New Zealand’s Wild Parrots Part III: Kakariki and Kakapo
New Zealand’s Wild Parrots Part III: Kakariki and Kakapo
In my previous two articles in this series about New Zealand’s native parrots, I described my experiences watching free-living Kea and Kaka on a recent trip there. Since I wanted to see kakariki as well, I spent the last few days of my trip on Stewart Island (or Rakiura), which is New Zealand’s third largest island at 1746 km2. It’s a one-hour ferry ride from the south end of the South Island, and is one of New Zealand’s best places to go birdwatching. Kaka and kakariki are among the native birds that are very common there. Even on the ferry ride there, I was able to see several mollymawks (medium albatrosses) gliding gracefully over the waters. With wingspans of about two meters, they were a magnificent sight. I also spotted a few seals and shags (cormorants) from the ferry.
As noted in the previously posted article on Kaka, I also visited Ulva Island while I was on Stewart Island. The 250 ha Ulva Island is very rich in birdlife, because it is free of introduced mammals. However, biologists still place some traps there to catch rats, because rats are capable of swimming there from other nearby islands or of stealthily hitching a ride there on a boat. Ulva Island is close to Stewart Island, and the boat ride there only lasts about seven minutes. Two species of kakariki live on Ulva Island.
Red and Yellow-fronted Kakariki
Most books on pet parrots and aviculture refer to New Zealand’s green, long-tailed parrots as kakariki, which is what they are called in the Maori language. Note that the plural form (“kakariki”) is the same as the singular form. However, many scientific publications and field guides refer to them as parakeets, and they actually are more closely related to the parakeets of Australia than they are to Kea or Kaka. No matter what common name they are referred to, all kakariki or New Zealand parakeets belong to the scientific genus Cyanoramphus. There are three species on the New Zealand mainland, and several more on the surrounding islands. Red-fronted Kakariki (or Red-crowned Parakeets, C. novaezelandiae) are the most common of the kakariki, both in aviculture and in the wild, and I managed to see several of them on Stewart Island right in the small town of Oban. They are fast moving, emerald-green birds, with scarlet bands across their eyes, a patch of scarlet feathers on their foreheads, long, elegant tails and azure blue flight feathers.
Yellow-fronted Kakariki (or Yellow-crowned Parakeets, C. auriceps) also occur on Stewart Island. Like the red fronts, they have scarlet feathers across the area right above their beaks, but, as I’m sure you guessed by the name, they also have a patch of yellow feathers on their foreheads. They are also a bit smaller than the cockatiel-sized red fronts. Both species also occur on the North and South Islands of New Zealand, and on several nearby off-shore islands. Red-fronted Kakariki also occur on the Chatham Islands, 800 km east of Christchurch, the Kermadec Islands, 800-1000 km northeast of New Zealand, and the Auckland Islands, 400 km south of Stewart Island. Yellow-fronted Kakariki can also be found on the Auckland Islands. Even though red and yellow fronts often occur in the same places, the two species generally don’t interbreed in nature. They will do so in captivity; however, hybridizing such threatened species is generally discouraged by most aviculturalists.
Searching for wild Kakarikis
Red-fronted and Yellow-fronted Kakariki are less common on the North and the South Islands than they used to be, but they are easy to find on Stewart Island. There, I saw a few around the motel I stayed at, where they stood out quite well due to their fast movements and vivid green coloration. Because of their powerful voices, Kaka were also easy to spot in Oban. Once I got to Ulva Island, however, I needed to put a bit more effort into seeing the kakariki. Their green feathers make them blend in perfectly against the trees they forage in, and they are not nearly as loud as the Kaka. The clear, beautiful songs of Tui and Bellbirds also stood out more than the kakariki calls. Tui are a type of honeyeater with dark, iridescent feathers and they share some traits with parrots. They are superb mimics – captive birds can learn to speak very well, and wild birds can have very complex songs. They are also regarded as being very intelligent.
