The Kākāpō Parrot Returns To New Zealand

12:52 minutes

Wild endemic flightless Kakapo parrot in New Zealand
A kākāpō in the wild. Credit: Shutterstock

Before humans arrived in New Zealand, parrots called kākāpō freely roamed across the islands. They are the world’s only living flightless parrots, and they’re a bit smaller than the average chicken. But the kākāpō’s population started crashing centuries ago, due to human interference and the arrival of predators like cats, rats, and stoats. At one point, the species was teetering on the brink of extinction.

For decades, scientists have been capturing and relocating kākāpō to safe islands, hoping their population would grow. It did, and the kākāpō’s recovery team just reached a huge milestone: bringing four birds back to the mainland, a place they haven’t existed since the 1980s. 

Guest host and SciFri events manager Diana Plasker talks with Deidre Vercoe, operations manager for the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s kākāpō and takahē teams, about the history of kākāpō conservation, what this win means, and what’s next for these beloved birds.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Deidre Vercoe

Deidre Vercoe is a member of the kākāpō and takahē teams in the New Zealand Department of Conservation in Invercargill, New Zealand.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky.

DIANA PLASKER: And I’m Diana Plasker. Our next story takes us to New Zealand to meet a very special, quirky, and critically endangered parrot, the kakapo. It’s the only parrot that walks instead of flies. It’s almost as big as a chicken. And it kind of has the face of an owl with the body of Oscar the Grouch.

In other words, they’re perfect. But their situation is far from perfect. The kakapo population started crashing centuries ago. And at one point, they were teetering on the brink of extinction.

But after decades of rallying to save the kakapo, New Zealand has reached a huge milestone. Four birds were brought back to the mainland, a place they haven’t lived since the 1980s. My next guest has dedicated her career to saving New Zealand’s birds– Deidre Vercoe, operations manager for the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s kakapo and takahe teams, joining me from Invercargill, New Zealand. Welcome to Science Friday.

DEIDRE VERCOE: Hi, Diana. Thank you.

DIANA PLASKER: Yeah. Thank you for joining us. So can you give me a quick history of the kakapo conservation?

DEIDRE VERCOE: Yeah, I can. So kakapo used to be prolific, found right throughout New Zealand. And they were a real feature, particularly of the night forest– really raucous, loud birds. But when humans arrived in New Zealand, their story changed.

About 130 years ago, it was known that kakapo had essentially disappeared from New Zealand. There was one man, man by the name of Richard Henry who was New Zealand’s first ranger, really, first conservation ranger. And he identified that kakapo and other ground-dwelling birds, like the kiwi, were going downhill because they were being predated on by introduced mammals, particularly the stoat, which is in the mustelid family.

And then, yeah, about 75 years ago, 1950 or so, there were some huge efforts made to find what were thought to be the last living kakapo deep in Fiordland, which is a crazy part of New Zealand, really remote. And over 60 trips were made by some pretty hardy people back then. And they only found a handful of kakapo. Think it was 18, all up. And unfortunately, they were all male.

But roll forward a little bit to around 1977, and there’s a– Stewart Island is right at the bottom of New Zealand and pretty remote place. Not many people go there. But the odd hunter was starting to come back with some reports of booming heard down in the Southern Stewart Island. And, of course, booming is the noise that a male kakapo makes in their breeding season.

And sure enough, a small population of kakapo was found to be still living down the bottom of Stewart Island in the south. And a lot of work went into finding birds down there. And in 1980, the first females were found. And so that was a real turning point for the species. Here was a species people were convinced was practically extinct. And finally, a few females were found. So that was a real turning point.

And so over the next few decades, a lot of work was put in to try and rescue as many kakapo from Southern Stewart Island and transfer them to safe, predator-free islands because when they discovered that population in Southern Stewart Island, they also discovered that they were being eaten by feral cats. So they definitely weren’t safe there.

And so it was a lot of hard work. Kakapo are very hard to find, hard to– very thick bush. They called it 10,000 acres of hedge. So there was just a team moving through this hedge, trying to find these completely camouflaged nocturnal parrots. And they managed, over a decade or two, to transfer 50 kakapo to safe, predator-free islands. And that was– 1995 was really when the current recovery program kicked off from that low of 50 kakapo, and that included about 20 females.

DIANA PLASKER: Amazing. And so your team just moved four birds from those islands to the mainland. What is the goal there? Why move them off of those islands, back to the mainland?

DEIDRE VERCOE: Yeah. So since 1995, we’ve been intensively managing kakapo. We’re managing the nesting, really. And we have had some success. So we now have 248 kakapo.


DEIDRE VERCOE: They’re still, obviously, very critically endangered but much better than 50. We’re making progress. And one of the challenges we now have on the back of that progress is we’re actually running out of space on those predator-free islands.

DIANA PLASKER: It’s a good problem to have.



DEIDRE VERCOE: It sure is. And so we really need to test some new habitat. And so this translocation to the mainland is into a fenced sanctuary. It’s a huge fenced sanctuary in the middle of North Island called Maungatautari. It’s a pretty amazing place– gorgeous bush. But it’s surrounded by a 47-kilometer-long predator-proof fence, which is designed to keep predators out.

DIANA PLASKER: So you mentioned this. These birds seem pretty elusive. They’re camouflaged. They’re nocturnal. How do you continue to study them?

DEIDRE VERCOE: We’ve attached transmitters, like little backpack-style transmitter to each bird that we have in the population. And yeah, we can follow– we can track their movements with the transmitters. We know if they’re alive or if they’ve died. It’s actually a bit Big Brother-like, really, with these transmitters.

