The huddle of people sheltering behind a low dune turned away from the blast of rotors, then ran towards us. Ducking low, I clambered out of the helicopter, then helped hoist packs, a gas bottle and two dogs aboard. Last, and with extreme care, an incubator containing a critically-underweight kakapo chick—one of only half a dozen born this decade—was handed through the door, and the machine lifted off in a cloud of sand.
The commotion was over in moments, and Codfish Island was once again just a speck of land surrounded by the vastness of the southern ocean.
I followed a track through the pingao-covered dunes and coastal scrub to a large, modern hut. Inside was a wood-burner, well-stocked food shelves and maps and aerial photographs on the walls. An anti-fur lobby poster tacked on to a notice board reflected the humour of workers who spent three years ridding the island of possums.
With this voracious competitor removed, Codfish has, since 1987, been the main destination for kakapo recovered from southern Stewart Island. There, the last natural population of the largest and most unusual parrot in the world has been under threat from feral cats. To date, 20 male and 10 female kakapo have been transferred to the island.
The Department of Conservation’s Rhys Buckingham has been involved at both ends of the operation: as a kakapo searcher in Fiordland and Stewart Island since 1976, and now as the sole resident and manager of Codfish Island. As he showed me around the island, he described the events of the last six months.
Around Christmas 1991 he found kakapo’s distinctive bowls and tracks on the scrub-covered mounds of the Codfish tablelands. Through January he listened at night as male kakapo sat in the bowls, puffed up their breasts to extraordinary sizes and boomed. The island’s female kakapo also listened, long and discerningly. Kakapo are lek breeders: males gather at display grounds which females visit for courtship and mating, and this forms the only contact between sexes during the breeding cycle.
Through February he found telltale patches of down and contour feather close to the bowls—signs that mating had occurred. The prospects were good for a successful breeding season.
Then, in March, disaster . . .
Buckingham paused beneath a rimu tree and drew my attention to a regular clicking noise above. Husks of rimu nuts showered down on us as a kaka moved around in the canopy, stripping out the kernels with its powerful beak.
“A kakapo exhibiting similar behaviour clicks 28 times a minute,” he told me. This seemingly casual observation was to take on unforeseen significance during March. It was during that month that unrelenting, El Niflo-driven gales lashed the island. The bases of the rimu nuts, instead of swelling red, succulent and nutritious, stayed green.
Even snipping 28 times a minute all night long was not enough to provide sufficient nourishment for the kakapo. By April, the nesting females on the island were having to spend more than four hours away from their nests foraging, and their chicks—the first to be born on Codfish Island, and the only kakapo chicks to be born anywhere this season—were beginning to starve. (Male kakapo play no part in incubation or raising young, so all breeding females are, in effect, “solo mothers”.)
If kakapo were abundant and widespread, failure of one breeding year would have little effect on the long-term well-being of the species. But with the total population down to only 50 individuals, a new generation of chicks was considered too valuable to waste.
Don Merton, the mastermind behind the saving of the Chatham Islands black robin in the early 1980s, and coordinator of the Department of Conservation’s kakapo recovery programme, played a big part in the decision to transfer chicks from Codfish Island to Auckland Zoo. Staff at the zoo had artificially reared kea and kaka chicks successfully, and last year hatched a kakapo egg from Little Barrier Island and reared it for several days before it died. Merton argued that the zoo’s staff and facilities were the chicks’ only hope of survival.
“There are only 15 female kakapo that we know of,” said Merton, “and only six of these are known to have laid fertile eggs in the last decade. Their situation is so very, very vulnerable.”
The first chick, nicknamed Alf, was transferred on April 10. It had been found shivering in the nest of an undernourished bird named Margaret-Maree, and weighed just 94 grams when it should have been at least twice that.
Merton was sure Alf wasn’t the only bird facing starvation. “Almost certainly there were other females breeding,” he said, “and if we didn’t do something, their offspring would die, too.”
The Department of Conservation decided to immediately send in two tracker dogs and handlers to look for other nests.
