Quest for the Kakapo

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Here is a timely insight into one of the most extraor­dinary birds which have ever lived. Once thought to be an evolutionary ‘missing link’ between owls and parrots, the kakapo is fighting a losing battle against the forces of habitat change and predation. Fewer than 50 birds are left: a few on Little Barrier Island; a few on Codfish Island, and perhaps some on Stewart Island and in remote areas of Fiordland.

David Butler’s book links historical knowledge of the kakapo and its ways with more recent studies of the bird’s behaviour and the attempts being made right now to save the species. Many New Zealanders will have heard (courtesy of the National Programme’s morning bird calls) the booming of the male kakapo as he attempts to attract a mate. Few will know that the bird is able to keep up this remarkable serenade for 17 hours, at 1000 booms per hour!

Many other interesting facts emerge: the moss-green kakapo feathers are unusually warm, soft and fragrant — qualities that made them highly prized by the Maori for use in cloaks; there was once a rare yellow form of kakapo (an 1898 painting compares the two); kakapo feed by using their tongues and beaks like a juice extractor.

The book is profusely illustrated, and contains a touching tribute to the kakapo by Gerald Durrell. Durrell lists his ‘top ten’ experiences with birds (everything from observing Sri Lankan tailor birds sewing their pocket-like nests to being dive-bombed by Arctic skuas), then claims that meeting his first kakapo exceeded them all.

Writes Durrell: “If natu­ralists go to heaven (about which there is considerable ecclesiastical doubt) I hope that I will be furnished with a troop of kakapo to amuse me in the evening instead of television. Meanwhile, however, the kakapo is in grave danger of slipping away from us… before we have unravelled the secrets of its strange nocturnal life.”

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