The world's rarest (and arguably most interesting!) parrot is on the rebound thanks to a very productive breeding season.
The population of New Zealand's oddball "owl parrot", the kakapo, has been given a major boost with the addition of 33 newly hatched chicks. The species is incredibly rare – it's estimated that just 125 adults exist in the wild.
Back in the 1970s, the situation looked even worse: kakapo numbers were so low that experts feared the species would not survive. Just 18 birds were known to exist – and they were all male. In a move to save the parrot from extinction, conservationists searched desperately for any signs of another population – one containing females. And against all odds, they found one hiding out on remote Stewart Island, where new breeding stock was discovered.
Hunted by feral cats, the Stewart Island birds were also in trouble, so the population was relocated to safety on three predator-free islands: nearby Whenua Hou (or Codfish) Island, Anchor Island in southwest Fiordland and Hauturu (Little Barrier) Island in the Hauraki Gulf.
Since the 1990s, the New Zealand Department of Conservation's Kākāpō Recovery programme has been working to ensure the parrots continue to bounce back.
"In 1990, only one bird survived from mainland New Zealand to join the recovery programme, whilst the other 50 kakapo originated from Stewart Island. This mainland bird, named Richard Henry, was genetically distinct, and bore three offspring in 1998," Kakapo Recovery's Deidre Vercoe tells the BBC.
Keeping the family name alive and well, Richard Henry's daughter, Kuia, produced six eggs of her own this year, four of which resulted in chicks. "We’re thrilled that Richard Henry's incredibly important genes have been passed on to the next generation," Vercoe adds.
Besides being the world's only flightless parrot, the kakapo has a lot of other quirks on its resume – including a very unusual mating ritual. It's also the heaviest of the world's parrot species and an achiever in the longevity stakes – some kakapos have lived for an impressive 120 years. But as is the case with many long-living solitary animals, the birds also have a long reproductive cycle, making it tough for their numbers to recover.
"Kakapo are notoriously picky about breeding – they only reproduce every 2-4 years depending on the amount of fruit available from rimu and beech trees, their primary food source," explains the country's conservation minister, Maggie Barry.
This year's bumper rimu crop brought a bumper kakapo breeding season – with a major increase in the number of hatched chicks, up from just six in 2014. "This successful breeding season is just reward for the hard work the recovery team has done to bring kakapo back from the brink of extinction," adds Berry.
The arrival of so many chicks, now a few months old, is great news for the species, but there have been some setbacks, with a small number of birds lost to illness and injury. Each chick is vitally important, so the team has been making every effort to ensure their survival. Each kakapo wears a special transmitter, fitted when the bird is close to fledging, which allows their breeding and health to be monitored. The team has also been hand-rearing some of the birds before releasing them into the wild.
"Now is the time to keep up the momentum with recovery efforts to ensure the kakapo continues to strengthen," adds Barry.
And with that, we'll leave you with a huddle of berry-loving kakapo chicks:
Top header image: Jake Osborne, Flickr