Endangered New Zealand Parrots

by Dawn Stewart ©

Kakapo - Strigops habroptilus

Our problem with The Department of Conservation lies in the fact that before intervening; the Black Robin was allowed to decline to the last hen; Kakapo to the last 50 birds; South Island Kaka to the last 500-1000 birds with only 25-60 breeding hens left on the mainland. This is a rough estimate, as no one knows for sure. The rest of the world seems to react a lot sooner than New Zealand to say the least.

Kakapo - Strigops habroptilus. Photo courtesy of Martin Fingland, Brisbane, Qld

Kakapo is the world’s heaviest bird. We cannot say largest, as Macaws with their beautiful tails of course make them the largest -- or should I say longest -- parrot in the world. Kakapo are unique in the fact they are nocturnal and flightless. They have track and bowl systems or lek, with which the cock inflates himself as it were, to "boom" for the hen’s attention. You have to admit, it is a most unusual parrot.

It was probably extinct in the North Island last century. In the South Island the last birds were found in the Murcheson Valley fjordland. This is the last area that deer, possums and goats etc had gained access to. This area also was virtually inaccessible to human habitation. It is thought wild "pig dog" packs in the rest of the South Island had done terrible damage to the Kakapo. Who of course had no defence from such onslaught.

Browsers ate their food sources, and other predators such as stoat etc, would have easy access to eggs and chicks, as Kakapo have a strong smell. Extinction occurred in the fjordland in the 1970’s. The Wildlife Service noted persistent "booming", because no hens were known to exist in this area. The cocks were captured and removed to off shore Islands. Then in 1977, searches were carried out on Stewart Island, and Kakapo were found in the forest or scrubland of the "Tin Range", at the south of the Island. The life of a young man was lost in these searches, so the cost in many ways was high indeed.

As Stewart Island has many predators, including wild cats, The Department of Conservation transferred the Kakapo to off shore Islands, in the mid 1980’s. These are Codfish Island in close proximity to Stewart Island, Maud Island in the Marlborough Sounds at the top of the South Island, and Little Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf, not far from Auckland. The Department of Conservation’s management includes supplementary feeding, nest protection, and regular monitoring.

Fifty adult birds still remained in 1997, but no breeding had occurred for five years. "Hoki", a hen, was hand-reared in 1992 at Auckland Zoo and then stayed on Maud Island for 6 years, but has been shifted to Codfish Island. 1997 was an exciting year for Kakapo, with the survival of three young, one hand-reared but all cock birds. Unfortunately the only hen was lost, due to a hand-rearing blunder.

In 1997, "Flossie" and "Richard Henery" were shifted from Little Barrier Island to Maud, where "Flossie" learned to eat a supplementary diet. "Richard Henery" was originally taken from Fjordland 22 years ago, and is named after the man who first started to try and save Kakapo on Islands. This year, "Flossie" produced three chicks, one being hand-reared, sexes as yet unknown. This was "Flossie’s" first breeding in 16 years and her mate "Richard Henry" was thought to be infertile or too old to breed.

With the Maud Island success, more Kakapo have been transferred there, one from Codfish and two from Little Barrier, another will follow later. These are all hens, so Maud Island now has 7 hens and 4 cocks. Being a small island and far more accessible than Codfish, this will allow easier management of the Kakapo.

In my opinion, far better facilities are needed on Maud Island, for both humans and parrots. They have no hand-rearing or hospital rooms, poor water supply, need a better generator for their electricity supply and probably another house for their hand-rearing expert. Upgrading is underway on Codfish Island. The Department of Conservation need to better understand avicultural techniques and be far more open minded on captivity. After all, supplementary feeding, hand-rearing and partial captivity, which The Department of Conservation are doing this Kakapo is three-quarters the way to total captivity, isn’t it?

Kakapo are officially extinct.

South Island Kaka - Nestor meridionalis meridionalis

South Island Kaka - Nestor meridionalis. Photo courtesy of Dawn Stewart, New Zealand

In 1993 after breeding Kea and being reprimanded for doing so, the Department of Conservation told us to kill the eggs, separate pairs and only have one-sex aviaries. This was not really surprising, after many years of hearing other aviculturists complain about conditions imposed on Antipodes Island Parakeet breeding. However, breeding of South Island Kakas is allowed now, and has been since 1997.

The last straw was to learn no breeding of North Island or South Island Kaka was allowed either. We started looking into the facts, as I knew South Island Kaka had never been bred in any numbers and found there were only 2 pairs in captivity. One pair were amputees, and the keeper had strict instructions that no breeding was to take place.

