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The Endangered Kakapo and Sirocco the Celebrity Parrot

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about living things.

The Kakapo and Sirocco

The kakapo is a flightless and ground-dwelling parrot that is endemic to New Zealand. It's the heaviest parrot in the world and is predominantly nocturnal. The bird is known for its ability to climb trees and the booming call of the male. Unfortunately, it's critically endangered. At the moment, only 213 birds exist. A recent aspergillosis outbreak killed some birds. On the other hand, the 2018/2019 breeding season was a successful one and produced a relatively large number of chicks.

Sirocco is a hand-reared kakapo that has imprinted on humans. He's been taken to different places and acts as an ambassador for his species. He became internationally famous in 2009. During the filming of a BBC nature show, Sirocco climbed on top of a zoologist's head and performed mating behaviour.

Sirocco's life so far has involved alternating periods of captivity (when he "works") and freedom. At first he stayed close to humans when he was released, but eventually he travelled farther afield. During 2016, the rangers that care for the kakapos lost contact with him. In February 2018, they found him. Despite living apart from humans for two years, he's still a friendly bird and seems willing to meet his adoring public again.

The name kakapo is derived from two Maori names meaning parrot and night. The words kakapo and kakapos are both used as plural forms of the bird's name. The name is sometimes written as kākāpō according to the Maori custom.

Physical Appearance and Behaviour

The scientific name of the kakapo is Strigops habroptila. It's also known as the night parrot due to its nocturnal habits and the owl parrot due to the owl-like appearance of its face when viewed from the front. It's a plump bird with a mottled green, yellow, and black appearance. There are more yellow feathers on the underside of its body than on its upper surface. Its face has brown, bristle-like feathers and its bill and legs are grey. Females weigh about 1.4 kg (3.1 pounds) and males about 2.2 kg (4.9 pounds).

Kakapos are generally solitary animals. A female and her youngsters are occasionally found together, however. The birds often walk slowly but can move quickly when necessary. They have stamina and can walk for several kilometres without a break. They tend to freeze when they're threatened. The frozen posture and mottled feather colour helps to disguise the parrot in its forest environment. It doesn't protect the bird from predators that hunt by smell, however. The parrots have a distinct scent.

Kakapos are strong climbers. They often ascend trees to a considerable height. The birds sometimes open their wings when they're running in order to balance better. They also extend their wings when they jump from a tree, which enables them to have a gentler descent. According to the DOC (Department of Conservation), lighter females are able to glide for 3 to 4 metres with the aid of their wings.

Sirocco taught us that kākāpō can swim. He was visiting Maud Island and saw the ranger's family running and jumping off the jetty. He joined in, then paddled back to shore and shook himself off, seemingly unfazed.

— Department of Conservation in New Zealand

Daily Life

Kakapos generally sleep during the day. They roost in dense vegetation on the ground or in the treetops. The birds are herbivores. During the night, they ingest a wide variety of plant material, including fruits, seeds, leaves, and stems. They also eat tubers, which they dig out of the ground. When rimu fruits are available, the birds eat little else. The rimu is a coniferous and evergreen tree. The "fruits" are technically female cones of the tree. They are red in colour and have a fleshy texture.

Wildly different estimates for the lifespan of a kakapo exist. The average estimate seems to be around sixty years. Some researchers suspect the parrots can live up to ninety years or perhaps as long as a hundred.

Booming

Kakapos begin reproducing when they are around five years old. They breed in rimu mast years, which are times when rimu fruit is especially abundant. These occasions occur every two to four years.

The kakapo is the world's only lek-breeding parrot. A lek is a collection of males that compete for the attention of a female. The competition involves visual and/or auditory displays from the males. In the case of auditory displays, the males may not be visible to one another, though they can hear their neighbours. This is the case for kakapos.

A male kakapo chooses an elevated area and then creates a shallow bowl in the ground. He also creates tracks leading between the main bowl and additional ones. The parrot then settles in a bowl and booms to attract a female. Other males in the area do the same thing. The booming sound is created by inflating the thoracic air sac.

Each male booms for up to eight hours a night, starting in December. The booming lasts for two to three months. After every twenty to thirty booms, the bird emits a high-pitched "ching" sound, which helps a female to locate him. The boom and the ching can be heard in the video above and in the "Real Wild" video below.