I found that the best way to spot the cryptic birds like kakariki was to simply stop periodically and listen carefully to the forest. The birds would often come to me when I did that. At one point, I felt something tugging on my pant leg while I sat on a bench. I was startled for a split second, since I was the only person on the island at the time. However, I turned around and saw a charming little grey and white Stewart Island Robin on the ground. He wasn’t afraid of me and let me take several pictures of him. He had a few rings on his legs, presumably put there by biologists keeping track of the robin population. Perhaps he was one of the birds released there by biologists. Several birds belonging to rare species, including South Island Saddlebacks, and the aforementioned robins (actually a type of flycatcher) have been released on the island. These reintroductions seem to be working very well. Wekas – bold, brown, chicken-like birds – would also casually forage around me like I wasn’t there. Wekas were common on the beaches and the forests and they were quite interesting to watch as they rooted around leaf litter and washed up seaweed for some edible tidbits. I also managed to locate many small foraging groups of kakariki by listening for the sounds of them flying or snapping branches as they foraged.
Most of the kakariki I saw were busily foraging high in the forest canopies in pairs or small groups. I did catch a few on the forest floor, rooting around for fallen seeds or insects. Many captive kakariki like to forage on the ground as well. On some subantarctic islands that have few trees, kakariki will live primarily on the ground and will breed there among clumps of tussock grass. As is typical for many parrots, wild kakariki eat a range of items including berries, seeds, nuts, grass shoots, grains, buds, nectar and insects. They also sometimes rub the juices of berries onto their feathers with their beaks. This behavior is called “anting,” since some birds do the same thing with ants. It is unclear why they do this, but one hypothesis is that it helps rid the plumage of parasites.
Photographing the Kakariki
Since I had my camera with me, I attempted to get some photos of wild kakariki. However, unlike Kaka and Kea, kakariki were quite tricky to photograph. They move and fly extremely quickly and rarely stay in one place for very long. Even when I saw them on the ground, they tended to zip around so by the time I focused on one, it had usually moved away. I got a lot of blurry photos and a few snapshots of kakariki tails. Most kakariki spent plenty of time high in the thick tree canopy, partially obscured by the branches, so I spent a lot of time watching them through binoculars. As a result, most of the kakariki photographs with this article are of birds I saw in a large, walk-through aviary at the Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch. However, I was able to snap some pictures of wild Stewart Island Robins, saddlebacks, Variable Oystercatchers, and Wekas while on Ulva Island. I also saw Bellbirds, Tui, fantails, fernbirds, many different pelagic bird species, and Keruru (native pigeons). I spent four hours on Ulva Island, though I could have easily used up the whole day without becoming bored. Back on Stewart Island, I went hiking and birdwatching again since there are a lot of good trails, and I was rewarded with some more fleeting glimpses of kakariki and Kaka. The views of the sea and surrounding islands from many of the trails were also spectacular.
Antipodes Island Kakarikis
I only had the opportunity to see Yellow-fronted and Red-fronted Kakariki in the wild, but I was able to see some Antipodes Island Kakariki (or parakeets, C. unicolor) living at the Te Anau Wildlife Center, in Fiordland, on the South Island. A small flock of them lives in a very large aviary there. These parakeets are not often kept in captivity outside of New Zealand, so I had never seen them before. The flock I saw spent the time I was there foraging around on the ground, as there was food and some hay down there for them to root through. The Antipodes Islands Parakeet is larger than the other Cyanoramphus species and occurs on the subantarctic Antipodes Islands. The largest island in the group is a 60 km2 island 650 km southeast of Stewart Island. It’s a weird place to find parrots: there are no trees there, and it’s often chilly and windy. The island is uninhabited by people and is classified as a nature preserve, and a permit is needed to land there. As is indicated by its scientific name, this parrot is primarily of one colour: a brilliant emerald green. They share the Antipodes Island with the Reischek’s Parakeet, Cyanoramphus erythrotis, which used to be classified as a subspecies of the Red-fronted Kakariki.
The wildlife center at Te Anau also had some very rare Takahe on display, along with Kaka, Kea, Keruru, various waterfowl, and Red and Yellow-fronted Kakariki. All of the birds were living in spacious aviaries with plenty of vegetation, and some of the animals there were injured wild-born birds that were being rehabilitated. One Kaka that was living in a large aviary had previously spent his life living in a tiny cage barely big enough for a budgie before he was given to the wildlife center.
