01 Oct 2016

The Kākāpō

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New Zealand’s flightless, wingless parrot has had its genes thoroughly sequenced. All 123 of them. (Atlas Obscura)

New Zealand has only three native mammals (all bats), and the country is full of birds that have taken advantage of this lack of predators, acting more like rodents or weasels than your average winged creature. Kākāpōs are no exception. Their faces are covered in feathery whiskers, which they drag on the ground to help them navigate. They’re layered with body fat, and astoundingly heavy—the largest males can weigh as much as a housecat.

Their weight keeps them from flying, but they’re adept at climbing trees, scrabbling up the bark with extra-sharp claws and “parachuting” down with their wings outstretched, like hang gliders. Although technically parrots, they’re so far removed from even their closest relatives that they have an entire genus all to themselves. Even their official government information page calls them “eccentric.”

These eccentricities worked well in a predator-free environment. But once humans brought rats and cats to New Zealand, they decimated the formerly thriving population. Ornithologists in New Zealand got serious about the kākāpō in the late 1980s, and set up a government-sponsored Kākāpō Recovery Programme. In the decades since, the Programme has relocated the entire the entire kākāpō population to three small islands, which they’ve cleared of invasive predators. They have collared and named nearly every individual, and keep careful track of the bird’s family tree.

Their efforts have paid off, and the kākāpō population is up to 123, nearly triple its record low. But it’s still difficult to understand these weirdos. For one thing, they’re simply terrible at mating—they only attempt it every two or three years, when the fruit of their favorite tree, the podocarp, is ripe. When they do try, it’s often a bit pathetic. Males will climb the highest hill they can find, dig a hole, lie in it, and make a booming sound until an intrigued female wanders past.


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