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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 March, 2005, 15:57 GMT
Breeding success for rare kakapo
By Kim Griggs
in Wellington, New Zealand

Kakapo Alice at entrance to underground next, Stewart Island, April 1981 (Dick Veitch)
Conservation efforts have kept the bird from extinction
Down on a lonely island off the southern tip of New Zealand, three new kakapo have just hatched.

These new chicks bring the total number of one of the world's rarest birds to 86.

The critically endangered kakapo - fat, green, musty-smelling nocturnal parrots, which cannot fly but which can climb trees - are confined to New Zealand's offshore islands.

Once, they roamed mainland New Zealand from sea level to the mountains.

Decimated by introduced predators, the kakapo population dwindled to just 51 in the mid-1990s, but an intensive conservation effort has boosted kakapo numbers in the past few years.

Productive year

Three years ago, 24 kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) chicks were born, but last year three of those birds died of blood poisoning.

This breeding season, thanks to a supply of the kakapo's favoured diet, the fruit of the rimu tree, 25 eggs have been laid.

Kakapo egg
Volunteers are on hand to look after the eggs
Of those 10 are fertile; three have hatched and five more are expected to produce chicks.

"The maximum we can get is 10 (chicks) but that's if we are being unrealistically optimistic," says Graeme Elliott, a Department of Conservation scientist on Whenua Hou/Codfish Island, the kakapo stronghold at the bottom of New Zealand.

"Two of the eggs just don't look quite right so they have probably died. But we can't risk finding out yet so we will leave them there for a bit longer."

Warming pads

The new chicks, whose feathers are initially white before turning grey and then green, have been born to Flossie and Margaret-Maree.

Flossie has two chicks, unofficially called Dit and Dot, and Margaret-Maree has one, named, for now, Mmm, by her carers.

We've lost eggs in the past from birds going a bit crazy trying to fight off parasites, getting all scratchy and then crushing their eggs
Dr Graeme Elliott
"We've got to call them something in the meantime," explains Dr Elliott.

To ensure as many eggs and chicks as possible survive, the care is comprehensive.

Every night, each nest has one or two people camping nearby. Whenever a kakapo mother leaves the nest, she triggers an infrared beam which is turn alerts the volunteers, or nest-minders as they are called, to her excursion.

"If the bird gets off the nest then we leave it a little while and go and put one of the heat pads on the nest while she's away so the whole thing stays warm," says Dr Elliott.

Clumsy scratchers

The nest-minders also keep an eye on the adult kakapo's health.

"The idea of that is to see if they are doing anything unusual, like if they are scratching with lots of parasites," says Dr Elliott.

Kakapo Jean feeding brood in nest box (Don Merton)
New ideas on diet are currently being tried out
"We've lost eggs in the past from birds going a bit crazy trying to fight off parasites, getting all scratchy and then crushing their eggs."

And the new chicks are checked each night. "When we've got chicks... there are a couple of extra things we do. We weigh and inspect the chicks every night to see if they are going all right," Dr Elliott says.

While it is the fruit of the rimu that appears to be a key trigger for the slow-breeding kakapo, this summer the Department of Conservation has also been testing a diet of other green or unripe fruits.

Promising times

Half of the adult females and some genetically under-represented males were fed green walnuts, while green pine conelets were fed to the remaining females and males on Whenua Hou.

First chick of new 2005 crop born to Flossie
The first chick of 2005 born to Flossie
But, says Dr Elliott, the rimu fruiting has masked whether there was any impact of the supplementary feeding.

"There's a little hint that [the supplementary feeding] might have helped because this is the lowest amount of rimu fruit in which we've had breeding," he says.

"But it is only the sort of breeding we normally get in a small mast [fruiting]."

Nonetheless, if the three new chicks and the five chicks expected to arrive in the next few weeks all make it, the world's kakapo population will be the largest it has been in almost 25 years.

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