The guardians of the Kākāpō Kingdom
Kimberley Collins drops in to Anchor Island, Fiordland, New Zealand, during this year’s busy kākāpō breeding season.
Being a kākāpō ranger is a bit like looking after a celebrity’s child. They’re always in the spotlight and need the utmost care and attention to thrive. This was something I discovered when I visited Anchor Island, in Dusky Sound, earlier this year. We arrived to find rangers from the Kākāpō Recovery Programme had five hand-reared chicks in a holding pen, ready to be released into the wild.
We watched as one of the rangers went into the pen, grunting quietly to lure out the chicks (in their own language), the bush suddenly came alive with movement. Two chicks barrelled out of the trees and waited expectantly at her shoe, making deep grunting noises to catch her attention. She bent down to hand them kūmara (sweet potato), and they started snapping at it blindly, occasionally latching on to her fingers before grabbing a piece and dashing off to feast.
The work carried out by the rangers changes a bit throughout the year, depending on what the birds are doing. This year, they had a breeding season thanks to a major masting event that saw the island flushed with rimu fruit.
Kākāpō ranger Theo Thompson © Kimberley Collins
Life on the island has been busy. The breeding season is kicked off when male kākāpō create a lek – a system of tracks leading to a shallow bowl. This is where they perform every night for about eight hours. They jostle for a high point that will project their deep, sonic booming call across the valleys, putting enormous effort into performing – for three to four months straight.
When the females are ready to breed, they make their way up the hill and choose who they will mate with. The kākāpō rangers keep an eye on where the males make their lek and watch to see who comes up the hill to mate.
Then they follow the female back to her home range, where she will find a hollow log to lay anywhere from two to three eggs after about 10 days. “With any luck, if we’ve done a good job of monitoring, we will find her on a nest with a full clutch of eggs,” explained Theo Thompson, one of the permanent kākāpō rangers on the island.
Female kākāpō, especially first-time mothers, are known for letting their eggs roll around in the nest, and sometimes they bump together and crack. So the rangers remove the eggs straight away, replacing them with plastic eggs that the female continues to incubate.
The real eggs are kept in an incubator where they can be separated from one another and kept safe. They’re monitored closely and checked for temperature and weight. “They also have to be turned throughout the day so the embryo inside the egg doesn’t get twisted or stuck in a particular position,” explained Theo.
Once they reach the point where they look as though they will hatch, the real eggs are moved back into the nest of a kākāpō mum. The rangers found that, if you simply put a hatched chick in the nest, it can be quite a shock, so they try to introduce a nearly ready to hatch egg so the mother can go through the motions of having it hatch and be ready to care for the chick.
But, sometimes, that doesn’t work out to plan, and a chick will hatch without any warning. In this case, rangers still move the chicks to a nest, but the mothers need time to adjust. “The experienced mums take it all in their stride and start feeding the chick quickly, but this year on Anchor we had no experienced mums so when we put a chick in the nest the mother’s expression was very distinct – imagine a kākāpō’s eyes widen in shock!” Theo said.
Unfortunately the team has had to deal with a few tragedies on the island this year. Being Fiordland, the island can get hit by massive weather bombs. Theo explained: “We didn’t think there was any risk of flooding, but one night there was a flash flood that took out two nests and killed three chicks. It was devastating because you spend a lot of time teaching these mothers how to look after their chicks, but then their nest gets destroyed and it’s all over for them for the rest of the breeding season.”
Nevertheless 2016 has been the best kākāpō breeding season since the recovery programme started 25 years ago. Out of the 47 eggs that were hatched on Anchor Island and Whenua Hou, 32 birds have fledged – increasing the kākāpō population by about 25 percent.
Despite the ups and downs of being a kākāpō ranger, getting such excellent results makes the heartbreak and hard work worth it.
The Kākāpō Recovery Programme
In 1990, Forest & Bird was a founder partner of the Kākāpō Recovery Programme when it was established, alongside the Department of Conservation and Rio Tinto. The programme is a world-class conservation effort that has brought the kākāpō back from the brink of extinction - from a low of just 50 birds two decades ago to 154 this year.
*A version of this story first appeared in Forest & Bird magazine http://bit.ly/2h3SBAu. You can find out more about Forest & Bird, our New Zealand Birdlife Partner, at www.forestandbird.org.nz