Sinbad the kakapo, dancing
Kakapo dancing and displaying.

Kakapo History

There are now only about 62 kakapo left on the planet. Once New Zealand hosted hundreds of thousands of the pudgy parrots. They had no natural predators for quite some time, and their unfortunate situation is almost entirely the result of humans arriving to the islands. New Zealand had no mammals (except for two species of bat) for millions of years. Their only predator was a giant eagle which became extinct long ago.

A few thousand years ago, the first Polynesian people came and decimated the population through hunting the kakapo as well as chopping and burning down the forests the birds lived in. They also brought the polynesian rat, 'kiore', as well as various other mammals.

The situation became far worse when Europeans arrived 150 years ago. Huge areas were cleared for farms, and they brought predators such as ferrets, cats, stoats, rats, and dogs which killed the kakapo easily, because the parrot does not recognize them as dangerous. Why? The kakapo had lived for thousands of years without mammals around. The parrots did not have to avoid those kinds of predators. They became flightless, as there was nothing to fly and escape from. Now, their flightlessness renders them almost defenceless. When confronted by an enemy, they neither attack nor retreat. The kakapo's only ingrained way of dealing with danger is to become absolutely still and allow it's feathers to act as camouflage. This worked well centuries ago, when the kakapos' main enemies were the giant eagle and other birds that hunted by sight. Today this is useless against mammalian hunters which rely on smell, and unfortunately for the kakapo, it has a strong, sweet, musky scent.

The kakapos' skins were highly prized by the Maori people. Some cloaks were made from kakapo feathers, and they were also used to fill mattresses and pillows. It is rumored that kakapo was one of their principle foods until the introduction of the kumara (a type of sweet potato).

In 1845 the first kakapo was found by a European. The bird was found to be quite a tasty meal- and there began a slaughter of unprecedented proportions. During the gold rush of the 1860-70s, diggers lived on a diet of kakapo, until they tired of the taste. Exploring parties made kakapo the principle item of their diet, and in later times, tourists shot and ate kakapo as well.

Kakapo, still dancing.
The skin of the first found kakapo was sent to England where it was studied and described. By 1889 the kakapo became regarded as the oldest and least developed parrot. This did nothing to stop the killing of the helpless kakapo. In fact, demand for their stuffed skins increased because the bird was so strange.

By 1934, specimens of the kakapo were installed in museums and private collections around the world. Most major museums had several carcasses. The market was so flooded with skins they were worth only 37p each, and in previous years they were so abundant they were even fed to dogs for meat. With all of these things happening, by the 1930s humans had caused the kakapos' extinction on the north island of New Zealand.

Although slaughter by man finally ebbed and ceased, the predation by introduced mammals continued. Kiore (the Polynesian rat) were introduced by the Maoris within the last few thousand years and had been a factor in the kakapos' slow decline from some areas before Europeans arrived. The major problems began 150 years ago, when cats, dogs, and rats introduced by Europeans fed on great numbers of the unwary birds. Even seemingly harmless deer did their part in the decline of the kakapo, by competing for the more succulent food plants and eliminating the more palatable species. The major culprits, though, were stoats and feral cats who moved into the woods, grasslands and just about any habitable area of New Zealand. The kakapo was running out of food, safe places to live, and out of time as a species.

More about How the Kakapo became Endangered