And we get these activity signatures from them daily. And that tells us a lot of information and all remotely. And we can download that every morning and see what the birds have been up to. So we get information on how active they’ve been. And that’s been incredibly useful. We also learn a lot about their breeding with these activity levels.


DEIDRE VERCOE: Yeah. Yeah, they don’t have much privacy. Kakapo, when they mate– so the males have this really intriguing breeding system. It’s called a lek breeding system.

And they dig these shallow bowls into the ground. And they sit in these bowls and eat every night. And they’ve got thoracic air sacs that they blow up. So they become like a little mini Swiss ball. They’re quite large. And they sit there in these bowls all night, booming.


DEIDRE VERCOE: And when they finally do get a mate, their activity suddenly changes from being really still all night long to being suddenly quite energetic. And the activity signals detect that. And so we can tell who’s mated with who, for how long, and it even gives us a score on their mating strength. So all of this information, we can learn every morning when we wake up and find out what’s happened on the island the night before. It’s all a bit of a drama.

DIANA PLASKER: Wow. I don’t know that I would want to be a kakapo in that situation exactly, to be scored. But it’s good to know. So this effort was a partnership with Maori tribes, including Ngai Tahu. Is that right? Can you tell us about that partnership?

DEIDRE VERCOE: Yeah. So Ngai Tahu are a Maori tribe in the South Island. And because kakapo were found on the South Island, the current population, Ngai Tahu have a really deep connection with kakapo. They’re part of their family, really– they call it whakapapa– part of their family connections. They’re very deeply spiritually connected to the land and to the fauna.

And so they call kakapo a taonga, which is a treasure. And so we’ve been working really closely with Ngai Tahu on kakapo recovery, setting strategy, working side-by-side, really, on bringing this bird back from the brink of extinction. And ideally, Ngai Tahu would love to have kakapo recovered within their own area, within the South Island of New Zealand. But there are not a lot of areas that are currently suitable for kakapo in their area.

And so the sanctuary that we’ve just translocated kakapo to is in the middle of the North Island, where there is a different collection of Maori tribes. And so Ngai Tahu have developed a relationship with the tribes in the North Island. And it’s been beautiful to watch, actually, just this really lovely development of relationships, connections. And it feels like as you’re restoring the life– they call it the mauri, or the life force, of the kakapo– the kakapo is also restoring these lovely connections between the people.

Ngai Tahu were with us. And we went together to transfer kakapo to the northern iwi. And the northern iwi tribes take kakapo care deeply, as a deep responsibility, as if they’re looking after their own children. So it’s been this lovely exchange of guardianship, or kaitiakitanga.

DIANA PLASKER: So what’s next for the kakapo?

DEIDRE VERCOE: Yeah. Well, we’ve still got a long road ahead of us. 248 birds is critically endangered number. So the most important thing is that we keep our current population safe.

Up at Maungatautari, what that will mean will be tracking these four birds to see how they cope in this new environment. The vegetation’s very different up north from what they’re used to in the south. But we are very confident that they’ll adapt to that very well.

What we really curious about, though, is how they interact with that predator-proof fence. So that 47-kilometer fence has been built to keep predators out, but it wasn’t built to keep kakapo in. So we’ve had to carry out some trials down on the islands in the south to see how we can make sure that kakapo can’t escape the fence. They may not fly, but they’re exceptionally good climbers. They can climb right into the canopy of huge trees. So that’ll be really interesting to see.

And this site, Maungatautari, could be a really important stepping stone for us in terms of our longer-term goals. One of our more medium-term goals is to release kakapo back onto Stewart Island, or Rakiura, which is the island that this current population came from.

At the moment, Stewart Island has cats. It has possums and rats. And so we have this Predator Free 2050 movement. And there’s a lot of technology development, a lot of research, a lot of work going in towards, can we eradicate these predators from large areas of New Zealand and bring our endemic wildlife back?

And so Stewart Island is one of these areas of focus, which is currently– there’s feasibility work being done right now to see if we can eradicate predators from Stewart Island. And when that is achieved, that would be a real game changer for us to be able to release kakapo back onto Stewart Island. And they would be able to grow to much greater numbers there. And from there, we hope that that would be a stepping stone for transferring kakapo throughout New Zealand.

DIANA PLASKER: And what is it about these birds that you love so much?

DEIDRE VERCOE: Yeah, they’re pretty special. I love watching people’s reaction to kakapo when they see them for the first time. People are often really surprised by how big they are. And they are parrots. They’ve got that real intelligent look. They’re really sussing you out. You can tell there’s a lot going on there. And they look at you.

The birds themselves are just– they smell gorgeous, as I said. And they are– they look gorgeous, but it’s just their– yeah, their characters, individual characters, and the characters of the birds themselves. So they live a long time. We don’t actually know how long– 60, 70 years, possibly up to 100 years.




DEIDRE VERCOE: So some of the birds that we’re managing right now are the same birds that were found on Stewart Island in the ’70s and ’80s. And they’re still going. We’ve got a bird called Nora, who– we don’t know how old she is. She was one of the founding birds from Stewart Island. And she had 40 years between clutches of chicks.


DEIDRE VERCOE: And that’s pretty incredible. So that’s one thing I really love about kakapo, is the sense of history you get when you work with these birds. And you feel like you’re part of a– you feel like you’re carrying a baton from one generation to the next in this really long-term conservation program.

DIANA PLASKER: Amazing. Well, perhaps one day we’ll be lucky enough to actually smell a kakapo. I love that. Thank you so much for joining me.

DEIDRE VERCOE: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me on the show.

DIANA PLASKER: Deidre Vercoe, operations manager for the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s kakapo and takahe teams. To check out images of the kakapo, head to our website, sciencefriday.com.

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