Large, flightless and nocturnal, the kakapo is an eccentric parrot which can live for decades. It is not closely related to other parrots and, in fact, has a combination of biological features not shared by any other species.
It is the only representative of a unique sub-family, Strigops habroptila, and the softness of its plumage is represented in the second part of that scientific name. With mottled moss-green feathers, camouflage is its main form of defence.
- Kakapo are the heaviest parrot in the world. Males can weigh over 2 kg. Unique among land birds, it can store large amounts of energy as body fat.
- Kakapo is the only parrot to have a 'lek' mating system: males compete for 'calling posts' specially dug-out bowls in the earth and call ("boom") each night in summer months for a female. The male’s low-frequency mating boom travels over several kilometres. It is the only parrot to have an inflatable thoracic air sac.
- Kakapo breed every 2 - 4 years.
- A bird can walk several kilometres in one night.
- Although it cannot fly, it is good at climbing trees.
- The birds are herbivores and eat variety of foods such as roots, leaves and fruit
- Kakapo once lived from near sea level to high in the mountains.
- Possibly as defence against its ancient predator - the giant eagle - the kakapo became nocturnal and learned to remain still ('freeze') at times of danger.
Sirocco the kakapo on Maud Island
Sirocco the kakapo
Early Polynesian settlers hunted the bird for its plumage and meat. At the beginning of the 19th century, kakapo were still widespread throughout New Zealand. From the 1840s, European settlers not only hunted the bird, they cleared and set fire to bush for farming, destroying its habitat.
Most devastating of all to its survival was the introduction of predators such as rats, cats and stoats. In ancient history, its only endemic predator was a giant eagle (now extinct) and it developed the habit of nesting, rearing and feeding its young on the ground. This nesting behaviour made its eggs and chicks easy prey to introduced mammalian predators, especially cats.
By the 1970s, only a few isolated birds were known to exist in Fiordland, South Island. A survey of Stewart Island in 1977 found about 200 more birds but they were rapidly declining through predation by feral cats.
Following translocations of all the remaining kakapo, they are now managed by the Department of Conservation on three offshore islands: Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) near Stewart Island, Anchor Island in Fiordland, and Little Barrier Island (Hauturu-o-Toi) near Auckland.
You can help
During the breeding season, you could be a volunteer with the Kakapo Recovery Team. They need help with nest minding, supplementary chick feeding and cooking meals for those involved in the project.
Help protect New Zealand's native birds
- Volunteer with DOC or other groups to control predators and restore bird habitats.
- Don’t throw rubbish into water ways or storm drains.
- Set traps for stoats or rats on your property. Get more information from your local DOC office.
- Put a bell on your cat's collar, feed it well, and keep it indoors at night.
- Plant a range of native plants that provide food year-round to encourage birds into your garden.
When visiting parks and beaches
- Only take dogs to areas that allow them, and keep your dog under control.
- Prevent the spread of pests. Check your gear for mice and rats when visiting pest-free islands.
- Use available access ways to get to the beach. Stay out of fenced-off areas. Leave nesting shore birds alone.
- Get your dog trained in avian awareness, and help save forest birds like kiwi and weka.
- Follow the water care code. Keep water craft speed to 5 knots within 200 metres of the shore.