A record number of endangered flightless kakapo birds have hatched during New Zealand’s unusually long 2019 breeding season, dramatically boosting the numbers of the rare native parrot.
More than 70 chicks have hatched, according to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC). Though not all are expected to make it to adulthood, the current adult population of 147 is expected to see a dramatic increase.
The birds breed only once every two to four years, when native rimu trees produce fruit – the kakapo’s favourite – with the period known as a “mast year”.
The length of this year’s season is expected to surpass the record.
“It’s been going on for a long time … we had our first mating before Christmas, the first chick hatched on January 30, the earliest a chick had ever hatched,” Andrew Digby, a science adviser on DOC’s KAkApA Recovery Program, told the Kakapo Files podcast by Radio New Zealand this week.
Kakapo are the world’s heaviest species of parrot, with females weighing about 1.4 kilograms and males 2.2 kilograms.
The birds are vulnerable to predators and were decimated by cats and stoats introduced by European settlers in the 19th century.
By the mid-1990s, the kakapo was on the brink of extinction, but government-funded breeding programs have worked to increase bird numbers.
Mr Digby told Radio New Zealand that the chicks were still quite unco-ordinated and conservation staff were training them to get used to exploring so they could eventually climb 30-metre trees on dedicated island sanctuaries.
“Those sort of skills and the balance and learning how to cope with the New Zealand bush is quite a big skill,” he said, adding even the chicks that were now two months old were unco-ordinated.
“When they’re at this stage … they look pretty cute. They’re like bumbling puppies at the moment.”