Other Kakariki Species
While I was only able to see two kakariki species in the wild, and a third in aviaries, there is one other species that occurs on mainland New Zealand, and a few others that occur on offshore islands. The third kakariki species that occurs on mainland New Zealand is the Orange-fronted Kakariki (or the Malherbe’s Parakeet, Cyanoramphus malherbi). These birds look similar to the yellow fronts, but the patch of yellow feathers on their forehead is a pale lemon-yellow, in comparison to the deep golden-yellow forehead patch the yellow fronts have. Orange fronts, of course, also have some orange on their heads, in the form of a band of feathers above their beaks. The orange and yellow fronts are so similar that some biologists have considered the orange fronts a colour variant of the yellow fronts. However, genetic analyses have demonstrated that they are genetically distinct from the yellow fronts and careful observations indicate that the two species do not interbreed with each other in the wild (Boon et al., 2000).
The Orange-fronted Kakariki is now considered a distinct species. It is in immediate danger of becoming extinct, because only about 100-200 birds still exist. They live in the Canterbury district of the South Island, in beech forests in Arthur’s Pass National Park and Lake Sumner Forest Park. Some populations have also been established on offshore islands, just in case the mainland population declines or goes extinct.
The Forbes’ Kakariki (or Forbes’ Parakeet, C. forbesi), has also been the subject of some controversy. It resembles the Yellow-fronted Kakariki, but is slightly larger, and its calls are quite different. It was debatable as to whether it should be considered a subspecies of the Yellow-fronted Kakariki or a separate species of its own until genetic analyses demonstrated that it is a distinct species (Boon et al., 2000). Like the Orange-fronted Kakariki, the Forbes’ Parakeet is critically endangered. It lives on two small islands in the Chatham’s group, about 800 kilometers east of Christchurch.
Red-fronted Kakariki also occur on the Chatham Islands, and many Forbes’ Parakeets have bred with these red fronts, and such widespread hybridization is threatening the genetic integrity of the Forbes’ Parakeet (Chan et al., 2006). Before Europeans arrived to the Chatham Islands, the two species probably did not commonly interbreed. However, once humans deforested much of the islands, numbers of Forbes’ Parakeets declined, because they prefer to live and forage in forests. Red-fronted Kakariki, however, can survive in deforested areas, and since they are now far more common than the rare Forbes’ parakeets, some Forbes’ started to breed with the red fronts. A small population of pure Forbes’ Parakeets does exist on the tiny, 113 ha Mangere Island.
Another species of kakariki (C. saisetti) occurs on New Caledonia, 1500 km northwest of New Zealand, and another lives on the tiny, 34.6 km2 Norfolk Island (C. cooki), which lies between New Zealand and New Caledonia. Both of these species used to be considered subspecies of the Red-fronted Kakariki (Boon et al., 2001). The New Caledonia Kakariki has a yellower face and underparts and a brighter red crown than the red-fronted variety. The Norfolk Island Kakariki is a bit bigger than the mainland red fronts.
The Other Parrot I didn’t See
I managed to see Kaka, Kea, and kakariki on my trip, but the three main islands of New
Zealand were once home to another, very curious, species of parrot: the Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus). I didn’t see any of them – other than a stuffed one at the Te Papa museum in Wellington – but they’re such fascinating birds that I cannot bear to leave them out of this series of articles. The Kakapo is critically endangered, as there are only 86 individuals left, all of whom live on small, predator-free offshore islands. The usual problems – habitat destruction and the presence of introduced mammals – contributed to the birds’ dramatic decline. Being flightless, Kakapo are a very easy target for hungry predators. It also does not help that Kakapo really don’t know how to deal with dangerous mammals. For instance, their instinctive response to the site of a cat is to freeze. Because Kakapo have never dealt with such land predators before, they have not evolved any defensive behaviors to deal with them.
I would have loved to see a Kakapo. There are some of them living on Codfish Island, a short distance from Stewart Island. They are such appealing and intriguing animals with their bright, innocent faces and utterly unparrot-like characteristics. For instance, while most parrots are social, diurnal, and can fly, Kakapo are solitary, nocturnal, and flightless. They also have a breeding system not seen in any other parrot. Males are polygynous and do not assist with rearing the young. They are quite large for parrots, since an adult Kakapo can weigh up to nine pounds, which makes them the heaviest parrot. They also have a very strong, sweet, musky scent to them, and they have great senses of smell, again, unlike any other parrot.
