It’s as plump as a goose, has the face of an owl and waddles like a duck. It sleeps in the day and is active at night. And it can climb just about anything but can’t fly anywhere.
No wonder people call the kakapo the strangest parrot on Earth.
Once found in large numbers all over New Zealand, kakapo (pronounced caw-caw-poe) have been perched on the edge of disappearing for more than a century. What humans started, by reducing the birds’ habitat and food supply, predators such as cats, rats and weasel-like stoats nearly finished.
As of 1977, trackers counted just 18 kakapo left in the entire country — all of them males. The end seemed in sight.
Then something amazing happened. A previously unknown kakapo population was found. It included the first females seen in more than 60 years. This exciting discovery stirred government-led efforts to help the parrots by moving them to three small, predator-free islands.
New Zealand is an isolated island nation in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Many of its plants and animals — like the kakapo — are found nowhere else. Protecting them is a matter of national pride as well as urgency.
“As the largest parrot on Earth, [they are] quite the sight in person,” said Wes Sechrest of Global Wildlife Conservation, which is helping the kakapo recovery program. “They have a teddy-bear quality to them with their soft feathers, wide eyes and owllike expressions.”
Today the recovery program counts 147 adult birds, nearly triple the number since its start in 1995. And that number will soon grow, as the current breeding season is expected to set a record and add 30 to 50 healthy chicks.
In New Zealand’s native Maori language, “kaka” means parrot and “po” is night. The Maori (rhymes with cow-ree) people could have added “old,” because kakapo can live 60 to 90 years.
And no two are alike. “Some are quiet, some noisy. Some are bold, some timid. Some run away from us, some approach us,” said Andrew Digby, the recovery team’s science adviser. “There’s no other bird — or animal — like them.”
Kakapo breed when rimu and other trees bear lots of fruit to eat. Some years that doesn’t happen, which means no breeding.
But when conditions are right, male kakapo dig and sit in shallow bowls, puff out their chests and boom like bullfrogs. The din can be heard 3 miles away. Curious females come to watch the males boom, strut and dance in a courting ritual called a lek.
Females lay one to four eggs per season, and chicks hatch in about 30 days. Males play no role in raising them.
To improve kakapo breeding, recovery team members watch and track the parrots using nest cameras, infrared beams, microchips and radio transmitters in small “backpacks” fitted snugly under the birds’ wings.
Eggs are often removed from the nest and put in incubators. In their place, team members leave 3-D-printed “smart eggs” that make noise and get the moms ready to raise their chicks once they hatch and are brought back.
Every new chick is celebrated. A few years ago, when a female accidentally crushed her egg, team members patched it with tape and glue.
Days later, they watched excitedly as the first kakapo chick in three years hatched.