Sirocco: New Zealand's conservation spokesbird

Sirocco is a rare bird - a giant flightless nocturnal parrot and a conservation treasure with an international profile.

Sirocco may be covered in feathers but there’s nothing flighty about the world’s first official ‘spokesbird’ for conservation.

Since the young flightless parrot - a member of the rare kakapo family - first came to public attention in an international television appearance, Sirocco has become one of New Zealand’s best known natives.

He’s been called away from his island sanctuary to make appearances on the mainland, accepted an official government appointment as ‘spokesbird’ for conservation, taken to online social media, and is on first name terms with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.

And, while Sirocco made his name displaying some rather inappropriate behaviour during filming of a BBC documentary, there’s also a serious side to his work as he speaks up for rare wildlife and conservation causes.

Sirocco – early years

One of only 125 surviving kakapo – a large, flightless, nocturnal parrot found only in New Zealand – Sirocco and his kind have been the subject of a major conservation project led by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation and the Kakapo Recovery Team.

Sirocco had an uncertain start to life. He suffered a respiratory illness at three weeks old and had to be removed from his mother for human intervention and care.

The treatment was successful and Sirocco was released back into the wild a few months later. However, it became apparent that, as a result of the intensive hand-raising and lack of kakapo company, he had been imprinted on humans.

As a result, the Kakapo Recovery team realised he was unlikely to be an effective breeding bird, but instead an extremely good advocate for his species, providing the best opportunity for people to meet a live kakapo.

Ambassador Sirocco

Sirocco remains a wild bird in that he does not live in captivity, but he has visited several places in the last few years – on tour as ambassador for his species, an experience that he seems to enjoy.

Sirocco’s regular gigs include International Biodiversity Day - celebrated throughout New Zealand to highlight the conservation work being carried out to ensure the continued survival of the country’s 3000 unique species of wildlife and plants – and guest appearances in a few wildlife sanctuaries.

In 2014, Sirocco spent several weeks at Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, a mainland eco island near Hamilton. He has also visited Zealandia in Wellington, Orokonui Eco Sanctuary near Dunedin, and Auckland Zoo. Wherever Sirocco goes, there are crowds of fans on hand to greet him.

A visit from Sirocco is a huge commitment for the hosts. Much work has to be done to ensure his health and wellbeing is not compromised. That includes strict rules about where and how Sirocco is housed, how he is handled and fed. Regular health checks and a designated ‘minder’ ensure that Sirocco remains as well cared for as any celebrity would.

To help Sirocco enjoy his experience more, Kakapo Recovery has enlisted the help of an animal training expert who is working on aspects of his behaviour, on an ongoing basis.

Television star

It was a unique encounter in October 2009 with zoologist Mark Carwardine, who was filming a BBC wildlife documentary with British actor Stephen Fry, which first rocketed Sirocco into the global spotlight.

Footage from the programme Last Chance to See of a ‘frisky’ young Sirocco attempting to get up close and personal with Carwardine’s head was posted on YouTube and the kakapo star was born. Since then the video has had more than 6.3 million views.

Sirocco has also appeared in another BBC series – BBC Earth’s South Pacific – narrated by Benedict Cumberpatch.

More recently, he's had a starring role in a documentary about himself. Made by a young Indian film-maker Ashwika Kapur, Making Sirocco - the film premiered at the Wildscreen Film Festival in October 2014 where it was awarded a 'Green Oscar'.

Social media

Since being appointed official DOC spokesbird, Sirocco has not only brought world recognition to the plight of his species but also many others in New Zealand that are also endangered.

An early adopter of social media, Sirocco has his own Facebook and Twitter accounts, and posts blogs, video and images that have a strong following.

Curriculum Vitae: Sirocco

Role: Official New Zealand spokesbird for conservation

Home: Maud Island, sometimes Codfish Island, in southern New Zealand. Occasionally transient but under strict protection of NZ Conservation Department.

Background: Son of ‘Zephyr’. Suffered a respiratory illness at three weeks old, and was hand-raised - the first male kakapo to be cared for in such a way. Sirocco has grown up more at home with humans than birds.

Personal attributes: Handsome, groomed, personable nature, hard-worker and a good performer. Strong booming voice and good on-camera presence. Excellent night vision.

Special features: Belongs to a rare species unique to New Zealand. World’s heaviest parrot breed which is able to store large amounts of energy as body fat. Flightless but good at tree climbing.

Marital status: Confirmed bachelor.

Education: Little formal education but a natural in the wild. Copes with a variety of social situations. Multi-lingual and able to speak on a number of conservation matters.

Work experience:

  • Summer 2006 - first public engagement was a three-month posting on Ulva Island off the southern coast of New Zealand.
  • September 2009 - flies to the North Island for guest appearances at Auckland Zoo to celebrate Conservation Week and educate the public on the plight of the kakapo.
  • October 2009 - celebrity slot on BBC series Last Chance to See, co-starring with Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine. YouTube clip of Sirocco getting "up close and personal" with Carwardine had more than 700,000 views in just one week - now more than 2.5 million views.
  • Since 2009, Sirocco has made an annual pilgrimage to selected mainland sanctuaries to meet his public.
  • Currently employed as New Zealand spokesbird for conservation - advocating for kakapo on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Leisure interests: Singing, exercise, dining on roots, leaves and fruit. Enjoys ‘booming’ and making loud mating calls but unlikely to take time off work for personal pursuits as would only be interested in breeding every three to four years.