First they found Nora’s nest. She was in reasonable condition, but when the DOC staff shone a torch through her two eggs they could see that they were both infertile.
Then, on the other side of the island, Dave Barker and his dog Bob found the nest of Zephyr, Nora’s 11year-old daughter. The nest contained three chicks. One was dead, and Zephyr herself was in a sad condition. Severely underweight, she tipped the scales at just 850 grams—the lowest weight ever recorded for an adult female.
However, rescuing her two remaining offspring was not going to be easy. Hidden beneath a huge boulder five metres in, with just a 30cm-high tunnel to the outside, the nest was almost inaccessible.
Merton was advised of the chicks’ plight, and early the following day he flew to the island from Wellington. That evening—Easter Friday—Merton, Barker and DOC officer Andy Cox slogged their way back across the island to Zephyr’s nest,arriving shortly after midnight.
“We could just catch a glimpse of the chicks if we lay head-down on a steep slope and shone a torch into the tunnel,” said Merton. “I thought, we’ve got to get them out now, because tomorrow will be too late.”
What followed was pure Kiwi ingenuity and dedication. Merton had brought a kitchen strainer, and this was lashed to two very long, straight poles cut from the bush.
Merton, shining a torch into the nest, gave directions to Barker and Cox, who manipulated the unwieldy rescue basket, trying to scoop up the larger of the chicks. It was literally a case of “left hand down a bit, right hand up a bit” as the two men manoeuvred the strainer.
An hour later, the chick was out.
“She was alarmingly underweight, but looked okay,” said Merton. “The other one, though, was even more difficult to get out.”
This chick was lying on the floor of the nest, and looked to be near death. After more than an hour of fruitlessly trying to scoop it into the strainer, the rescuers bent the device down and tried to simply pull the chick towards the entrance.
However, between the nest and the rescuers was a hollow filled with dead leaves and twigs. As the chick was inched forward it disappeared into the debris.
No amount of probing could recover it, and the team was about to give up when Merton’s torch caught a flash of fluffy down: there was the chick about three metres from the entrance.
More deft work with the strainer, and out it came, cold, prostrate and showing few signs of life. Merton immediately fed the chick “polycose” (a type of glucose), then tucked it into his shirt to keep it warm during the trek back to camp. There it was put into a brooder and given tiny amounts of polycose every two hours.
The larger chick was fed a specially developed “parrot mix” of cereals and multivitamins—the kakapo equivalent of baby food.
At first light a small group of men made their way back to Nora’s nest. Merton was about to test a theory he had developed when working with black robins nearly a decade earlier:could he successfully get kakapo adults to foster chicks that weren’t their own?
For Rhys Buckingham, this was a particularly special moment. He had come to know Nora well, monitoring her progress after she was found in the scrublands of southern Stewart Island in 1981. He knew her to be an unusually placid and good-natured bird—surely an ideal candidate for a foster parent.
His hopes were well founded. Although Nora froze when the chick was first placed in the entrance to her nest, within half an hour she had it safely under her wing, her infertile eggs forgotten.
Back in the but in the early morning, Merton continued his own style of brooding: feeding chick number two, nicknamed BJ, parrot mix through a syringe. With every two-hourly feed the chick gained strength and weight, and, after four days, on April 21, was judged strong enough for the helicopter and plane journeys to Auckland Zoo.
For the rest of us, our mission on Codfish Island was to lay out kumara and apple around the kakapo tracks in the hope of boosting the birds’ food supply. On Little Barrier Island supplementary feeding had proved successful in enticing the birds to breed once a year, instead of once every four to five years. Codfish was originally to be managed without interference, but the food crisis had prompted a shift in policy.
After a long day of distributing “food parcels”, we kept the gas stove in the but busy with brews of coffee while discussing kakapo management options. With so little known about the birds, any recovery plan is charting unknown territory.
The Polynesian rat, kiore, became the subject of debate. Suzanne, the only other Codfish kakapo found with chicks this summer, had recently lost one chick and two hatching eggs—apparently eaten by a rat. A healthy population of kakapo could probably co-exist with kiore, but with such a critically low number of birds every threat is significant. Successful eradication of kiore would also make the island suitable for many other rare native species such as the South Island saddleback, but the poisoning might put wildlife, including kakapo and bats, at risk.