The booms travel a few hundred metres to a few kilometres, depending on the landscape. A female chooses the boomer that she wants to mate with, even passing by others as she moves towards her desired goal. Researchers haven't identified the factors that help her to choose a particular mate.

Nests and Eggs

The female makes her nest in areas that are sheltered in some way. These areas include little caves between rocks or roots and hollow spaces in trees. Dense vegetation often surrounds the nest. The bird lays one to four eggs, but the usual number is one or two.

Only the female incubates the eggs. She leaves them alone for at least part of the night so that she can find food. This is a risky behaviour if predators are around. The eggs hatch after about thirty days. The youngsters are altricial, which means they are helpless when born. They become fully feathered at around ten weeks of age and leave the nest at this time. The female may continue to feed the chicks for as long as six months, however.

Codfish Island or Whenua Hou is a small island located to the west of Stewart Island. Sirocco was born on Codfish Island.

Why Are Kakapos Endangered?

Kakapos were once abundant in New Zealand. They lived on both the North and the South Island. Predators introduced by humans (including rats, cats, and stoats) had a devastating effect on the kakapo population. When only around fifty birds were found, conservationists knew that a drastic plan was necessary to save the parrot.

In 1995, the DOC Kakapo Recovery Team was created. The team began collecting all of the birds that still existed and took them to smaller, predator-free islands located off the coast of mainland New Zealand. The population is carefully monitored on these islands today and additional islands have been added to the collection. Although the kakapo population is still classified as critically endangered, it has increased significantly.

Though predation isn't a problem at the moment, other difficulties threaten kakapos. The birds have a low reproductive rate. They don't breed every year and have very small clutches. Rangers are trying to maximize the number of eggs that survive once laid. Unfortunately, some of the eggs that are laid are sterile.

Kakapos have very little genetic diversity, which is worrying. The birds have many gene variants in common. This means that if a particular stress affects one bird, it may affect them all. Artificial insemination is being performed in a few females in order to exert some control over the genetic makeup of the chicks.

Managing the Kakapo Population

The kakapos that survive today are known by Department of Conservation rangers and have been named. They wear radio transmitters and have been placed on several islands. The transmitters allow the rangers to find the birds to assess how they are doing. Sirocco was missing for so long because his radio transmitter stopped working and he couldn't be tracked.

The kakapo population is carefully managed. The health status of the birds is checked at regular intervals and radio transmitters replaced. At times, some parrots are moved from one island to another. Nests are checked regularly in case predators have reached the islands and eggs and chicks are monitored. Adults or chicks in trouble are rescued.

It's possible but unlikely that kakapos live outside the managed areas. The DOC is asking travellers to remote parts of New Zealand to let the department know if they see any signs of the birds. The survival of the species very likely depends on the success of the management plan.

Aspergillosis in Kakapos

Unfortunately, in 2019 a problem arose in the kakapo management plan. An outbreak of aspergillosis killed some birds. Aspergillosis is an infection caused by a fungus known as Aspergillus. The fungus affects pet parrots as well as wild ones and causes respiratory problems. In the case of the kakapo, these may be serious.

21 birds were affected by the disease. 12 of them recovered while 9 died. In February, 2020, the last two birds receiving treatment for the infection were released from veterinary care and the outbreak was apparently over.

Sirocco and His Life

Sirocco was hatched on Codfish Island in March, 1997. The island is a sanctuary and is closed to people, apart from rangers and researchers. Three weeks after Sirocco hatched, rangers discovered that he had a serious respiratory problem and needed medical help. They took him away from his mother in order to treat him. As they treated him, they also hand-reared him. This was the first time that a male kakapo had been hand reared.

Sirocco seemed to want human company once he had recovered and matured. Even when he was given the opportunity to live in freedom, he chose to stay close to humans. Since Sirocco was so friendly, his caretakers decided to introduce him to the public. The goal of this activity was to educate people about kakapos and to publicize their plight. Sirocco was transported from place to place in a bag or a solid carrier and sometimes travelled by air. He could see the outside world from his carrier. He was kept in a large enclosure during rest periods instead of a small cage.

Sirocco's visits to different places were very popular and he became well known. His escapade in the BBC film spread his fame to an international audience. He's performed the same behaviour on the heads of other people.

