Animals

Scientists are getting creative to save this muppet-faced, flightless parrot

The kakapo is down to its last 147 individuals. Now, scientists are using fitness trackers and semen-carrying drones to help the bird reproduce.Thursday, March 7, 2019

By Sarah Feldberg
<p class="MsoNormal"><span style="mso-fareast-font-family: &quot;Times New Roman&quot;; border: none;">A female kakapo sits with her chick on Whenua Hou/Codfish Island in New Zealand. Nocturnal and flightless, these unusual parrots are critically endangered, with only 147 adults left in the world.</span></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>

Inside a hut on remote Whenua Hou/Codfish Island off the coast of New Zealand’s South Island, there’s a chart on the refrigerator depicting the future of a species.

That species is the kakapo, an unusual, flightless parrot endemic to New Zealand. The chart lists every breeding female kakapo on the planet—50 of them, with names like Pearl, Marama, and Hoki—and the status of their eggs: smiley faces for fertile eggs, straight lines for infertile ones, wings and legs for hatched chicks, and Xs for those that have died.

In the hopes of more smiley faces getting wings and fewer getting Xs, a team of scientists, rangers, and volunteers are working around the clock during the current breeding season, using 3D-printed smart eggs, activity trackers, and a sperm-toting drone nicknamed the "cloaca courier" to turn a record breeding year into a repopulation milestone and help this beloved bird step back from the brink.

Strange bird

The kakapo is an avian oddity: It’s the only nocturnal and flightless parrot in the world, a waddling, ground-bound bird that weighs up to nine pounds and tends to freeze when confronted by predators. Mottled green feathers offer forest camouflage, and a wide beak gives the creatures a comical expression, a mix between owl and muppet.

Despite intense conservation efforts, the kakapo are particularly tough to repopulate because they only breed every few years, and even when they do mate, more than half of the eggs are infertile.

Sirocco, a kakapo raised in captivity who has become the official “spokesbird” for New Zealand conservation, has more than 200,000 followers on Facebook. His failed attempt to mate with the head of a human zoologist became the inspiration for the party parrot, a gyrating, neon parrot emoji beloved by Redditors and the National Geographic animal desk.

“They’re amazingly charismatic birds,” says Andrew Digby, scientific advisor for the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s Kakapo Recovery Program. “They’re hard not to love.”

Kakapo were once widespread in New Zealand, but the rats, cats, and stoats that humans brought with them to the islands devoured the flightless birds, their chicks, and their eggs. Today, just 147 adults have been transferred to three predator-free islands. That number is itself an achievement, up from a low of 51 individuals in the mid-1990s. (Read about New Zealand’s plan to eradicate rats and stoats by 2050.)

The kakapo have been transferred to three predator-free islands off the coast of New Zealand, but with 2019 set to be a record breeding season, they may need new territory soon.

Repopulating the species is hard work. The kakapo only breed every two to four years when rimu trees produce a bumper crop of fruit, and even when they do mate, less than 50 percent of the eggs are fertile, likely because of inbreeding. In 2016, 122 eggs were laid, but only 34 chicks survived to fledge.

“It’s frustrating, and it’s disappointing, and it’s euphoric,” says zoologist, author, and kakapo expert Alison Ballance of the breeding season drama, which she’s documenting for Radio New Zealand through the Kakapo Files podcast.

With 218 eggs laid since late December and 52 live chicks, this year has already surpassed previous highs. “It’s definitely record-breaking in terms of modern times of kakapo breeding,” Digby says. “We’ve never had anything like this.”

High-tech help

To maximize the number of eggs that grow into green-feathered adults, the Kakapo Recovery Program takes a technology-forward approach.

“It’s quite experimental,” says Digby. “It pushes the boundaries a bit in terms of what’s possible for conservation.”

At the core of the program this year are activity-tracking smart transmitters worn by every bird that loop around their wings like a backpack. Even without rangers spying in the woods, the system can report which kakapo have mated, with whom, and how vigorously, and sensors outside each nest send alerts when mothers come and go. Fertile eggs are removed from the nests and incubated in a dedicated room on each island to be hatched in captivity, while the mothers sit on 3D-printed smart eggs that make noise to prepare them for the return of fluff-ball chicks. Some hatchlings are being hand-reared to induce females to nest again this season.

A project recently sequenced the genome of every kakapo, so Digby is also performing artificial inseminations, taking semen from genetically important males and using a drone affectionately called the “cloacal courier” to fly it across the island to waiting females. (The cloaca is the cavity at the end of the reproductive, digestive, and urinary tracts.)

At night, workers camp near the nests, monitoring eggs, making nest renovations, and checking on vulnerable chicks. “We’re working days and nights at the moment,” says Digby. “When there’s only 147 adults, we have to be in this intensive care phase. We can’t afford to lose any more kakapo, and we need to make as many as we can.”

Great lengths

It’s a monumental effort to save a bird most people have never heard of.

“If we stopped kakapo conservation, we might better save three or four other species who require less effort,” Digby says. But, he adds, the birds attract people who might not otherwise care about conservation. “We have children in the middle of America who instead of wanting birthday presents, they ask their family and friends to give to kakapo conservation, even though they’ll probably never see a kakapo in their life.”

On the Kakapo Recovery Facebook page, 53,000 followers eagerly await updates to the fridge chart, and Alison Ballance says her podcast has become one of the most listened to shows on RNZ.

Tāne Davis, who represents the Ngāi Tahu Māori tribe in the Kakapo Recovery Program, says the birds were once a crucial resource for his ancestors, hunted for meat, feathers, and skin. “[They have] a very strong significance for the iwi [tribe],” he says. “We treasure them because we respect what these taonga [treasured] species gave to us.”

Even without the historical relationship, people fall hard for the kakapo. “They just get under your skin,” says Jonni Walker, a data visualization specialist who learned about the birds while looking for interesting data sets. “You just get this impression that they really all have different characteristics and their own personalities.”

Ballance attributes their following to the kakapo’s evolutionary distinction and the fact that responsibility for their survival lands squarely at our feet. “We feel this great moral obligation, having put it in this situation, to bring it back.”

This record-setting breeding season may be a step in the right direction.

“Ultimately our goal is to get kakapo back on mainland New Zealand,” says Digby. “A few years ago it sounded pretty far-fetched, like it might happen in 300 years’ time. But I think with the way things are going, that’s not such a distant dream.”