The kakapo is an unusual bird. The world’s largest parrot was common throughout its native New Zealand until predators hunted it to the brink of extinction. Now the stocky green-and-yellow bird is critically endangered and lives only on four islands off the coast of New Zealand. It’s the focus of a considerable conservation effort from the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s Kakapo Recovery program. There are currently 211 known adult birds, each named and extensively monitored. That’s a big jump from 1995, when there were only 51 known birds.
From its funky facial hair to its elaborate courtship rituals, the kakapo is certainly special. Here are a dozen strange facts about this unique bird.
This bird doesn’t really look like a parrot.
The kakapo looks more like an owl. It has a whisker-y face that looks as if it’s sporting muttonchops or sideburns.
Every kakapo has a name.
Because there are so few birds, all kakapo have names. They are named by members of the Kakapo Recovery program. Older birds were typically given English language names like Boomer, Flossie and Ruth. More recent chicks have Maori names such as Ra, Ruapuke and Taeatanga. Some birds have been named for people who are involved in conservation efforts. For example, Attenborough was named in honor of conservationist Sir David Attenborough.
It’s a nocturnal loner.
Its name means “night parrot” in Maori because it prefers solo nighttime walkabouts. Kakapo Recovery calls the parrot a “midnight rambler” due to its penchant for sleeping all day and wandering through the forest alone at night. These birds typically tuck themselves into a tree during the day and head out as a party of one in the evening to find food. These birds look for company only when it’s time to breed.
Kakapo are single mothers.
Three kakapo chicks check out the world. Their mom will feed them until they’re 6 months old. (Photo: New Zealand Department of Conservation [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
After the business of breeding is over, males abandon the females to let them raise their chicks alone. The female usually lays one to four eggs. She has to leave the newborn chicks alone at night while she looks for food. Typically, the chicks leave the nest after about 10 weeks, but often a mother will continue to feed them until they reach 6 months old.
2019 has been one of the most successful years yet for breeding, with 70 chicks surviving, Andrew Digby, kakapo science adviser to the New Zealand government, told CNN.
They don’t rush relationships.
Kakapo “live life in the slow lane,” according to Kakapo Recovery. Males don’t start breeding until they’re about 4 years old, and females don’t start until they are about 6 years old. Even then, breeding doesn’t take place every year. It typically happens every two to four years and seems to be dependent on the availability of food.
Courtship is serious business.
Or at least it’s loud. During breeding season, males go up to prominent rocks or hilltops, inflate like a balloon and emit a sonic boom-like noise. This “boom” announces to all interested females that the males are ready to mate. After 20 to 30 booms, they make a “ching” — a high-pitched metallic call. This pinpoints a male’s position so a female can find him. This boom-ching pattern can go on continuously for up to eight hours every night for two to three months.
It makes some unusual noises.
Boom-chings aside, the kakapo squawks like a typical parrot, but it has a more varied vocabulary. Some of its other noises sound like a donkey’s bray or a pig’s squeal.
They face a new threat.
Though they are making a significant comeback, the birds also seem to face new threats at every turn. The newest is a respiratory infection called aspergillosis, which is caused by an airborne fungus. It’s the same fungus that infects humans. Nine of the birds were lost to the disease in 2019, but researchers think it was caused by significant spore loading in nests on Whenua Hou, the island where all of the aspergillosis cases started. Increased “nest stress” leads to decreased immunity, a problem the researchers are tackling to reduce the number of future cases.
They freeze when noticed.
A kakapo will stay totally still if the bird thinks it has been seen. (Photo: New Zealand Department of Conservation [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
It may not the most successful mode of defense, but when a kakapo is disturbed or frightened, it keeps absolutely still and hopes it won’t get noticed. The kakapo likely developed this behavior when most of New Zealand’s predators were birds and freezing might have worked.
A kakapo smells like an attic.
Biologist Jim Briskie of Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand, told National Geographic that kakaopo smell like “musty violin cases.” Unfortunately, the distinctive smell makes it easier for predators to find them.
When it comes to birds, kakapo are at the top of their weight class. Adult males average more than four pounds, and they’re about two feet long.
Kakapo can’t fly.
Although this parrot has large wings, it doesn’t use them for locomotion. Instead, this agile climber and jumper uses them to keep its balance and slow it down when leaping from high places.
The kakapo is long-lived.
The kakapo lives an average of 58 years and may live as long as 90 years.
Some kakapo can be friendly.
Researchers who work with the birds notice they each have their own personality. Many are curious and enjoy interacting with humans. In one BBC special, a hand-raised kakapo named Sirocco gained international fame after trying to mate with zoologist Mark Carwardine’s head. Sirocco is now the spokes-bird for New Zealand conservation. Although Carwardine likely didn’t think so at the time, narrator Stephen Fry certainly did, and the video is incredibly entertaining.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in April 2016.
14 facts about the oddball kakapo
The endangered kakapo parrot smells funny, can’t fly and takes courtship seriously.