Kakapo breed in what biologists call a lek system. During the breeding season, many male Kakapo will gather in a valley, and space themselves about 50 m apart. Each bird will then clear an area and dig a depression in it where he will call and display to the females. Of course, these calls are not normal parrot calls. Instead, the male will inflate a thoracic sack with air and produce loud, low-frequency booming noises as he releases the air. He will do this for up to eight hours a night for three to four months. Once a female shows up, he will display to her by rocking back and forth and clicking his beak. If she’s pleased, she’ll mate with him; otherwise, she’ll carry on to the next male. Once a male and female mate, they part ways and the female will care for the eggs and young on her own. The male will continue to boom.
The late Douglas Adams got to see a wild Kakapo on Codfish Island, and he wrote a chapter about them in the excellent book Last Chance To See. He noted, regarding their sweet appearance that, “If you look one in its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent comprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right, though you know it probably will not be.”
Regarding their calls, he wrote that, “[they] gradually descend in pitch, resonate in his two air sacs, and reverberate through the night air, filling the valleys for miles around with the eerie sound of an immense heart beating in the night.”
This heartbeat stopped on the North Island in the 1920s, and then on the South Island in the late 1970s. At that point, no one was sure if the Kakapo would survive. Did Stewart Island harbor any Kakapo? In the late 1970s, biologists conducted a search there, the last place where the Kakapo could possibly still boom. They were there: the forest still had a heartbeat. However, there were Kakapo-killing cats on the island, so conservationists placed the Kakapo in intensive care. All birds were airlifted to uninhabited, predator-free islands.
Because each individual is so precious in terms of the species’ chances of survival, all Kakapo must be well protected from potential threats, so their island homes are not open to casual visitors, who could stress out the birds or inadvertently bring rats. However, one Kakapo was brought to Ulva Island in 2006 and hundreds of people from throughout the world went to view the very special bird, “Sirocco,” on display. Only one supervised group of people per day was allowed to view him. Other than that, only biologists and volunteers who watch and guard Kakapo nests during the breeding season have the chance to see the birds. It’s for the best: I have a feeling that if it weren’t for these strict protective measures and the heroic efforts put out by conservationists to save this unique bird, it would have already disappeared.
Leaving the Island
I headed back to the mainland from Stewart Island after three days, so I could get back to Christchurch to catch my flight home. It was extremely windy and rainy that day, so the ferry rocked madly and was pelted by huge waves on the way back to the South Island. It made for a dramatic ride. Naturally, I wondered if I would ever be back. I hope so; I really became fascinated with New Zealand’s birdlife. However, it’s so far from where I live that I can’t say for sure. I do feel quite lucky that I had the opportunity to see wild parrots, which made for some unforgettable experiences.
Adams, Douglas and Carwardine, M. 1991. Last Chance to See. Pan MacMillan Books, London, UK.
Boon W. M., Daugherty, C. H., and Chambers G. K. 2001. The Norfolk Island Green Parrot and New Caledonian Red-crowned Parakeet are distinct species. Emu 101: 113-121 2001
Boon, W. M., Kearvell, J. C., Daugherty, C. H., and Chambers, G. K. 2000. Molecular systematics of New Zealand Cyanoramphus parakeets: Conservation of orange-fronted and Forbes’ Parakeets. Bird Conservation International 10: 211-239.
Chan, C. H., Ballantyne, K. N., Aikman, H., Fastier, D., Daugherty, C. H., and Chambers, G. K. Genetic analysis of interspecific hybridization in the world’s only Forbes’ parakeet (Cyanoramphus forbesi) natural population. Conservation Genetics 7: 493-506.
Sidebar: Extinct Cyanoramphus
Two other Cyanoramphus species once existed in the tropical islands north of New Zealand.
The Black-fronted Parakeet (Cyanoramphus zealandicus) was found on Tahiti and the surrounding Society Islands. They were green birds with black foreheads, red rumps and scarlet stripes behind the eyes. Black-fronted Kakarikis were discovered by westerners in 1769 on Captain Cook’s first voyage, and they went extinct soon after. Only five specimens of this species exist in natural history museums England and France.
The second extinct Cyanoramphus is the Society Parakeet, C. ulietanus. It was found on Raiatea, of the Society Islands, and was described by naturalists in Captain Cook’s party in 1773. Just two specimens of this bird still exist – one at the Natural History Museum in London and one at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna. This was a much darker-coloured bird than the other species in the genus. They were primarily brown with ochre yellow breasts and abdomens, and reddish-brown coloured rumps and upper tails.
Deforestation and the introduction of invasive species may have contributed to the decline of these two species. Very little is known about their behavior or natural history, because they went extinct before they could be studied.