About the same time we met a bird photographer who was worried about South Island Kaka. Where he lived it had been normal to see around 6 Kakas a day, but they had slowly declined in numbers. Then all of a sudden one day they were gone, and he had never seen Kaka again. Other statements started to appear, people other than aviculturists were becoming worried. Articles such as "Wasp Wars" and "Protecting Native Plants & Birds to Death", among many others, were an added incentive to delve deep to find exactly what was happening to numbers of Kaka.

"Landcare Research" Nelson found the answer. Year after year, stoats were seen killing not only eggs and young but also the breeding hens. Thus disposing of two generations at once. This continued until the last hen in the research area was found dead. Two chicks were saved and handreared at "Orana Park" Christchurch. Landcare had now finished their research, no more definite finish is there, when no hens are left.

All this time we had been writing to no less than three "Minister of Conservation", wangled television and radio interviews, and worked hard with MPs David Carter and Jenny Shipley, who is now Prime Minister. We wrote to important aviculturists, clubs and societies around the world, managing to get articles produced after forwarding relevant information to prove our case. This resulted in many letters of support from around the world, which gave us the conviction that we were indeed doing the right thing in persisting with government.

With this backing, and the predation of especially South Island Kaka worsening, our letters stopped being polite. Indeed they became forceful and even accusing. The Department of Conservation, by now, was doing research in Nelson Lakes National Park and further south also, showing the same outcome as Landcare. Even with electric fences around nesting trees and banding the tree with aluminium strips, stoats had still predated the eggs and young of Kaka.

1997-98 have at last produced some positive results. The Department of Conservation St Arnaud at Lake Rotoiti started a recovery project called "Revive Rotoiti". On the 19th April this year, Ron & I were invited to celebrate "Revive Rotoiti's" first anniversary, and to see exactly what had been happening.

"Revive Rotoiti" goals are to create a pest free environment beside the lake, which have included, possum control, appointment of new staff, wasp control, and protecting breeding Kaka from predation. When we arrived, The Department of Conservation took us up a forest path which only a year ago people could not walk up for fear of disturbing wasp nests and being stung by swarms. Malaise traps are set to collect wasps and other insects, in a jar containing alcohol to analyse numbers. These traps are scattered throughout the bush as are Beech seed traps and stoat tunnels, which are wood and house manual Fenn traps. Fencing has also been carried out for the deer to ascertain the extent of damage they are doing.

This year after no productive breeding for the last 8 years, we received the good news that there were 4 hens nesting. Results for 1998 were 12 chicks in total raised to fledging; one died soon after leaving the nest, probably as a result of injury that The Department of Conservation had recorded earlier. A second was found dead apparently killed by stoat, despite reaching an age where it freely flew with its family group.

Out of the ten surviving, 8 are radio tagged, no hens were predated on their nests this year. Banding of nesting trees and neighbouring trees plus two banded above the nest holes with sheet aluminium would help. Each nest was circled by 25 Fenn traps on the ground and 5 stoats were killed.

Wasp poisoning carried out over the 800-hectare recovery area has resulted in wasp reduction and therefore Honeydew has increased dramatically. Kaka nests were found at 800 meters at the highest, the lowest was right by the lakeshore. Baiting has resulted in lower possum numbers, resulting in more mistletoe growing which Kaka feed on.

At least the Nelson Conservancy of the Department of Conservation are acting on evidence of Kaka decline. Having the Minister of Conservation and the Director General live in this area may have been of help! The only thing against this is that it is labour intensive, expensive for the taxpayer, but most of all there are no barriers to stop pests infiltrating from surrounding areas. If government policy changes or money is withheld, the birds may yet again be left in the same predicament with extinction imminent.

This is where parrots in captivity are relatively safe in comparison, and I know the Department of Conservation are at the moment thinking of having aviary breeding for Kaka, but only by the Department of Conservation, who are not aviculturists. Herein lie more problems.

However, I congratulate the Department of Conservation and "Revive Rotoiti". It is definitely a start in the right direction.

Want more information on this subject?

  • See New Zealand Parrots - Part 1 or New Zealand Parrots - Part 2 by Martin Fingland.
  • Another very interesting (external) site is The Fabulous Kakapo site dedicated entirely to the New Zealand Kakapo, Strigops habroptilus.

© Article under Copyright with the Author, Mrs Dawn Stewart and cannot be reprinted without written permission.


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