Four birds named Ōtepoti, Bunker, Motupōhue, and Māhutonga were released July 19 onto Te Ika-a-Māui (the North Island) of New Zealand. They are the first kākāpō to walk the mainland in four decades. Kākāpō live nowhere else in the world.
New Zealand loves its kākāpō, and you wouldn’t believe the lengths that so many people there have gone to in order to save it. This is an effort that has lasted literally over 100 years, and in the end, it is finally beginning to look as though the world’s only living flightless parrot will in fact NOT be lost.
Because of hunting, predation, and loss of habitat, the once-plentiful kākāpō was eradicated completely from mainland New Zealand by the 1980s, or if you don’t count kākāpō living in captivity, then indeed by the 1970s.
Māori settlers, who arrived in the 14th century, hunted the kākāpō for its meat and feathers, and it was easy prey, because its only natural defense is to play dead. That tactic can fool birds of prey, but not human hunters. Let’s just say kākāpō are not exactly afraid of humans:
With the Māori also came rats and dogs, both of which are serious threats to defenseless kākāpō. European settlers brought still more stowaway rats on their ships and intensified land-clearing, so by 1894, it had already become clear that the kākāpō was in real trouble, and a conscious and serious conservation effort began. Several hundred birds were relocated from the mainland to the uninhabited 80-square-mile Resolution Island, which was then predator-free. But Resolution Island is only 1500 feet from the mainland, and stoats can and do swim that far. It wasn’t long before enough of them arrived to wipe out the population even there.
By 1949, not a single female kākāpō could be found anywhere. Males would occasionally turn up because they gave themselves away with their classic “booming” sound, which is maybe a bit more like a malfunctioning equipment alarm. (Click here to listen — it gets louder around the 1:00 mark.)
But they didn’t live very long in captivity, and of course they had no females to mate with anyway. Expeditions to find them went on for decades with no luck. It seemed there would be no way to save this bird from extinction.
In 1977, a group of males was heard booming on New Zealand’s third-largest island, Rakiura/Stewart Island. This was a bit of a bonanza because it turned out to be a group of about 150 individuals, and at least a few females could actually be located and identified. This group would go on to be the founders of all remaining kākāpō today. Rakiura was also largely predator-free at the time, but then, wouldn’t you know it, feral cats became a mounting problem, and even Rakiura was far too big to attempt to rein in all predators.
You can see below that the Rakiura and Resolution Island populations (in orange and red) would indeed disappear entirely:
In 1980, feral cats were cleared from Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island (uninhabited, 11 square miles), and a few kākāpō were transferred there. (The rats were finally eradicated there in 2004). Two other islands had similar efforts carried out: Whenua Hou/Codfish Island (uninhabited, 5.4 square miles) and Pukenui/Anchor Island (uninhabited, 4.4 square miles). Predator entry is vigilantly monitored on these three islands today, and each is considered a sustainable haven for the kākāpō.
The downward trend finally started to slow, and in the 1990s, with some hatchlings appearing on the new islands, it even began to reverse. Big breeding seasons came in 2001, 2008, 2016, and 2019, and the results of each one of them held. Today’s known wild population is around 200, and there are also perhaps 50 in captivity. The goal is to get to 150 breeding females in the wild, a sort of “extinction escape velocity” for the kākāpō.
Of course, you can’t just dump birds onto an island and expect everything to take care of itself. Conservationists go to great lengths to this day to keep things moving forward. That includes fitting each bird with a transmitter, catching and evaluating them for health, filling up feeding stations when needed, hand-rearing some chicks…
...and even flying sperm across an island with the infamous sperm drone!
As the 21st century went on, conservationists were reaching a “good-problem-to-have” stage: The small islands housing the kākāpō were reaching capacity! Too high a concentration of kākāpō could lead to fights between males, increased susceptibility to pathogen events, etc. If the population was going to continue to rebound and become independently sustainable, new predator-free areas would need to be found.
People like Andrew Digby, the science advisor for the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s kākāpō recovery program, started to envision an endgame. “We don’t want to manage kākāpō as intensively as we do,” he said in 2017. “We’d love to just let them do their own thing. But for the moment they wouldn’t breed successfully if we didn’t monitor them. Our ultimate goal is to return kākāpō to the mainland. We want people to hear their amazing booming in the summertime that people used to hear 150 years ago.”
There have been proposals to build a sanctuary just for kākāpō on the mainland, although that wouldn’t be cheap. But fortunately there was already a solution that could get them there sooner and less expensively so that we could learn about any potential issues to fix before a risky larger release happens.
There is already a predator-free area called Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, about 100 miles SSE of Auckland up on the North Island, that got fenced in — with a perimeter of almost 30 miles — and has been carefully monitored since 2006. But it wasn’t quite designed with kākāpō in mind. They can’t fly, but they love to climb, and one big risk was that they’d still be able to finagle their way out, possibly by climbing vegetation near the fence. The thought of moving kākāpō in had been around from the beginning, but funding came at last in 2020 to plan and carry out the necessary modifications, and it was great timing, because the need to expand the range of the kākāpō became acute just about then.
Modifications such as an extra steel layer and removal of abutting vegetation had to be made all the way around the fence, including extra security provisions at all entry points, and of course tracking infrastructure had to be installed throughout the sanctuary so that the birds could be monitored.
After all that, finally, on July 19, four male kākāpō flew on Air New Zealand — they certainly didn’t do it themselves! — from Queenstown to Auckland as part of their translocation from Whenua Hou/Codfish Island to the Sanctuary. And there they were released, marking the first time kākāpō have walked the mainland since the time of Mork & Mindy.
As the New Zealand Department of Conservation explains as part of a terrific post about the details of the release:
This step in kākāpō conservation carries great significance and emotion for many with long-time involvement in the protection of the species. In being the first kākāpō to live on the mainland in almost four decades, the unsuspecting manu (birds) have found themselves at the centre of a symbolic moment for conservation, cemented through iwi-to-iwi relations.
To see Ōtepoti, Bunker, Motupōhue, and Māhutonga as they each take their first steps onto the mainland, go to this Facebook “Reel” link for a short (not embeddable, as far as I can tell) video.
If this release goes OK, five or six more males will be released into the sanctuary by year’s end, and we’ll go from there.
This is only the beginning of a new chapter for the kākāpō ... and for New Zealand. Many species have been wiped out or nearly so since humans arrived, but for many of them, it’s still not too late.
One key advance that will be very helpful — some say necessary — to perpetuate the success of the kākāpō’s recovery is the sequencing the genome of every living kākāpō and even of some key deceased specimens. This will ensure that genetic diversity can be maximized when breeding is done. Other researchers are busy examining the fossil record to help find ideal locations for eventual reintroduction.
But the really big one is eradicating the main predators (possums, ferrets, stoats, weasels, and rats) from all of New Zealand: “Predator Free 2050”. Non-native predators still kill 25 million native birds every year, but in a couple of years it is expected that a demonstration of eradication and control without fences will have been made in at least two areas of about 50 square miles. The eradication part has gone well enough, but it still must be shown that the control part can endure and that the predator-free areas can be expanded. It will be such a boon to New Zealand’s many critically endangered species.
One way or another, confidence is building that after a century of peril, at long last the kākāpō will indeed remain. The kākāpō belongs on the mainland in its original habitat, and New Zealanders have shown that they simply will not give it up that easy.
(Sorry, Ted Cruz….)