In between tours, Sirocco was released into the island habitat so that he could live a natural life. He eventually took advantage of these periods of freedom. His latest two-year absence from humans was much longer than his previous ones, however.

Sirocco's Discovery

In 2018, Sirocco was discovered by two rangers as they explored his island. At first, the conservation team didn't say whether Sirroco would return to touring. They decided to assess his behaviour and try to determine whether he wanted to maintain his relationship with humans after his long separation. He was eventually released with a new radio transmitter so that he could be found if he disappeared.

We know people will be keen to see him return to public life, however, like a true superstar, any future plans will be on his terms.

— Deidre Vercoe, Kakapo Operations Manager

A Social Media Star

One factor that has spread Sirocco's fame internationally is his social media accounts. He has both a Twitter and a Facebook account. Both are under the name Sirocco Kākāpō. In addition to containing posts supposedly coming from Sirocco, the accounts include information about kakapo conservation and other New Zealand animals. Sirocco's posts are often introduced by the words Boom or Skraaarrk to mimic the sounds made by kakapos.

I follow Sirocco on Twitter. In August 2018, both he and Dr. Andrew Digby (a conservation biologist) announced that Sirocco was returning to public life. The Department of Conservation said that Sirocco is “ready to meet his fans once more”. As always when he's touring, strict rules exist in relation to his housing and care.

Posts on Sirocco's Twitter account give links to other sources that people might like to follow, including other official social media accounts and a podcast. On one of these sites I saw an interesting comment from the veterinary manager at the New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine. He says that it's not clear that all of the lesions in the sick birds' lungs in the Aspergillosis outbreak were caused by the Aspergillus fungus. I hope that some significant and helpful information is soon discovered.

The Department of Conservation staff seem to be working hard to protect and save the kakapo. Hopefully Sirroco and his companions will encourage people to think about kakapos and support their conservation. The bird is a unique and very interesting parrot. It would be sad if it disappeared.

References

  • Facts about kakapos from the Department of Conservation in New Zealand (The "Kakapo Recovery" page contains the latest information about the bird's numbers. Currently, the introduction on the page says that 211 birds exist. A link below says that as of September 17th, 2019, 213 birds exist.)
  • Strigops habroptila facts from Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan
  • Kakapo information from New Zealand Birds Online
  • The world's fattest parrot is affected by aspergillosis from The Guardian
  • Sirocco the Conservation Superstar from the Department of Conservation
  • Sirocco and his rare parrot species from the Smithsonian Magazine

© 2018 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 12, 2018:

Thanks for the visit, Frances. I agree—the story of the kakapo is sad. It's a lovely bird.

Frances Metcalfe on July 12, 2018:

I found it both a sad and an uplifting article, Linda. Sad that Man has caused such devastation to wildlife (where have we heard that before?) but the kakapo is such a wonderful bird that has started to recover its population. Loved the videos.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 08, 2018:

Hi, John. Yes, that sounds like the right scene! Stephen Fry was certainly amused by the situation. Like you, I hope the work to save the birds is successful.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on July 08, 2018:

New Zealand has some very unique birds, such as the Kakapo and the Kiwi. This was very interesting, Linda. I did see a Kakapo(probably Sirocco) on one of Stephen Fry's nature programs doing his thing on the host's head. I certainly hope the work to save these wonderful birds is successful.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 06, 2018:

Thank you very much, LoyalFrienemy.

Brights and Blues by Nishika Chhabra from India on July 06, 2018:

Very interesting and detailed information. Felt good to read about this beautiful bird after a long time. Thank you for sharing this detailed research of your's ma'am.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 02, 2018:

I appreciate your comment, Eileen.

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on July 02, 2018:

Such a beautiful bird and detailed report. Thanks for sharing

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 01, 2018:

Hi, Nithya. Yes, Sirocco is popular. It will be interesting to see what his future holds.

Nithya Venkat aka Vellur from Dubai on July 01, 2018:

Sirocco seems to be a star with all his social media accounts and followers. Never knew a heavy parrot existed up till now. Thank you for sharing.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 29, 2018:

Hi, Devika. Parrots are interesting animals. Kakapos have some intriguing characteristics.

