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Parrots that can't fly or breed

By Dave Armstrong - 17 Jan 2016 15:57:0 GMT
Parrots that can't fly or breed

This youngster is still a Big Bird, being the infamous, mossy and plump flightless parrot, the . Her name is Ruapeke and she was hatched after her egg was crushed to pieces! Such is the effort needed if you are dedicated to conserving these highly endangered speciesKakapo image; Credit: © New Zealand Department of Conservation

With a potential 25 chicks to hatch this spring, the world kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) population may rise by 20% as the struggle to hatch, even from broken eggs, continues. These burly, 4kg (9lb, fully grown) divas of the conservationist world are as likely as pandas to change people’s attitude to the terrifying loss of life among the extant animals and plants we still have on the planet.

That is only one of the arguments that consistently raises money and fury to protect the iconic species and thereby try and help the less cute and less known organisms that will disappear like a drowning man in an ocean of pollution and neglect. New Zealand has consistently maintained the 126 kakapo, although sometimes it has been a sticking plaster and glue situation, as with the hatching of Ruapeke here from a crushed shell in 2014.

The future rest on ageing females like Hine Taumai's (that’s her name) on Southland’s Anchor Island. Luckily, these birds live long and can prosper, like her mate Takitimu (I do love these Maori names like the name, kākāpō)), with whom I believe she has recently had a tryst in the night! The islands have no predators and plenty of available protection, but this lady’s eggs are often infertile. Loss of individuals in the wild also happens whether they are old or young individuals, contributing to the despair felt when few chicks can be helped to hatch in what is an emergency action against likely extinction. The life span of this smelly strigopoid, owl parrot or whatever popular name you want to call it is longer than humans, averaging 95. As real parrots they are however, very heavy, flightless and nocturnal, with tremendous personality and a good sense of smell. The males, because of their lack of flight, have to strut their stuff at leks. This also means the unfortunate females have to walk great distances to catch their latest heartthrobs. All of that is only to see 1 or 2 eggs laid. This year will certainly be watched carefully if that 20% increase in numbers can be achieved, the chicks maintained in a tough climate and the 95-year span protected with people on the ground, some money in the bank and worldwide support for such icons. All of us need to see them again simply to appreciate their uniqueness. The previously common parrot itself doesn’t help, as their long life means there is no hurry to reproduce and they don’t bother every year. As a parrot, they are vegetarian, so food is available, but the best diet consists of rimu mast (from the sporadically-seeding conifer Dacrydium cupressinum or similar protein-rich seeds.

Other members of New Zealand’s distantly-related strigopoid parrot population include the flighted but endangered and vulnerable kākā and kea species, in the genus Nestor. With kakapo critically endangered as much as this, the other parrots and many more species could go the way of this country’s many lost, unique birds (eagles, owls and many others included.) Perhaps it is time that we used tiger, elephant, panda and kakapo in some kind of ambassadorial role, to help out with multiple endangered species, and to point out that our life without so many will not simply be emotionally empty. Food sources, medicines and genetic riches lie hidden within the animals and plants we lose daily! Kakapo Recovery is the major agent and source of information on whether those new chicks hatch or not. Meet them at kakaporecovery.org.nz

To read our older stories on New Zealand’s terrible threats to their birds, full of moas and wekas too, read up our article on Avian Extinctions.