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 user 2005-03-28 at 10:22:00 am Views: 107
  • #11123
    Breeding success for rare kakapo

    Wellington, New Zealand

    Down on a lonely island off the southern tip of New Zealand,
    three new kakapo have just been born.

    These new chicks bring the total number of one of the world’s rarest birds to

    The critically endangered kakapo – fat, green, musty-smelling nocturnal
    parrots, which cannot fly but which can climb trees – are confined to New
    Zealand’s offshore islands.

    Once, they roamed mainland New Zealand from sea level to the mountains.

    Decimated by introduced predators, the kakapo population dwindled to just 51
    in the mid-1990s, but an intensive conservation effort has boosted kakapo
    numbers in the past few years.

    Productive year

    Three years ago, 24 kakapo ( Strigops habroptilus ) chicks were born,
    but last year three of those birds died of blood poisoning.

    This breeding season, thanks to a supply of the kakapo’s favoured diet, the
    fruit of the rimu tree, 25 eggs have been laid.

    Of those 10 are fertile; three have hatched and five more are
    expected to produce chicks.

    “The maximum we can get is 10 (chicks) but that’s if we are being
    unrealistically optimistic,” says Graeme Elliott, a Department of Conservation
    scientist on Whenua Hou/Codfish Island, the kakapo stronghold at the bottom of
    New Zealand.

    “Two of the eggs just don’t look quite right so they have probably died. But
    we can’t risk finding out yet so we will leave them there for a bit longer.”

    Warming pads

    The new chicks, whose feathers are initially white before turning grey and
    then green, have been born to Flossie and Margaret-Maree.

    Flossie has two chicks, unofficially called Dit and Dot, and Margaret-Maree
    has one, named, for now, Mmm, by her carers.

    We’ve lost eggs in the past from birds going a bit
    crazy trying to fight off parasites, getting all scratchy and then crushing
    their eggs
    “We’ve got to call them something in the meantime,” explains Dr

    To ensure as many eggs and chicks as possible survive, the care is

    Every night, each nest has one or two people camping nearby. Whenever a
    kakapo mother leaves the nest, she triggers an infrared beam which is turn
    alerts the volunteers, or nest-minders as they are called, to her excursion.

    “If the bird gets off the nest then we leave it a little while and go and put
    one of the heat pads on the nest while she’s away so the whole thing stays
    warm,” says Dr Elliott.

    Clumsy scratchers

    The nest-minders also keep an eye on the adult kakapo’s health.

    “The idea of that is to see if they are doing anything unusual, like if they
    are scratching with lots of parasites,” says Dr Elliott.

    “We’ve lost eggs in the past from birds going a bit crazy trying
    to fight off parasites, getting all scratchy and then crushing their eggs.”

    And the new chicks are checked each night. “When we’ve got chicks… there
    are a couple of extra things we do. We weigh and inspect the chicks every night
    to see if they are going all right,” Dr Elliott says.

    While it is the fruit of the rimu that appears to be a key trigger for the
    slow-breeding kakapo, this summer the Department of Conservation has also been
    testing a diet of other green or unripe fruits.

    Promising times

    Half of the adult females and some genetically under-represented males were
    fed green walnuts, while green pine conelets were fed to the remaining females
    and males on Whenua Hou.

    But, says Dr Elliott, the rimu fruiting has masked whether there
    was any impact of the supplementary feeding.

    “There’s a little hint that [the supplementary feeding] might have helped
    because this is the lowest amount of rimu fruit in which we’ve had breeding,” he

    “But it is only the sort of breeding we normally get in a small mast

    Nonetheless, if the three new chicks and the five chicks expected to arrive
    in the next few weeks all make it, the world’s kakapo population will be the
    largest it has been in almost 25 years.