DDE on June 29, 2018:

Wow! An interesting read about this bird. I have not heard about it from before.. Amazing creatures!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 26, 2018:

Hi, Dora. Yes, Sirocco is popular. Whoever is running his social media accounts is doing a good job. Thanks for commenting.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on June 26, 2018:

I've been to Sirocco Kākāpō's FB page. He's got more followers than some of us will ever have. Thanks for all these interesting facts on these marvelous creatures.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 25, 2018:

Hi, Flourish. I like the way in which Sirocco is respected, too. His happiness is important.

FlourishAnyway from USA on June 25, 2018:

This was fascinating. I like that he can freely move between working and living his natural life and the researchers respect that. Beautiful animals.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 25, 2018:

Thanks, Heidi. I hope you have a great week, too!

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on June 25, 2018:

What a cool creature! Thanks for sharing his story with us. Have a terrific week!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 24, 2018:

Thanks, Patricia. They are lovely birds. Best wishes to you.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on June 24, 2018:

When I watched the one video my initial reaction was....how cute!!! thank you once again for show-casing this unusual lovely. Once again Angels are headed your way...ps

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 23, 2018:

Thank you very much, Jackie. It would be great if the birds multiplied quickly. The population has increased from its lowest point, but it's still a concern.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on June 23, 2018:

What a fantastic and fun read, Linda. I hope they do keep multiplying quickly. That would sure be a wonderful thing to be a part of. Great of you though to let us have a peak.

Thanks!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 23, 2018:

Thank you so much for the visit and the angels, Patricia. The thought of seeing the birds only in a picture in the future is very sad. I hope that doesn't happen. I want the birds to continue existing, as you do.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on June 23, 2018:

Sirocco is a cutie....so much I did not know...do wish that these amazing birds can continue to be on the planet...rather than just a picture in a book in the future. So detailed and filled with information I will need to come back and reread. Angels are on the way this evening ps

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 23, 2018:

Thanks for the comment, Bede. The birds certainly have interesting traits and personalities. It's enjoyable to learn about the character of particular birds.

Bede from Minnesota on June 23, 2018:

Linda, I very much enjoyed learning about these birds. It’s as though God compensated for their inability to fly by giving them exceptional personalities and traits. They have an interesting trot, among other things. Thanks for sharing.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 23, 2018:

Thank you very much, Pamela. The parrots do have some unusual features. They are interesting birds.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 23, 2018:

Thanks, Manatita. I believe there are slightly more males than females at the moment. The difference was once more dramatic. They are certainly interesting birds.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 23, 2018:

I certainly never knew that there was a parrot that didn't fly, walked on the ground and jumped into trees. This was a fascinating article about nature, as it appears most of us were unfamiliar with these birds.

manatita44 from london on June 23, 2018:

A beautiful write and a most interesting bird. So they live longer than some humans. Well, they dont seem to rush. So they have less females, eh? Cute!

The videos stand out and do them justice. Very interesting paŕrots.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 23, 2018:

Hi, Peggy. Thanks for the visit. Kakapos are unusual birds. I hope they can be helped.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 23, 2018:

Like the others who have already left comments, I was unfamiliar with kakapos. Thanks for the education. They are beautiful birds and I hope that they can survive as a species.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 23, 2018:

Hi, Bill. I think the parrot is beautiful, too. Conservationists are concerned about the fate of the kakapo and people are working hard to save it. I hope their efforts are successful.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on June 23, 2018:

Hi Linda. I was not familiar with the Kakapo Parrot. What a beautiful, and large bird. It always amazes me that there are so many species that I was not aware of, nature is truly amazing. How sad, however, that they are critically endangered. Hopefully everything is being done that can be to ensure their long term survival. Many thanks for the education.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 23, 2018:

There's so much to learn about nature, Bill. I frequently discover new things about natural history and biology that surprise me. It's a very enjoyable process.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 23, 2018:

What I find amazing about your articles, Linda, is you talk about things I have never heard of...how is that possible after 69 years? I'm fairly well-educated and yet each week you manage to teach me something new.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 23, 2018:

Hi, Mary. I hope the parrots are saved, too. They are interesting and unique birds.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on June 23, 2018:

The kakapos look lovable especially Sirocco. I have to now check Sirocco's social media posts. I hope they will be able to save more of these birds.

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