained his mating area, he will construct a series of pristine paths leading up to it (for the ladies), as well as a large bowl-shaped depression in the earth, which acts as an amplifier. Kakapo-sound-system completed, he’s ready to get down to business. The male stands in his bowl, inflates a sac in his chest, and emits a series of eerie, low frequency booms, like distant cannons, loud enough to be heard several kilometres away. He continues to do this, all night, every night, for up to four months, losing up to half his body weight in the process. The female kakapo has it somewhat easier. She simply approaches the emitter of her favourite booms, he performs a short dance routine for her, she gets what she came for, then walks on home to lay her eggs.
Before the colonisation of New Zealand, the islands were reportedly teeming with these birds, so successfully specialised were they for their unusual environment. Their only natural predators were birds of prey, from which they hid by freezing and blending into the surrounding greenery. Sadly, specialisation is often a one-way street that you can’t back out of if your environment suddenly changes. The features that made the defenseless kakapos good at avoiding avian predators (like their tendency to freeze), made them terrible at avoiding the carnivorous mammals, such as cats, that came with colonisation. Despite having powerful legs with large claws, the birds seem unaware that they can be used as weapons. Worse, their natural curiosity and lack of fear in approaching humans often landed them on both Maori and European dinner tables.
Enormous efforts have been made over the last century to prevent these big, gentle birds from going extinct. As of this year, there are still only 126 known to exist (each with its own name and radio transmitter), but they are a slowly expanding population, thanks to their relocation to three protected, largely predator-free islands. Expectant mothers even have their own nest watchers, who sneak in to cover the nests with electric blankets while mom pops out for a bite. Free babysitting- seems like the least we can do.
[Fun Fact: Conservationists have had to scale back on the supplemental food they had been giving the kakapos during mating season. It turns out a well-fed kakapo will produce mostly male chicks. Not what you need when you’re trying to rebuild a population.]
[Also: Kakapos use their fine facial feathers like whiskers, walking with their faces near the ground to sense the terrain.]
- Douglas Adams & Mark Carwardine (1990) Last Chance to See. Pan Books, London [This is a fantastic book. Highly recommended.]
- Grzelewski (2002) Smithsonian Magazine, October Issue
- Sutherland (2002) Nature 419: 265-266