3 September 2012

A whiskery, stooped gentleman

Sirocco the Kakapo. He tends to remind people of a whiskery, stooped gentleman, and his eyes have something extremely endearing about them. However, there's nothing gentlemanly about his mating habits, which require him to be separated from people during the summer, when his hormones shoot upwards, taking his libido with them.

People's heads are his targets, not other kakapo. While being hand-reared, he became 'imprinted' on humans, and his fellow parrots don't interest him at all. It doesn't matter much because his poor inbred sperm are wonky.

We saw him on Saturday night at Mt Maungatautari. It was a clear night overseen by a full orange moon. Firstly we were taken for a short van ride, then we entered through the predator-proof fence and walked by torchlight into his enclosure.

He was behind a large perspex window, so we couldn't smell his old-violin scent, but we got to sniff a jar of his fluffy green feathers to give us an idea of it. He was big, and beautiful, and scuttled along his perch in a head-down, giant-rodent type stance.

He wasn't at all afraid of us. Apparently he's extremely interested in people, and interacts and performs a lot. Our twenty minutes was a relatively boring time with him, said one of the guides, but I loved it. He didn't need to perform for me, he was the real thing, in the flesh!

We weren't allowed to use camera flashes, so this is the best photo I could get. Check out those lovely eyes.

I could write screeds about kakapo, but here's what fascinates me the most:
- there are only 125 in the world. They are critically endangered.
- they have whiskers!
- they climb as high as 20 metres - 20 metres! - up trees to eat berries/fruit, then just drop down to the ground, wings extended to slow them down a bit (they are flightless, of course)
- the females have to eat the green berries of certain conifers to get interested in breeding. There's a hormone in the berries that switches on her breeding cycle.
- the booming: poor males sitting there booming out of their inflated chests for several months at a time in the bowls they have hollowed out, trying to impress and attract a passing female. In Fiordland, where all the females had been eaten by stoats, these booming sessions probably continued off and on for a HUNDRED years without a mating. How is that possible? Because these birds are thought to live for 120 years! Unbelievable! An elephant only lives for about 70!

The theme of Maungatautari now seems to be 'Made for Kakapo', which is hugely exciting: there may well be kakapo living there permanently one day! As the breeding programme boosts numbers, more land is needed for them. The males can actually kill each other if they live too closely together, so space for them to spread out is vital. There are no more suitable predator-free offshore islands. So the Department of Conservation is looking to our 'mainland island', the predator-proof Maungatautari, as fresh kakapo habitat.

These green guys have about a million dollars a year spent on them. Each individual is weighed and monitored for health, and each egg is watched 24 hours a day. It just goes to show that if you let a species - or a habitat, I imagine - become too rare, then getting it back is a mammoth and expensive effort.

But worth it, I think.


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