Strigops habroptilakakapo

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Geographic Range

The kakapo is a species of parrot that originally was widespread across the North and South Islands of New Zealand. Today Strigops habroptila has become highly endangered, and is extinct in its original habitat. During the last two decades, in an effort to save the species, the last few survivors were moved to islands off the coast of New Zealand. Today the only place where these birds can be found are on the predator-free Codfish, Maud, and Little Barrier Islands. (del Hoyo, et al., 1997; Perrins, 1990)

Habitat

Once the Kakapo was widespread across both islands of New Zealand, living in forests. The introduction of predators by humans severely depleted the population of these ground dwelling birds, leaving very small relict populations in remote mountains. Between 1987 and 1992 the remaining population was moved onto several offshore islands in a last ditch effort to prevent the loss of the entire species. Today it is extinct on the main islands of New Zealand. ("Kakapo Recovery Project", 2004; Attenborough, 1998; Bateman, et al., 1999; del Hoyo, et al., 1997; New Zealand Dept. of Conservation, 2002)

Physical Description

The kakapo is a very large parrot, growing to a length of 64 cm. The feathers on their backs are moss-green, mottled with black chevrons, and dark brown blotches. The top of the tail has similar markings on a green-brown background. The feathers of the throat, breast and under the tail are a soft, mottled, yellow-green color. The scientific name Strigops habroptila means "owl-like" in reference to the disc of brown, bristle-like feathers around the ivory colored beak, the eyes, and the ears. Females are usually similar to males in coloration, though slightly smaller in stature. Immature birds are duller in coloration. The kakapo is the only flightless parrot in the world and its wings, while present, are small and insignificant. The sternum lacks a keel, as there is no need for a place for flight muscles to attach. The kakapo usually holds its body in a horizontal position with the bristle feathers on its face nearly touching the ground. If alarmed or feels like it must defend itself, it will stand upright. (Bateman, et al., 1999; del Hoyo, et al., 1997; Perrins, 1990)

  • Range mass
    3000 to 4000 g
    105.73 to 140.97 oz

Reproduction

S. habroptila do not breed every year. The interval between breedings averages 2-4 years, but depend on available food. The years when breeding takes place have been asociated with "mast-fruiting" of the rimu tree. The rimu tree is a member of the Podocarpus family that produces fleshy fruit instead of cones like others of the species. Breeding takes place from December through February or March (the summer months in the Southern Hemisphere). Females have been known to breed between 9 and 11 years of age, but they may breed at a younger age than that. Usually 1 or 2 eggs are laid, with as much as a month between the first and second egg. These solitary birds do not form pair-bonds, and after mating the female assumes sole responsibility for nest building, incubation, and raising the chicks once they have hatched. They nest on the ground in deep burrows under boulders or between tree roots. Incubation lasts approximatly 30 days. The chicks are altricial when they hatch and it is about 3 1/2 months before they are able to leave the nest. (Attenborough, 1998; Bateman, et al., 1999; del Hoyo, et al., 1997; Hutching, 1997)

  • Breeding interval
    Irregular breeding interval, 2 or more years between breedings
  • Breeding season
    Breeding takes place from December through February or March
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 2
  • Average time to hatching
    30 days
  • Average fledging age
    3.5 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    9 to 12 years

Male kakapos make no parental investment. Females build nests, lay eggs, and feed the nestlings. ("Kakapo Recovery Project", 2004; New Zealand Dept. of Conservation, 2002)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

The life expectancy of S. habroptila is estimated to be approximately 45 - 60 years. ("Kakapo Recovery Project", 2004; Collar, et al., 1994; New Zealand Dept. of Conservation, 2002)

Behavior

The kakapo is a unique parrot in many ways, the most obvious one being that it is completely flightless. A good tree climber, it uses its wings as a sort of parachute when it jumps from trees to the ground, as well as for additional balance when it walks and runs along. S. habroptila is also the only nocturnal parrot in the world. Kakapos lead solitary lives, sleeping during the day under rocky outcroppings or in shallow burrows between tree roots, they emerge in the evening to look for food. They maintain large territories and, if another kakapo happens to trespass, the resident kakapo warns it to leave by making a loud "kraak". There is no pair-bond formed between birds, and because their territories are so large the male must attract a female from a great distance away. The males gather in a display area called a "lek system". This lek system consists of hollows or bowl shapes dug in the ground which are linked by well worn tracks up to 50 meters long. The males dig and maintain the leks, carefully trimming any vegetation around the bowls and along the tracks. The males compete for the "best" bowls. Once the ownership of the bowls is decided the males begin to make a very loud, and bizarre booming noise. Male kakapos are the only parrots that have an inflatable thoracic air sac which they use to produce this booming noise. The sounds can be heard from 1 km to 5 km away if the wind is right! The males may "boom" continuously up to 7 hours a night, for 3 or 4 months until they attract a female to their bowl. Once a male is sucessful in attracting a female they do a small courtship dance for her, mate, and that is the end of the male's participation in raising a family. (Bateman, et al., 1999; del Hoyo, et al., 1997; Perrins, 1990)