When the billy boiled again at breakfast time there was good news on two fronts. Buckingham, returning from an early morning reconnaissance, had found an apple with a kakapo beak-sized bite out of it. Then a news item on the radio reported that both Alf and BJ were faring well at Auckland Zoo.
We left the island that afternoon in a positive frame of mind, but the old adage about counting chickens seems to have special relevance to kakapo. After receiving encouraging reports from Buckingham for nearly a month, Nora’s foster chick started to lose condition, and on May 13 it had to be rescued a second time, and transferred to Auckland Zoo to join the other two.
For the next 35 days all was well. Regular “plunket faxes” arrived in our office from the zoo, plotting steady weight gains in the three chicks. It was a time of great excitement, and some nervousness. Would these birds be the first successfully hand-reared kakapo? Would they survive the transition back to the wild? Ultimately, would they help the species “turn the corner” and escape the threat of extinction?
Louise Joyce, a Television New Zealand journalist who visited the zoo weekly for nearly three months to record the progress of the chicks, takes up the story in April, when only two chicks had been transferred . . .
At the start, things had gone well. Alf had put on four times his own weight within a fortnight, and BJ had responded with a similar weight gain. Zoo staff were confident that both birds were thriving, and would soon be able to be moved to island sanctuaries.
Even so, caring for these birds was an exhaustive and time-consuming task.
The chicks were fed every two hours with a soya bean-based porridge, and were weighed regularly to check their growth rate. They were never left unattended, and were under around-the-clock observation by Mick Sibley, the zoo’s Curator of Zoological Projects, and the 11 members of his team. Lighting was dimmed in their temperature-controlled environment, and people spoke in whispers to avoid disturbing them.
Everything possible was provided for them—even a couple of hand-puppets with heads resembling an adult kakapo, and taped calls of wild kakapo played before meals to stimulate their appetite.
But always there was the worry of whether they were doing the right things to ensure the chicks’ survival.
“Unlike other birds, kakapo haven’t had years of research done on the diet and living habits of chicks at this age,” says Sibley. “It’s not as if we have textbooks to refer to. We don’t know their optimum temperature requirements, and we don’t know precisely where these chicks should be in terms of development and growth at their age.
“It’s an extremely unusual parrot, being nocturnal, and living in the deep south in such a harsh climate, and, being a ground-dweller, eating different food from other parrots.
“We just don’t know . . .”
But hand-rearing the chicks brought discoveries, carefully noted down in diaries kept hour by hour.
One of the most enthralling was a loud kitten-like purring by the chicks when they were expecting food. As they grew they continued to purr during feeding, although the tone altered.
By early May, the chicks were gaining about 50 grams a day, and were now living together in a large wooden enclosure lined with dried fern and bark.
Sibley, in touch with avian veterinary experts both in New Zealand and overseas, was feeling more relaxed. Both chicks were thriving, and the first signs of their beautiful moss-green and yellow plumage were showing through the greyish down.
The development of feathers on Alf, the older chick, was of intense interest because the colour pattern on the primary wing quills would soon give an indication of sex.
As it happened, Alf turned out to be “Alfette”!
In mid-May an endearing “clownish” behaviour began to emerge in the birds, much to the amusement of their keepers. Their feet, for example, were enormous in proportion to their bodies, and they continually fell over them as they clambered about.
Then, on May 13, chick number three, Nora’s foster chick, arrived. She was isolated until her health improved and until it was certain she brought no infection with her. In fact, Sibley was so worried about infection that he took Alf and BJ home for safety. He must be the only man alive to have kept kakapo chicks in his bedroom!
Sixteen days after her arrival, veterinarians cleared the third chick for her introduction to Alf and to her younger sibling, BJ.
Her reaction was eagerly awaited by Sibley as he lifted the bird into the pen. She immediately assumed a “threat posture”, rearing her head, extending her neck and opening her beak.
