Nearly all of the world’s few surviving kakapo, Strigops habroptilus, are now confined to two offshore island sanctuaries: Codfish Island, off the west coast of Stewart Island, and Little Barrier Island (or Hauturu) in the Hauraki Gulf. A few have also been released on Maud Island in the Marlborough Sounds, and there may still be a small number unaccounted for on their last remaining natural foothold, Stewart Island.
Transferring the surviving birds to offshore islands has, for the time being, saved them from imminent extinction at the mouths of introduced ground predators such as black and brown rats, stoats, ferrets and feral cats — animals that decimated kakapo numbers on the mainland of both North and South Islands. However, the long term survival of these flightless birds depends on their breeding successfully in their new island homes.
The long-lived owl parrot, or night bird, as it is also known, is by nature an infrequent breeder, and usually lays just a single egg. In southern parts, it is thought that the birds only bred in years when food was plentiful, for example, when the fruit drop from podocarps was abundant. But conditions for this bountiful production occur only every four or five years.
As food aplenty appears to be necessary to bring the birds into breeding condition, the kakapo conservation team, led by Don Merton, of black robin fame, are supplementing the diet of some kakapo on Little Barrier Island in the hope that they will breed more frequently.
The feeding programme commenced in September 1989, and in the summer two of the females laid eggs. Only one of the eggs hatched, and the chick did not survive. Nevertheless, the fact that the birds had attempted to breed so soon after their introduction to Little Barrier was extremely encouraging.
In this, the second year of the experiment, the supplementary feeding programme has been extended to run right through the winter, with about a dozen feeding stations serviced daily on the south-western side of the island. The birds that live on the remaining two thirds of the island are left entirely to their own devices, for this ancient volcano is so steep and rugged that currently it is practical to cover only a small part regularly.
Even servicing the south-west sector is a strenuous and fairly hazardous full-time job for two people working independently. It is carried out by fit Department of Conservation workers, sometimes assisted by volunteers the category into which I staggered during a week this winter.
And just in case you have romantic ideas of how nice it would be to help feed these endangered birds, you should be warned that you will never see a kakapo, and the work is uncomfortable, tedious and tiring. It involves a daily trek in all weathers to one of the summits, up steep, wet, slippery tracks that in places require the use of ropes. It is up and down ankle-twisting and knee-straining terrain — a testing assault course of slimy moss-covered rocks, tangled roots and steep muddy faces.
Occasionally, from the summit, there are magnifies cent views all around the Gulf, but usually the top ‘E= 200 feet is shrouded in cold cloud.
With a body glowing from the exertions of climbing energetically but chilled by the clammy cold of the high altitude cloud blanket, it is difficult to decide whether to throw off a sweater or put on a waterproof coat.
Up in the cloud forest it is possible to set aside the discomfort of aching thigh and calf muscles, fingers numbed with cold, the steady rain and the monotony of the task. There, alone in the dripping bush, the atmosphere has spiritual qualities. The chilling wind has the sound of deep breathing as it sweeps the cloud through trunks and branches that are completely clothed in mosses, foliose lichens, luxuriant filmy ferns and kidney ferns.
There is little other sound apart from occasional bursts of chirping trills from whiteheads that demand attention as if seeking an explanation for the intrusion into their heavenly retreat. Keeping a closer eye, but saying nothing, are inquisitive bush robins with oversized heads, spindly legs and lovely flecked grey plumage. Moving soundlessly through the bush alongside, and frequently only at arms’ length, the robins regularly acted as chaperons as I made my way to the highest kakapo feeding stations.
The whole business is somewhat akin to the Japanese practice of visiting the mountain-top shrines of unseen Shinto gods, and there leaving offerings that one hopes will be accepted.
All the kakapo on Little Barrier are banded, and there are so few that each one is also known by name. It was Heather and Maggie that laid eggs last summer, and Heather, a young, inexperienced bird, that hatched out a chick. Hides are set up by some feeding stations, and using these and other methods from time to time it has been possible to identify the regular visitors to each one.
