New Zealand Parrots - Part 2
by Martin Fingland ©
Continuing on from NZ Parrots Part 1, this article covers the remaining species...
Kakarikis - Cyanoramphus sp.
The Kakarikis or Parakeets, as they are more commonly becoming known, differ markedly from the three previously mentioned species, being smaller, more slender and brightly coloured. This group ranges over a wide area and is found on many island groups in the South Pacific region. Unfortunately, the Kakarikis have also suffered badly from habitat modification, predators and possibly also exotic diseases.
Antipodes Island Parakeet Cyanoramphus unicolor & Reischek's Parakeet C.m. hochstetteri
The largest and most specialised Kakariki is the Antipodes Island Parakeet with a total length of 310 mm. As its name suggests it lives on Antipodes Island and is restricted to that island group situated some 600 km south-east of the main South Island. Antipodes Island is only 62 sq km in area, but contains a large colony of these Parakeets and surprisingly also supports a second Kakariki known as Reischek's Parakeet, a sub-species of the Red-crowned Parakeet. Reischek's Parakeet is also confined to this island group and is found in good numbers.
Like so many species from remote islands, these Parakeets have very little fear of humans and a strong natural curiosity. It is rather unusual for two such similar species to be co-existing in such a small area, particularly considering there is not a wide variation in habitat which effectively denies a broad range of feeding opportunities. The islands are too southerly and windswept to support trees, and the main vegetation types are tussock grasses, ferns and stunted scrub. Both Parakeet species utilise the vegetation, not only for food requirements, but also for nesting sites and protection from the sub-antarctic weather conditions which often prevail. Nesting typically takes place in the form of a tunnel dug into the base of a tussock. Despite being forced into being ground inhabiting birds, both Parakeet species are good fliers. There is one area where these Parakeets appear to avoid direct competition; the larger Antipodes Island Parakeet supplements its vegetarian diet by scavenging on carcasses and eggs of penguins, these birds breeding in large numbers on the islands.
Whilst there appears to be no immediate danger to the status of either of these parrots, they will always be vulnerable to the accidental introduction of predators such as rats or cats to the islands. There are currently more than 100 Antipodes Island Parakeets in captivity and generally favourable breeding results have been attained in recent years. Interestingly, hybridisation between the two island Kakarikis has occurred in captivity, but is not known in the wild.
Red-crowned Parakeet - Cyanoramphus novaezeelandiae
The Red-crowned Parakeet is divided into eight sub-species of which four occur in the New Zealand region, and the Reischek's form, C.n. hochstetteri, has already been discussed. The other three N.Z races are the nominate mainland race, C.n. novaezeelandiae, with a widespread distribution, and two more island forms with restricted distribution, these being C.n. cathamensis from the Chatham Islands and C.n. cyanurus from the Kermadec Islands. Of the remaining four sub-species, two have become extinct due to European interference last century, these being C.n. subflavescens from Lord Howe Island, and C.n. erythrotis from Macquarie Island. C.n. cooki from Norfolk Island is an endangered species and the subject of an intensive conservation effort, and the final sub-species, C.n. saisetti from New Caledonia is of unknown status.
The nominate mainland race of Red-crowned Parakeet is also the same race held in aviaries right around the world; in the wild, however, it is now quite rare over large parts of its range which originally covered both main islands. Its only strongholds are protected off-shore islands including Little Barrier Island in the north down to Stewart Island and the Auckland Islands in the south. This Kakariki's disappearance from the main islands is thought to be due to the introduction of a host of smaller predators such as rats, cats, stoats and weasels, and possibly also exotic disease.
Last century 'plague' proportions of this Kakariki were recorded in the vicinity of fruit orchards; it was also the parrot most adapted to utilising the newly cleared grazing country. Yet it did not benefit long-term from the 'opening up' of the countryside and must now be regarded as extinct over most of its former range. This is despite recent liberations of aviary bred stock in various parts of the North Island, the outcome of which is not well recorded.
The Chatham and Kermadec Island Kakarikis are slightly larger in size than the mainland race and both are still recorded as being in good numbers over parts of their limited range. They of course remain vulnerable to the possible introduction of predators and modification to their habitats, and are not currently represented in any avicultural collections. As Kakarikis are recognised as being prolific breeders and generally adjust well to captive conditions, it would seem opportune to set up captive gene pools of the various sub-species to guard against possible catastrophes befalling the birds. The recent decline and extinction of two members of the Kakariki genus suggests this group is particularly vulnerable. Perhaps this is a project where aviculturists could be involved, as this would involve spreading costs and expertise over a wider area and help alleviate some of the earlier acclimatisation problems experienced with disease susceptible island sub-species.
