Can tech save the kakapo, New Zealand's ‘gorgeous, hilarious’ parrot? | Sunday Observer

Can tech save the kakapo, New Zealand's ‘gorgeous, hilarious’ parrot?

A monumental effort is underway to save one of New Zealand's best loved birds from extinction.

Large, plump and nocturnal, the kakapo is the only parrot in the world that lives on the ground and cannot fly. There are only 211 in existence, confined to four small islands off the New Zealand coast.

What the kakapo lacks in numbers, it makes up for in personality, says radio producer and presenter Alison Ballance. Her podcast, KKP Files, which documents the fight to save the bird, has attracted listeners from around the world. “Gorgeous, hilarious and amazing,” the kakapo has a “serious, but slightly goofy” character, she says. “They've got this ancient wisdom thing going on as well. You get the feeling this is a species that has been around for a very long time and is slightly marooned in the modern world.”

Andrew Digby, kakapo science adviser to the New Zealand government, is on a mission to save the beleaguered bird.

2019 has been the most successful breeding season on record. “Between January and April, 86 chicks were born, of which 70 are still alive,” says Digby.

But it has also been a year of tragedy. Nine birds have died of a respiratory infection called aspergillosis, which is caused by an airborne fungus.

It's the latest in a series of challenges the kakapo has faced since its home was first invaded by humans, about 700 years ago.

A paradise for predators

Before Polynesian settlers arrived in New Zealand around the 13th century, its forests squawked, chirped and tweeted with bird life. The only mammals were a couple of species of bat. Kakapos were abundant throughout the country and bumbled around in relative safety -- the only significant threat came from birds of prey circling in the sky above.

That all changed when the first boatloads of people disembarked, along with hunting dogs and stowaway rats. When kakapos sense danger they freeze on the spot. This strategy can fool an airborne eagle but doesn't deter ground-level hunters.

Mori people still maintain a strong spiritual connection to the kakapo, whose name means “parrot of the night” in their language.

All surviving kakapo now live on four islands that have been cleared of predators: Whenua Hou, Anchor, Chalky and Hauturu. . Each bird is microchipped and equipped with a smart radio transmitter, worn like a backpack, that tracks its location, monitors activity, identifies mates and alerts the conservation team if the bird stops moving.

The transmitters also control how much food the birds receive at feeding stations.

It's essential to control the birds’ diet, says Digby. Left to their own devices, kakapo only breed when New Zealand's rimu trees burst into fruit -- about once every two to four years. “We give them supplementary food during the breeding season to trick them into behaving as if there's lots of fruit -- so they will breed more often,” says Digby.