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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 13:17 GMT
Rare parrots lay a record
Adult kakapo   Don Merton/DoC
Not quite as rare as it used to be: The kakapo is breeding back from the brink
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By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
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Two months ago the world could boast just 62 kakapo, the world's rarest parrot.

Today that number has risen by a third, to 84 birds, thanks to a bumper brood of chicks.

The parents have had some help from their human protectors, but have done most of the work themselves.

Experts say the kakapo's survival prospects are now distinctly brighter than they were a short time ago.

The kakapo is the world's rarest parrot, its heaviest, and the only nocturnal and flightless parrot. It is a native of New Zealand, where all the survivors live.

Great news

The country's Department of Conservation (DoC) announced on 18 February that 18 females were incubating 52 eggs on Whenua Hou, a small island off the coast of New Zealand's South Island, and the first chick hatched two days later.

The DoC now says 22 chicks have hatched on Whenua Hou, a record.

The director of BirdLife International, a worldwide alliance of bird conservation groups, said the announcement was "the best news for threatened bird conservation in recent years".

Daryl Eason, one of the team on the island, said infertility was still a big problem.

He said: "We've had 61 eggs laid, and 22 chicks. When you see that wasted potential, it's really sad. But on the other hand, to have 22 chicks is just fantastic."

High-tech help

The DoC says eggs were still being laid on 16 March. It says the previous high mortality rate has been reduced because experts know more about protecting the kakapo.

Kakapo parent and chick   Don Merton/DoC
One of the new chicks
The birds, which normally breed slowly, were threatened chiefly by predatory mammals introduced to New Zealand, including rats and cats.

Rats were eradicated on Whenua Hou in 1999, making the island one of the safest environments for the birds.

The kakapo are also thriving this year because the rimu trees on the island are bearing abundant fruit.

The rimu is an important food source for young kakapo, but it has had only three good seasons in the last decade.

Sleepless nights

To improve their prospects, each kakapo is fitted with a radio transmitter, and their nests are monitored by infrared cameras throughout the breeding season.

While the females forage, warming pads are placed over the eggs and nestlings. And any chicks that are neglected or become ill will be removed from the nests and hand-reared by DoC staff.

More than 20 volunteers spend two weeks each on the island, guarding the birds. There is a waiting list of volunteers, undeterred by the prospect of little sleep as they watch over the nocturnal kakapo.

Images courtesy of Don Merton/DoC

See also:

03 Mar 02 | Sci/Tech
Parrot breeds its way to record
15 Feb 02 | Sci/Tech
British cash helps smallest bird
06 Aug 99 | Sci/Tech
Quarter of parrot species on brink
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