How To Lose A Bird In 10 Days20 February 2017
On a few tiny islands off the coast of New Zealand, there lives a fat, flightless, and rare parrot called the kakapo. The kakapo is quite possibly one of the most ridiculous birds to ever exist, with Benedict Cumberbatch once describing it as “a bird that is as un-bird-like as it is possible for a bird to be”.
In many ways it is more like a cat than a parrot. It climbs trees rather than flying between them, it is nocturnal, and it has cat-like ‘whiskers’ which allow it to feel its surroundings in the dark. Douglas Adams eloquently noted in Last Chance to See – a book accounting his radio documentary on endangered species, that,
“Not only has the kakapo forgotten how to fly, but it has forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly. Apparently a seriously worried kakapo will sometimes run a tree and jump out of it, whereupon it flies like a brick and lands in a graceless heap on the ground.”
The kakapo has not only forgotten how to fly, but it has one of the most awkward and unique mating practises to evolve. Kakapos are a ‘lekking’ species – meaning each year in December, male kakapos find a rocky alcove and create a communal display ground by digging shallow ‘bowls’ in the dirt underneath. For eight hours each night for two or three months, they sing the kakapo equivalent of EDM – a low frequency ‘booming’ call, that is amplified by the bowl and can be heard by females up to five kilometres away. It’s such a strenuous exercise that the male kakapo loses half his body weight during the breeding season (clearly no one told him that bulking is the way to attract girls).
Unfortunately, this strenuous serenade is mostly ineffective. Female kakapos are very fussy: they only come into heat when the fruit of the rimu tree is abundant, which only happens once every two to four years. This is to ensure that there is enough food to go around when the chicks are born. So, if the rimu tree is fruitless, so too are the male’s efforts. The chances of a male being chosen are on par with the success rate on the Chinese dating show If You Are The One.
There is also a major problem with using ‘booming’ as a pick-up line: it’s incredibly difficult to determine where the sound is coming from. Low frequency sounds are hard to pinpoint at the best of times due to their long wavelength. To make matters worse, the sound echoes off the trees and rocks of the New Zealand forest, so it sounds like it is coming from all directions. Even if a lady kakapo likes what she hears, she may spend days wandering through the bush, never finding her lover.
So here we have a creature whose sex life exists only once every two to four years, thinks techno is appropriate foreplay music, and forgets to let their side chick know the location of the booty call. It’s no wonder there are only 157 kakapos left.
Amazingly however, the kakapo’s counterproductive breeding strategy is not the cause of their endangerment. In fact, with no natural predators, kakapos were so
common prior to human settlement that, as explorer Charlie Douglas observed, “you could shake a tree and the kakapo could fall down like apples.” The kakapo’s bizarre rituals enabled a sustainable reproductive rate; if they bred too fast and become overpopulated, kakapos would have consumed all available resources, leading to a population crash and potential extinction.
Unfortunately their breeding rate cannot adapt to being hunted. Over the years, humans have introduced various mammalian predators to New Zealand. From the Polynesian rat (or kiore) introduced with Māori settlement, to cats, rats and ferrets from Europe. These predators have caused a drastic decline in the kakapo population – to such an extent that in the 1970s, the kakapo’s fate was to all appearances sealed, with only eighteen known kakapos all of which were male.
However, in 1977, some females were discovered and hope resurrected. The kakapos were moved to protected and predator-free islands off New Zealand’s coast. For forty years, kakapos have benefited from an intensive conservation programme, and numbers are rising. However, they are still critically endangered. In fact, there are so few kakapos that each one has been given an individual name (You can view the entire list on Wikipedia and get some inspiration for your next pet: there’s traditional Maori names, common names like Sue and Heather, and the more creative ‘Solstice’ and ‘Boomer’).
While we may laugh at the kakapo’s sexual ineptitude, lack of coordination, and poor music choices, one must admit it would be a shame to lose such a unique and amusing creature, one that has survived against all odds. To admire the speeding falcon we need waddling penguins, to fear the cassowary we need harmless sparrows, and for every graceful swan we need a clumsy kakapo.