Rather a waste of time really—Alf had just been given her first ripe coprosma berries, and was intent on demolishing those; BJ ignored her until she advanced, and within minutes both birds were contentedly nuzzling each other.
Remarkable: three young kakapo together, a sight probably not seen for a century or more.
By early June, the chicks’ down had nearly disappeared, and in its place, beautiful adult-like plumage. Their diet was now a variety of fresh fruit, vegetables and parrot pellets. They were now all at fledging age (about 10 weeks), were more than a kilogram in weight, and their health and growth were robust.
No one was prepared for what happened on June 7.
“Alf was her normal self in the morning, active and alert, putting on weight. There was no sign of anything wrong,” says Sibley.
“Later that morning she showed signs of respiratory distress, but this disappeared by the time the vets arrived. She acted quite normally, eating and playing. Then another, more acute, attack followed.”
Despite treatment, she got progressively worse. She was put into an incubator, and a nebuliser was used to pump medication into the lungs.
By late evening, a heartsick Sibley, knowing nothing more could be done, and unable to watch Alf’s decline, went home. He had cared for birds all his life, and sat by the telephone waiting for the inevitable call.
“Had we known what the problem was we could have perhaps put her on some treatment, but it happened so suddenly. Her death shocked us all.”
Observation of the two remaining chicks was intensified. Both were given antibiotics while the cause of Alf’s death was being determined by post mortem. Staff were almost paranoid about the birds’ welfare.
“The worst thing you can do is panic, but every time there was a slight variation in their behaviour, it rang alarm bells.”could be established.
It was later found that both had died of acute respiratory problems caused by the inhalation of food particles—a problem to which hand-reared birds are very susceptible.
The death of BJ saddened and frustrated everyone. Many hours were spent going back over their records, puzzling over where they might have gone wrong.
“We’ve always been very, very cautious about the health of the chicks,” Sibley says. “Any rare species you take into captivity is a learning time. It’s sad to lose some, but it’s the only way to find out about them. All we can do is document their progress and have that on hand, should this exercise be repeated.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Don Merton.
“Events this year on Codfish Island, though tragic, have had a massive, positive impact on the recovery programme. We now have a better understanding of the pivotal role that an abundant, dependable food supply throughout the 10 – 12-month breeding cycle plays in successful breeding, and this has helped crystallise for me and others what we must do to save kakapo from extinction. The zoo has given us valuable new knowledge about the development of kakapo chicks, and has demonstrated that these birds can be hand-reared.”
The Department of Conservation has now accepted that intervention and monitoring are vital if the kakapo is to survive. The goals of the recovery programme are to boost the bird’s ultra-slow reproductive rate and to enhance the survival of the young.
Supplementary feeding of kakapo on the four islands on which they are now found—Little Barrier, Maud, Mana and Codfish—will continue, and the department will support the females and their broods by controlling kiore and protecting the nests from natural disasters such as flooding. It will also redistribute the chicks if necessary—exactly the same management strategy applied so successfully to the last five black robins.
But what of the zoo’s third chick?
The good news is that this bird survived, and three weeks after Ks death was fit and healthy enough to be moved to her new home. On July 6, three months old and weighing 1.3kg, she was flown to Maud Island in the Marlborough Sounds to join two other female and three male kakapo.
There she is being closely monitored in a 50-metre-radius aviary in order to gain much-needed information on behaviour and nutrition. When she reaches breeding age (in five to eight years) it is hoped she will form the nucleus of a captive population—a “safety net” should the wild populations fail.
She may well be a deciding factor in saving the species, much as Old Blue, the Chatham Islands black robin, saved her species in the 1980s by being the only female to breed successfully during a critical four-year period.
Don Merton had nicknamed this bird Gale, after her grandmother Nora, the north wind, and her mother Zephyr, a gentle breeze.
Her “official” name was decided following a national schools competition organised by kakapo programme sponsor Comalco. Submitted by Christ The King school, Christchurch, the name Hold means “to return.” It is a name which symbolises the hope that kakapo can indeed return from the brink of extinction.