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

The diet of S. habroptila is completely vegetarian. Their diet varies, depending on the season, and includes a variety of fruits, seeds, green shoots, leaf buds, rhizomes, tubers, pollen, and even moss and fungi. The digestive system of the kakapo is different than that found in other parrots. An adaption in the beak allows it to grind food up in its mouth, and the gizzard, which is used by most birds to grind their food, is small and degenerate. Unique among land birds, it is capable of storing large amounts of energy as body fat. (del Hoyo, et al., 1997; New Zealand Dept. of Conservation, 2002)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • roots and tubers
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit
  • pollen
  • flowers
  • bryophytes
  • Other Foods
  • fungus

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Today there is no direct economic benefit to be gained from the kakapo. However, early Polynesian settlers, and later the European immigrants found them a wonderful source of food, and the Polynesians also used the feathers to make decorative cloaks and other adornments. (New Zealand Dept. of Conservation, 2002)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There is no direct negative affect to humans.

Conservation Status

This species was once wide spread over both the North and South islands of New Zealand. Even before the European settlement of New Zealand the population of S. haproptilus was already beginning to decline due to the of the introduction of the kiore, or polynesian rat (Rattus exulans). The ground-dwelling birds had little natural defense against introduced predatory mammals. Females, as the sole caretakers of their offspring, must leave the chicks unattended in their burrows for long periods of time, while she gathers food for them, making the chicks particularly vulnerable. The only defense the kakapo had from predators was their ability to freeze and coloration that blended in with the terrain, and this defense had proved effective against their natural predators, primarily large birds of prey. Unfortunatly, the kakapo has a rather strong scent, and the terrestrial mammals, hunting by scent rather than by sight were not fooled by the kakapo freezing. The arrival of the European settlers put a new, greater strain on the kakapo population. They cleared huge areas for farms, destroying the Kakapo habitat, and introduced domestic cats (Felis silvestris), stoats, and other predators. Humans also proved to be the greatest predator of all, killing them by the thousands for food, and using their feathers for everything from decoration to upholstery stuffing. Today there are only approximatly 83 kakapos left in the world. In the years between 1987 and 1992 they were gathered up and moved from their natural habitat to islands off the coast of New Zealand, where they could be protected. An aggressive breeding program is ongoing, and recent experiments to encourage them to breed more frequently by supplementing their diets have been quite sucessful. A record 6 chicks were hatched and raised in 1999, and 24 in 2002. The species is rated Critically Endangered by the IUCN, listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and including in Appendix I of the CITES international treaty.

Contributors

Christina Whiteway (author), Fresno City College, Shirley Porteous-Gafford (editor), Fresno City College.

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

frugivore

an animal that mainly eats fruit

granivore

an animal that mainly eats seeds

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

island endemic

animals that live only on an island or set of islands.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

2004. "Kakapo Recovery Project" (On-line). Accessed November 08, 2004 at http://www.kakaporecovery.org.nz/index1.html.

Attenborough, D. 1998. The Life of Birds. London, England: BBC Books.

Bateman, R., R. Dennett, M. Cresswell, P. Enger. 1999. "The Fabulous Kakapo" (On-line). Accessed 11/08/04 at http://www.kakapo.net/en/index.html.

Collar, N., M. Crosby, A. Stattersfield. 1994. Birds to Watch 2: The World List Of Threatened Birds. Cambridge, UK: BirdLife. Accessed November 08, 2004 at http://www.wcmc.org.uk/species/data/species_sheets/kakapo.htm.

Hutching, G. 1997. A good year for the kakapo. New Scientist, 154/2078: 5.

New Zealand Dept. of Conservation, 2002. "Kakapo" (On-line). Accessed 11/08/04 at http://www.doc.govt.nz/Conservation/001~Plants-and-Animals/001~Native-Animals/Kakapo.asp.

Perrins, C. 1990. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Birds. New York, NY: Prentice Hall Press.

del Hoyo, J., A. Elliot, J. Sargatal. 1997. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 4. Sandgrouse to Cuckoos. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.