Yellow-crowned Parakeet - Cyanoramphus auriceps
There are two races of Yellow-crowned Parakeets, these being the nominate mainland race, C.a. auriceps, and the larger, more brightly coloured island form, C.a. forbesi, Forbes' Parakeet found only on two small islands in the Chatham group. The nominate Yellow-crowned Parakeet shares most of its range with the mainland Red-crowned Parakeet form, being found on the main islands and mot off-shore islands, and as far south as the Auckland Island group. The Yellow-crowned Parakeet is still found in moderate numbers, but only in the largest and least disturbed forest tracts. It is essentially a bird of the forests and like the Kaka relies on forest preservation for its future survival.
In captivity, the nominate form is well represented, both in local and overseas aviaries, although unfortunately it hybridises readily with the Red-crowned Parakeet and pure-bred stock is sometimes hard to find. In the wild, both Kakariki species can often be seen in the same vicinity, but naturally occurring hybrids are rarely reported. The Yellow-crowned Parakeet's status both in the wild and in captivity seems reasonably secure, although continued forest clearance is reducing it’s primary habitat.
In contrast, the race known as Forbes' Parakeet is critically endangered, surviving only on two tiny islands, Mangere and Little Mangere in the Chatham group. It shares these islands with the Chatham Island Red-crowned Parakeet, a more successful sub-species which has been able to displace Forbes' Parakeet over part of its range. This was made possible by habitat modifications brought about by clearing for grazing and introduction of browsing animals earlier this century. As the forest cover deteriorated, the environment favoured the Red-crowned Parakeet which moved into Forbes' Parakeet territories, displacing birds and inter-breeding with others. As this situation became more critical, a management plan was implemented by the Wildlife Service to save Forbes' Parakeet from imminent extinction. The rescue operation began just in time, as the total number of pure Forbes' Parakeets was as low as sixteen individuals in the mid-1970’s. With management of breeding activity through culling of hybrids and re-vegetation pro-grams, the species is slowly building up numbers and recent figures indicated a population of at least thirty birds. Interestingly, these same two islands are also home to the Black Robin, Petroica traversi, another endangered species that has been the subject of an intense and to date very successful recovery program utilising cross-fostering and transfer techniques by N.Z. Department of Conservation personnel.
There is one remaining clarification to be made with regard to the Kakarikis and this involves the existence of the Orange-crowned Parakeet, C. malherbi, described in all but the most recent publications as a separate species found only on the South Island. Very occasionally 'Orange-crowned' individuals were seen amongst flocks of Yellow-crowned Parakeets and thought to belong to a separate species. Their extreme rarity reduced the opportunity to study these birds to enable a clearer classification to be made, and probably also helped elevate the 'Orange-crown' to species level in the eyes of many observers. Only a dozen or so confirmed sightings had been made this century prior to the Department of Conservation setting up a captive breeding study program.
The study was made possible through the sighting and subsequent capture of seven 'Orange-crowned' Parakeets from the Lake Sumner Forest Park in the central South Island region. These birds were transferred to private aviaries and kept there under Department of Conservation supervision. Early breeding results with these birds indicate that they are probably a colour morph (variety) of the Yellow-crowned Parakeet and not a separate species. This conclusion would also account for the extremely low numbers of 'Orange-crowned' birds and their close association with Yellow-crowned Parakeets, however the latest reports from N.Z. indicate that the taxonomy of these birds is still uncertain.
The future for New Zealand's parrots overall is not a bright one with the continuing twin forces of habitat destruction and introduced predators reducing populations. Predator-free islands appear to contain the only secure populations of parrots, and these sanctuaries will always remain vulnerable to accidental or even deliberate abuse by humans. For instance, it only takes the illegal anchoring of a fishing boat off-shore of one of these islands to introduce rats, which have been known to wipe out endemic species within a matter of months.
The role played by aviculturists presently is a relatively limited one in the conservation and research of N.Z. parrots but is being broadened to include management strategies for several species. The survival of the world's most unique parrot, the Kakapo, is now entirely up to careful management by the N.Z. Department of Conservation, and its future must be regarded as very uncertain.
© Article under Copyright with the Author, Mr Martin Fingland and cannot be reprinted without written permission. Slide transparencies of parrots and other rare and unusual Australian and New Zealand Wildlife are available for sale from the author, Martin Fingland. Please contact the Parrot Society of Australia Inc for further details.