The Endangered Kakapo and Sirocco the Celebrity Parrot
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 214 birds exist. Sadly, this number may not be accurate for long due to the appearance of a disease known as aspergillosis.
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
Kakapos 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. The parrots generally sleep during the day. They roost in dense vegetation on the ground or in the treetops.
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.
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 "Wild Things" 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 major problem has arisen in the kakapo management plan. An outbreak of aspergillosis is killing 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.
As of the middle of June, seven of the birds had died from the disease, despite major attempts to save them. 142 adults and 72 chicks were alive. 36 of these birds were in a veterinary hospital being treated for aspergillosis. Given the fluid nature of the situation, the numbers could change soon. It's a sad state of affairs, especially since the breeding season started off very successfully and the bird's population was increasing.
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.
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. I don't know whether his current travel plans are affected by the aspergillosis outbreak.
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 are caused by the Aspergillus fungus. I hope that some significant and helpful information is discovered soon.
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.
Facts about kakapos from the Department of Conservation in New Zealand
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
More information about the kakapo health crisis from Radio New Zealand
Sirocco the Conservation Superstar from the Department of Conservation
Sirocco and his rare parrot species from the Smithsonian Magazine
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Linda Crampton