Threat status: Nationally vulnerable
Found in: Large forested areas in the North and South Islands
Did you know: Once common throughout New Zealand, kākā are now largely limited to a few localised forest strongholds in the central North and South Island. Often nesting in holes in trees, kākā chicks stand little chance when attacked by by rats, stoats and possums.
Kākā is at risk from a predator plague caused by high levels of seed production ('beech mast') in 2014. Battle for our Birds protects kākā and other native species from predators.
The kākā is a large parrot belonging to the nestorinae family, a group that includes the cheeky kea and the extinct Norfolk Island kākā.
The birds are mainly diurnal but are active at night during fine weather or a full moon.
Flocks of boisterous kākā gather in the early morning and late evening to socialise - their amusing antics and raucous voice led Māori to refer to them as chattering and gossiping.
Information about kākā:
- Kākā have a brush tongue to take nectar from flowers.
- Their strong bill can open the tough cone of the kauri to obtain seeds. They also use their bill as a “third leg” to assist them when climbing trees to reach food.
- They make extensive use of their feet to hold food and to hang from branches to reach fruit and flowers.
- Their diet includes berries of all kinds, seeds, and the nectar of kōwhai, rātā and flax. They also like grubs and are often seen digging invertebrates from rotten logs.
- Kākā play an important role in the forest by pollinating flowers.
- Eggs take three weeks to incubate with nestlings remaining in the nest for two months. Young birds often leave the nest before they can fly, making them vulnerable to predators such as stoats and cats.
- Size: 45 cm; males 475 g, females 425 g (North Island kākā); males 575 g, females 500 g (South Island kākā).
North Island kākā, Little Barrier Island
North Island kaka, close up of head, Kapiti Island
There are two sub-species of kākā (Nestor meridionalis): the North Island kākā (N m. septentrionalis), and the South Island kākā (N m. meridionalis). Both sub-species have brown/green feathers with brilliant flashes of orange and scarlet under their wings. The South Island kākā, however, has more vivid colouring and is larger in size.
When Europeans first arrived in New Zealand, they found kākā in abundance through out the forests of both islands, but by 1930 the birds were localised to a few areas.
Today, they are still reasonably common in the Whirinaki, and Pureora forest parks, but even within these strongholds, numbers are thought to be declining. Other large forested areas are almost empty of kākā.
The North Island kākā, nevertheless, can be found in good numbers on some offshore islands, especially little and Great Barrier islands and Kapiti Island.
The South Island sub-species is still widespread, becoming progressively more common from Nelson (where it is relatively rare) down the West Coast to Fiordland. South Island kākā are also found around Halfmoon Bay (Stewart Island), Ulva Island, and on Codfish Island.
The call for each subspecies varies regionally (they have distinct dialects). Kākā are acknowledged as one of the most musical of all parrots with a variety of melodic whistles and warbles sitting along more typical parrot-like screeches.
Remains of an incubating North Island kākā female, preyed on while on the nest
Kākā chicks, Burwood Bush
Kākā require large tracts of forest to survive. Habitat loss from forest clearance for agriculture and logging have had a devastating effect.
Browsing by introduced pests such as possums, deer and pigs has reduced the abundance of food. Possums also eat the same kind of food as kākā, most significantly, high energy food types such as endemic mistletoe and rātā.
Introduced wasps compete with kākā for the shimmering honeydew (excreted by scale insects) which forms on the barks of beech trees. Both the mistletoe and honeydew supply sugary food which is an important part of the bird’s diet, and may be essential for it to breed in some beech forests.
Having evolved in the absence of mammalian predators, kākā have many characteristics that make them easy prey. Kākā nest deep in hollow trees, where there is no escape if they are cornered by predators such as stoats, rats and possums (which eat chicks and eggs). Nesting females are the most vulnerable to stoat attacks, resulting in a disproportionate male/female sex ratio.
The Department of Conservation has established a national project to co-ordinate kākā recovery. There are two main objectives of the project:
- To maintain a viable population of South Island kākā in the beech honeydew forests of the northern South Island. (The Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project aims to establish a mainland island reserve on the doorstep of Nelson Lakes National Park. This project will assist kākā by controlling predators within the reserve.)
- To study the effects of pest control on North Island kākā in the Waipapa ecological area with the aim of maintaining a viable population within a central North Island podocarp forest.
Call of the wild
In 1996, nine juvenile kākā were released into the Pukaha Mount Bruce forest, in eastern Wairarapa, from where the species had been absent for nearly 50 years. They were a combination of hand-reared birds from the Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre and wild ones from Kapiti Island, near Wellington.
This was the first time captive-bred kākā had been released into the wild and the first relocation of wild kākā. The kākā project is part of pioneering species management work at the centre.
South Island Kākā Captive Management Plan 2010 - 2020
The overall goal of the Captive Management Plan is to support South Island ecosystem restoration projects, by providing captive-bred South Island kākā for release into the wild to establish viable self-sustaining populations.
South Island Kākā Captive Management Plan 2010 - 2020 (PDF, 145K)
You can help
For further information about kākā in your area, contact your local DOC office.