Counting kākāpō: Breeding boom for New Zealand's quirky parrot

Scientists in New Zealand are putting smart technology to work to help save the kākāpō – surely the world's oddest parrot – from extinction.

Not much is left to chance when it comes to kākāpō intimacy. But with less than 200 of New Zealand’s rarest – and surely the world's oddest – parrots left, the birds can do with all the help they can get.

Luckily, some of the sharpest minds in conservation have descended onto the remote islands at the bottom of New Zealand where the majority of the remaining kākāpō live, far away from all predators, and have created a record baby (or chick) boom. 

A team comprising almost 100 scientists, Department of Conservation employees and volunteers has been working tirelessly on making 2019 the biggest breeding season on record. The ingenious methods they use include a drone that whizzes sperm to the females in heat, smart eggs, artificial insemination, smart transmitters and data loggers. 

British zoologist Mark Carwardine once labelled kākāpō “the world's largest, fattest, least able-to-fly parrot. It’s as affectionate as a dog, as playful as a kitten and it can inflate itself with air to become the size and shape of a football." 

Andrew Digby, science advisor of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation’s (DOC) Kākāpō Recovery Programme agrees. “They are birds, but they don’t behave like birds. Each of them has their own distinctive personality.” 

The plump parrots with the owl-like face, whose name stems from the Māori words kākā (parrot) and pō (night), have come dangerously close to extinction. The species is categorised as 'threatened – nationally critical'. 

They mainly forage on the ground as New Zealand has no native land mammals apart from bats. While their gorgeous green plumage blends perfectly into the native bush and allows them to hide from birds of prey, they’re poorly equipped to handle introduced land-based predators. 

Sometimes kākāpō seem to have forgotten that they can’t fly. If they are frightened, they can run up a tree and then fall like a rock. With no defence strategy and an onslaught from possums, stoats and cats, kākāpō numbers have declined dramatically. 

Today most of the remaining population lives far away from humans and animal predators on remote Codfish Island / Whenua Hou (approximately 3 kilometres west of Stewart Island / Rakiura) and on Anchor Island / Puke Nui in Fiordland's Dusky Sound. 

To make things even more complicated, kākāpō are notoriously bad at the procreation game. While this wasn’t necessarily a problem for the birds who can live up to 90 years old, it is when there’s a dwindling population. They only breed every two to four years when the rimu tree produces masses of fruit, and then it involves an elaborate lek mating system. 

While other parrots such as the kea, New Zealand’s alpine parrots, often mate for life, kākāpō males and females only meet to mate and then go their separate ways. 

The lek mating system is a practice where the males put on competing displays for the females. Typically a bunch of males gather at a mating site, scoop out a nice bowl in the earth, and put on a show of competitive 'booming'. The booming is a deep repetitive throb with just a hint of musical overtone. 

However, these days the kākāpō need a lot of human intervention in order to survive. About 40% of all kākāpō eggs laid are infertile, with another 20% of embryos dying early in development.

In 2019, there were 50 breeding-aged females on the two islands where kākāpō breed. Of these 49 nested (30 of them twice during the season), laying 252 eggs in total. As of mid-August, 72 chicks have survived. 

“We’re expecting at least 50 to survive, and 60 would be wonderful – it’s looking like we could get more,” Digby says. 

The Kākāpō Recovery Team uses leading technological advances and techniques to help the ground-dwelling, practically flightless parrots to breed. 

Scientists have also recently completed mapping the genome of all living kākāpō, which gives them a better picture which kākāpō females should mate with which males. 

“Some of the males never mate,” Digby says. But with such a small gene pool to start with, the experts want to make sure that desirable bloodlines stay alive. That’s where artificial insemination comes into play. 

The 44-year-old conservationist says there are several reasons that his team use Artificial Intelligence as a management tool. It allows them to genetically matchmake kākāpō, which is vital as the population descended from Stewart Island is very inbred.

They also know that the more a female mates with different males, the chances of her eggs being fertile rises.

Every kākāpō wears a smart transmitter that emits a digital signal packed with behavioural data. The team scramble over the islands, tracking the signals to collect the data and monitor the birds' locations.

An extensive data network on the islands helps the scientists to monitor how much each bird weighs, who eats what from which feeding station, and when the birds mate. 

While the islands that the kākāpō live on aren’t huge, some of the helpers used to run for hours through rough terrain to deliver the freshly won sperm of a desirable male to a female. 

This year, in a world-first for kākāpō conservation, the Kākāpō Recovery Team used a drone (nicknamed the 'spermcopter') to fly the flightless bird’s sperm across Whenua Hou. 

Also trialled for the first time this year are 3D-printed smart eggs. When a kākāpō lays an egg, it is removed from its nest and hatched in an incubator, and a smart egg put in the nest in its place.

The smart eggs mimic the sound and motion of a real egg, ensuring both the mother and nest are ready for the arrival of the chick after it has hatched and is returned to the nest.

Kākāpō mums who are well prepared give chicks better care during the critical first days of their lives.

After the breeding boom this year, the future of New Zealand’s fat parrots looks a little brighter. The kākāpō population was at a low of 51 birds in 1995 but with the new additions is now climbing towards 200 birds. 

Counting the population during breeding season is “slightly complicated,” Digby explains. “It’s the number of adults plus juveniles, and chicks turn to juveniles at 150 days old. Many of the chicks from this year are now reaching that age, so the population number is changing daily. As of today [15/8/19], the official population number is 196.” 

 The aim is to restore the mauri (life force) of kākāpō to at least 150 adult females, and with the population recovery on target Digby is cautiously optimistic for the future of the kākāpō.

Where to spot kākāpō: There aren’t many opportunities to spot kākāpō. Most of the remaining birds live on Codfish Island, with some living on Anchor Island and Little Barrier Island. Access to these remote islands is strictly restricted. 

However, Sirocco kākāpō - New Zealand's official 'Spokesbird' who has become a world famous ambassador for the species - makes a visit every few years to one of the bird sanctuaries on the mainland where it is possible for the public to meet him. Sirocco is a special case because he's not interested in mating and due to a difficult 'chick'hood has grown up to better identify with humans than his own species. Follow Sirocco on @Spokesbird

International visitors arriving in New Zealand are contributing directly to kākāpō conservation work via the International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy (IVL) collected on arrival. Funding of NZ$1.5 million has been set aside for extending predator-free safe havens to spread the kākāpō population.

Locals and visitors also have the opportunity to adopt a kākāpō through the Conservation Department. Prospective kākāpō parents can apply at Adopt a Kākāpō.

The ultimate goal for the conservationists is to one day be in a position to return kākāpō to their wahi kainga or natural outdoor home.