So, on my daily route I knew that it was Bella Rose who came to feed at the lowest station on the Thumb Track, at about 1100 feet. Higher up by the Reischek Tree (a kauri into which Andreas Reischek, Austrian explorer and rare bird trader, carved his initials and the year date in 1882) is a feeding tray visited occasionally by Lisa. A little way below the summit of Mount Herekohu, the spur known familiarly as the Thumb, at about 2000 feet, Luke dined every night.
My trek then took me across to the west and down another ridge that eventually led back to the coast. Every day on this track I looked forward to seeing if John-Girl had partaken of my simple offerings of food, at one or other of the feeding stations between which she regularly transferred her attentions.
The food offerings are carefully weighed with a spring balance and left in neat piles in a tefloncoated food tray that is easy to wipe clean. The menu, devised by an animal dietitian, consists of an apple cut in half, about the same weight of peeled kumara, about a heaped tablespoon of sunflower seeds and a similar amount of broken walnut pieces, along with 20 brazil nuts and 20 almonds.
Every day, at each feeding station, the different types of food are counted and weighed and uneaten food is replaced whenever it has lost its freshness. By comparing the weights and numbers of pieces of the different foods put out with those left the next day it was possible to monitor each bird’s consumption and their particular preferences.
Bella Rose seldom touched the kumara, and never ate sunflower seeds, but evidently loved apple. She regularly cleaned up all or nearly all of one apple half, leaving just the skin on the ground below. She ate a few almonds or pieces of walnut, but rarely both at the same sitting, and generally ate about half a dozen brazil nuts.
Luke, meanwhile, loved kumara, and at best would only nibble at the apple. He generally ate about half of the sunflower seeds, never ate walnuts, but liked brazils and almonds so much that his almond ration had to be increased to 30.
Unlike Bella Rose and Luke, John-Girl (so named because only after she was named John was it discovered that she was a female) was not at all fussy with her food and could be relied upon to eat something of everything offered to her and to have fed well each night.
After replenishing the food in each tray it was important to clean up any scraps that had fallen to the ground during the course of the meals, so as not to encourage kiore, the polynesian rat. Rat traps in bird-proof tunnels are checked daily to reduce the numbers of these introduced rodents around the feeding stations.
Like common curs scavenging scraps from below their masters’ tables, the kiore are opportunists which are grateful for any windfalls left by the kakapo. Their gnawing toothmarks, distinct from the kakapo’s triangular beak marks, show that, like John-Girl, kiore are pleased to try anything on offer.
They are also agile jumpers, easily able to leap up to the raised feeding trays from which they would steal food if the trays were not covered by lids with hinged feeding flaps that only the large parrots can open easily.
As I made my daily pilgrimages up to the shrines, to the unseen kakapo gods on the cloud-capped mountain top, like all devoted religious followers I was anxious for a sign. It was a thrill to find that some of the offerings had been accepted, and disheartening if a tray had been left untouched.
Part of the task was to look out for other signs: beak marks in the food, or in roots and leaves eaten, beside the track or perhaps for the specially blessed pilgrim, a feather or a dropping. The almost odourless droppings are collected for analysis of natural food eaten and the body contour feathers are saved so that they can be used to repair old Maori feather cloaks.
But perhaps the most treasured sign to find are down feathers that are saved for training dogs. Coming from close to the kakapo’s skin, this soft under-plumage is heavy with the delightful fragrance of the bird’s body scent. This is a sweet herbal perfume so pleasant that it is almost intoxicating, and one which sets the owl parrot apart from every other animal I have ever been close to.
If, like John-Girl, a kakapo takes its time feeding, and samples all of the foods, its scent usually lingers around the feeding tray the next day. But this incense around their altars is as close as most of us will ever get to these perfumed gods of Hauturu.