Description and biology

The kakapo is a nocturnal (active at night), flightless member of the parrot family. Because the stiff feathers around its eyes give it an owl–like appearance, it is also called the owl–parrot.

The kakapo is the largest and heaviest of all parrots. It has an average length of 25 inches (63.5 centimeters). Males of the species can weigh as much as 7.75 pounds (3.5 kilograms). Females are much lighter, weighing up to 3.3 pounds (1.5 kilograms).

The color of the kakapo’s plumage (covering of feathers) is a mixture of yellow and light green. Its tail is darker. The bird feeds on many different kinds of plants and flowers, chewing the food with its heavy, serrated bill.

The breeding habits of the kakapo are complex and mysterious. The male creates a series of trails between odd bowl–shaped depressions in the ground. Every few years in January or February, the male emits a booming sound from these depressions that can be heard up to 0.5 mile (0.8 kilometer) away. These sounds continue throughout the night, for months at a time.

Meanwhile, the female tries to discover the location of the male emitting the sound. Often, she cannot. If she does and mating takes place, the female lays two to four eggs in a nest built out of vegetation. It is not known how long it takes the eggs to hatch, but once they do, the female cares for the nestlings alone.

Habitat and current distribution

The kakapo was once widespread on the North, South, and Stewart Islands in New Zealand. It then only existed in smaller numbers on the islands of Stewart, Little Barrier, and Codfish. The species, considered extinct in the wild in the early 1990s, has a total population of 84 individuals in 2002.

The kakapo prefers to nest in dense scrub–forests and to feed in nearby grasslands.

History and conservation measures

The kakapo once existed in an environment where it had no natural predators and no food competitors. That situation changed when humans brought predators (such as cats and rats) and competitors (such as opossums and deer) into the bird’s habitat. By the 1970s, the kakapo’s population was so low it was considered extinct.

In 1976, a small breeding population was discovered on Stewart Island, but introduced cats quickly killed most of the birds. The remaining 61 birds were taken to Maud and Codfish Islands off New Zealand’s South Island and to Little Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf.

For three decades there was little success with breeding among these relocated birds, and biologists (people who study living organisms) classified the species as extinct in the wild. In 2001, however, the protection measures had clearly paid off. There were, again, a total of 61 birds. By 2002, the number had risen to 84.

By 1999, the kakapo had advanced enough in population that it no longer met the criteria for critically endangered status on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List. The IUCN status will remain, though, for several more years in case of further declines in population.