Scientists Try To Preserve
The Species Through Creative Ideas
Inside a hut on remote Whenua Hou/Codfish Island off the coast of New Zealand’s South Island, there’s a chart on the refrigerator depicting the future of a species. That species is the kakapo, an unusual, flightless parrot endemic to New Zealand. The chart lists every breeding female kakapo on the planet—50 of them, with names like Pearl, Marama, and Hoki—and the status of their eggs: smiley faces for fertile eggs, straight lines for infertile ones, wings and legs for hatched chicks, and Xs for those that have died.
In the hopes of more smiley faces getting wings and fewer getting Xs, a team of scientists, rangers, and volunteers are working around the clock during the current breeding season, using 3D-printed smart eggs, activity trackers, and a sperm-toting drone nicknamed the "cloaca courier" to turn a record breeding year into a repopulation milestone and help this beloved bird step back from the brink.
Sirocco, a kakapo raised in captivity who has become the official "spokes bird" for New Zealand conservation, has more than 200,000 followers on Facebook. His failed attempt to mate with the head of a human zoologist became the inspiration for the party parrot, a gyrating, neon parrot emoji beloved by Redditors and the National “They’re amazingly charismatic birds,” says Andrew Digby, scientific advisor for the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s Kakapo Recovery Program. “They’re hard not to love.”
Kakapo were once widespread in New Zealand, but the rats, cats, and stoats that humans brought with them to the islands devoured the flightless birds, their chicks, and their eggs. Today, just 147 adults have been transferred to three predator-free islands. That number is itself an achievement, up from a low of 51 individuals in the mid-1990s. “If we stopped kakapo conservation, we might better save three or four other species who require less effort,” Digby says. But, he adds, the birds attract people who might not otherwise care about conservation. “We have children in the middle of America who instead of wanting birthday presents, they ask their family and friends to give to kakapo conservation, even though they’ll probably never see a kakapo in their life.”
On the Kakapo Recovery Facebook page, 53,000 followers eagerly await updates to the fridge chart, and Alison Ballance says her podcast has become one of the most listened to shows on RNZ. The main goal of the organizers of this project is to get kakapo back to New Zealand. A few years ago it would sound like a customs flight from Mars, but nowadays things are evolving in the right direction for this operation.